For more than 60 years they have been as big a part of the festive season for racing fans as Kempton’s King George VI Chase.
A Dick Francis novel in the Christmas stocking is evidence that the colourful and shady corners of the racing world have enduring fascination.
The man himself, who won the 1949 King George VI Chase on Finnure, died aged 89 in 2010 but the family business is still going strong thanks to author son Felix. His 2023 offering, No Reserve, chronicles skulduggery in the thoroughbred sales ring after young auctioneer Theo Jennings overhears a private conversation in Newmarket.
It is classic Francis, as the increasingly isolated Jennings loses his job, his home, his girlfriend and almost his life. His only hope is to solve the riddle.
Francis fans will be in a familiar territory stretching back to 1962, when Dick’s debut mystery Dead Cert saw jockey Alan York suspecting sabotage when colleague Bill Davidson died in a fall at fictional Maidenhead racecourse.
Felix Fracis (pictured) is keeping alive the legacy of his father – Dick Francis – through writing
Dick died in 2010 but his legacy has continued through his son continuing to write books
His 2023 offering, No Reserve, chronicles skulduggery in the thoroughbred sales ring
Felix says: ‘Everyone thinks racing is a lot dodgier than it is. You know, if a horse wins it’s the horse’s doing, and if it doesn’t it is the jockey’s fault. If you are a losing punter, you think the jockey is bent. There have been incidents where that is true but they are extremely rare.
‘We don’t do racing down, even though we expose a bit of the underbelly. It is testament to the way racing is run and policed that it is increasingly a young person’s sport. Places like Cheltenham are full of 20- and 30-year-olds. They wouldn’t be drawn to racing if they thought it was crooked.
‘All sorts of people say to me that a character is based on them and sometimes it’s the villain, so that shows what they think of themselves! But I love people-watching and the characters are all an amalgam of people.
‘It would be wrong for me to say the books sell as well as my father’s, but they sell well. They are still published in America and I’ve just signed a contract for them to be translated into a 39th language — Arabic.
‘They are very popular in the Czech and Slovak republics and in Germany, Japan and Thailand but the last two were not published in Russian — I decided I wouldn’t do that.’
Of course Dick Francis, Champion Jockey in the 1953-54 jumps season and the late Queen Mother’s jockey, brought a lifetime of racing experience to the job of writing in partnership with wife Mary.
The man who would become racing correspondent for the Sunday Express was also involved in one of racing’s greatest real-life mysteries when he was the jockey on the Queen Mother’s Devon Loch, who inexplicably sprawled to a halt in the 1956 Grand National with victory in sight.
When Dick turned to writing novels, Felix was part of the writing process from the age of 17, contributing ideas for plot lines. He became a physics teacher, then his father’s manager, before circumstances thrust the writer’s pen into his hand.
Dick was Champion Jockey in the 1953-54 jumps season and the late Queen Mother’s jockey
‘Mum and dad were going to retire in 1999 but they always went to the Royal Box at Ascot on King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes day to give a book to the Queen Mother,’ Felix says.
‘My father had often said to her, “Could I dedicate a book to you?” She would wave her finger at him and say, “Only when I am 100”.
‘In 1999, when she was 99, my parents were going to say to her this would be their last book but she said to them, “I am so looking forward to my book next year”. I remember driving them home and them saying, “God, we’ve got to do it again”. Their final book together was in 2000 and it was a book too far. It was published in the second week of September and my mum died on the 30th of a heart attack.
‘It was called Shattered and it was very well named. It was a shattering experience for them both. Dad was 80. They lived in the West Indies and when I went to collect it, it was only two-thirds written with a week to deadline. I finished it off because it wasn’t going to get finished.’
It seemed to be the end of the line until Felix met up with his father’s literary agent.
‘He said, “We have a problem”,’ recalls Felix. ‘He said all my father’s books were going out of print. What we needed was a new hardback to stimulate the backlist. The agent asked my permission for an existing crime writer to write a Dick Francis novel. I must have had a few glasses of red because I said I would like to have a go.
‘To his eternal credit he didn’t laugh and gave me two months to write two chapters. I said, “You have to tell me if it is good enough because if it is going to damage Dad’s reputation it won’t see the light of day”.’
The result was a 2006 novel about race-fixing, Under Orders, which came out as ‘A Dick Francis novel’. Felix, 70, says: ‘I was afraid all the reviews would say, “Dick’s lost it”, but they all said, “The master is back”.’
The books are still published in America and a contract has just been signed for them to be translated into a 39th language — Arabic
Contractual obligations meant Felix could not reveal it was his work. So there have been 56 Dick Francis books and Felix has written 17 of them.
He is already working on No 57, working title Joint Enterprise, about dodgy dealings in racehorse syndicate ownership. Twenty thousand words done, 70,000 to go by the end of March.
Felix, whose manuscripts are all proof-read by wife Debbie and his brother Merrick — who has a well-known racehorse transport business — says: ‘When I start a book, I don’t know what the end is going to be. I have an idea for the beginning so I write that and see where the characters take me. It is bloody hard work but when April comes along and the book is finished, I will think it is a wonderful way of life.
‘I will go on doing it as long as I can and as long as the publishers want to publish the books. All my father’s books and mine are still in print, so we must be doing something right. I am keeping the Dick Francis name alive!’