ST MARTIN IN THE FIELDS – 21ST JUNE 2010
Modesty is a much mis-represented word and Pride is also often used in the pejorative sense. But to understand Dick Francis you have to appreciate that he was at the same time the most modest and yet the proudest man you could ever meet.
That beautiful description of the Devon Loch disaster which we have just heard is a good example. For while in later life – as his grandson Timothy will read today – Dick thought he might have owed more to the Devon Loch’s collapse than he might even have done to a victory, for many years all he would say is “I am just going to be remembered as the man who lost the Grand National.”
That’s modest, yes, – but it’s important to hear the little edge amidst the jokey self deprecation. For Dick was – quite rightly -immensely proud of what he had done in the saddle – and indeed the passion for riding horses was a central part of his DNA. Both his father’s and his mother’s families came from rural Pembrokeshire. Both his father and grandfather were successful steeplechase jockeys and Dick was not just a keen rider, he was something of a child prodigy.
For when Dick was a boy in the Twenties and Thirties his father was the manager of the ultra fashionable H.J. Smith Hunting Stables at Holyport near Maidenhead which was also a feeder yard for the even posher Horace Smith Riding School in Cadogan Place at the back of what is now the Carlton Tower . To us that all sounds almost absurdly dated, but back then having a top riding horse was a real big deal and Dick would be a bit like the precocious son of the tennis coach who shows slower kids what to do and then wins all the Junior Championships.
For instance, the first time Dick met the Queen was when he was twelve and she was a small, serious-faced little girl of seven presenting him with an embossed hunting crop for winning the Riding Class at the Richmond Show – and at that time her own ponies would have had their early lessons from the baby faced young star in front of her.
Of course such precocity – and indeed any such adulation for achievements in the saddle – can be a very dangerous narcotic. And I can tell you from direct personal experience that it is not just in Jilly Cooper books that horsey people use riding prowess as a passport to all sorts of unbridled naughtiness.
But Dick was not like that. He was sustained by his passion, never coarsened nor conceited by it. He was like this because he was an upright as well as an intelligent man, and because he had the unparalleled good sense, in the summer of 1947, to marry the wonderful, beaming force of nature that was his wife Mary. Upright in character he was also so elegantly upright in the saddle that in later racing days his fellow jockeys even nicknamed him “The Vicar”.
For right from the beginning he understood about counting his blessings. And while he may have been a teenage prodigy, the road to Devon Loch was a long and painful one interrupted not just by the usual injuries but by the war years. Mostly spent sweating across North Africa as grafting ground crew – with the adrenalin challenge of flying Wellingtons and Spitfires against the Germans only coming at the very end.
So Dick was all of 26 when he rode his first winner, Wrensbury Tiger at Bangor on Dee in April 1947 – at that age Tony McCoy had already ridden more than a thousand . Nonetheless Dick’s sharp witted, unswerving, determination allied to his calm, courageous, long-leathered horsemanship soon got him noticed and he rose through the ranks to finally become first jockey to royal trainer Peter Cazalet in 1953, and was crowned champion two years before the Devon Loch collapse.
By then I was an already racing-mad 13 year old and “R.Francis” was a distant hero on the form cards who wore the famous black velvet royal cap with the gold tassle on the top and while they say you should never meet your heroes but Dick Francis was a great exception.
When I became an admittedly much lesser rider, I can still remember the thrill when Dick wrote something about me in the Sunday Express. And I shall never forget the welcome and support Dick and Mary always gave me when I then scuffled into the writing and broadcasting business.
In a very real way he wanted to stress the bond that forms for all those who have shared the unique thrills and thumps that make up the jump jockeys lot, that have had one time in their lives when the most exciting moments in the world were seen through the ears of a galloping thoroughbred with the fences winging at you.
To outsiders his basic modesty and public reticence could make you wonder where he got the vitality and drive to deliver that never ending list of best sellers. But a few years back he brought the house down at the jockeys’ dinner by reciting off pat the same comic poem with which he had rocked the very same occasion exactly half a century before.
And visitors to his Cayman Islands retreat would be greeted at the airport by the great man in Bermuda shorts driving an open topped sports car with the not entirely self-effacing number plate of Jockey1.
My final memory of Dick was last September. Felix had brought him to the royal opening of Oaksey House, the new centre in Lambourn created in honour of John Oaksey by the Injured Jockeys Fund of which Dick was such a supporter and of which I am proud to be chairman today.
The sun was out. Dick sat next to John with a smile on his face but you could see that he didn’t have long. He said how pleased he was to be there, then paused and added – in what was not much more than a warm but slightly croaky whisper – “it’s a great game.”
Something about the way he said it suggested that he was not just talking about the game of racing – but of the game of life. Nobody ever played it straighter – nor truer to himself.
What a man !