John Francome – the greatest?

Times Sport, 31 March 2020

More’s the pity but there never was and never could be a jockey to match John Francome. Single-handedly he changed the face of jump racing. He put horsemanship first, and added cheek enough to sink a battleship.

Technically he grafted his British Show Jumping Championship skills into a more forward and better-balanced way of crossing a steeplechasing fence and then applied his unique qualities of imagination and daring to become a completer jockey than anyone before.

He may have “only” won 7 championships compared to McCoy’s 20, but he flowed a horse over a fence in a way that made other jockeys suck their teeth in envy. The  1980 Topham Trophy ride he gave Uncle Bing round the Grand National fences still dances in the memory.

But with Francome there was always a whole lot else. From the first time you met him it was clear that he would end either a millionaire or in jail, quite possibly both, that being a champion jockey would only ever be part of it, and that there would also be a lot of deadpan laughs along the way.

But what a part, and how lucky we were that the fates dealt him in our direction. For, quite unlike any other champion, he had never thought of being a jockey until he was all of 16 and only then because he thought he could make some money at it. He was a jobbing builder’s son from Swindon with absolutely no equestrian background who discovered a love and a gift for horses riding beach ponies on Barry Island. This took him to the very top of the junior show jumping tree but without the funds to continue that game he landed at the door of champion trainer Fred Winter.

It took a good ten years for John to add matching strength and finishing expertise to his other attributes, but long before you could see that he was different. He had that match winning cool which separates the great in any sport and the waiting race with which he won the 1981 Champion Hurdle on Sea Pigeon has never been bettered in this existence

But John Francome had more than cool, he had a touch of close-to-the-wind devilry which meant you never  quite knew what he would do or say on a horse or off it. He could and can pick your pocket whilst leaving you laughing.

In all life wit is the oil that helps both you and others. It was a key to his mastery of jump racing and of his blissfully dry contributions when he switched to the media.  After sharing John’s TV  debut at Newmarket John Oaksey shook his head with rueful affection “I suppose,” he said,  “there can be worse ways to end a career than being John Francome’s straight man,.”

There have been other fantastic jump jockeys, Mellor maybe even more inventive, Biddlecombe more dashing, Walsh more perfectly moulded, McCoy a total force of nature, but Francome? Just say the word and it brings both admiration and a smile. There’s nothing to better that.

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