DICK FRANCIS, the English jumps jockey turned best-selling author, will best be remembered for his writing rather than his riding skills – and that is exactly how he would have wanted it to be.

Francis, who died recently at the age of 89, wrote 42 horse racing thrillers with world-wide sales of over 60 million and topped the best-seller lists for more than 40 years. He did more for the sport off the track than many horses, trainers and jockeys achieve on it.

Just one of his legions of fans, who grew up mesmerized by the Francis style, I would dearly love to one day write a book that could be considered one tenth as good as the worst he ever produced. We can all dream I guess!

Dick Francis may be dead but the legacy he left will live with horse racing fans forever. I felt it only fitting to look back at his life with the help of some wonderful obituary tributes lifted from the pages of great English newspapers like The Times, The Guardian and The Telegraph.

Had he remained in the racing world as a trainer or bloodstock consultant, after retiring from riding through injury in 1957, Dick Francis would have been remembered as one of the most successful National Hunt jockeys of his era — and as the man who spectacularly managed to lose the 1956 Grand National when he had the big race at his mercy.

That famous photograph of him, within a whisker of the finishing line aboard the Queen Mother’s horse Devon Loch, flat on its belly with four legs helplessly splayed out, has provided one of the enduring enigmas of world racing and one of its strangest images.

But this disaster, involving as it did the favorite horse of the ‘nation’s favorite grandmother’ and the popular press’s hand-wringing and loud loyal sympathy that accompanied it, was to do no disservice to Francis in his subsequent life, bringing his name, as it did, to a public outside that of racing aficionados.

The cause of the Devon Loch collapse provoked intense speculation and spawned theories that would not have been out of place in a Francis thriller. One Aintree vet felt that the horse must have had a sudden attack of cramp; another identified a blot clot in the hind leg. Other theories suggested that, as the accident had happened alongside a water jump, the horse, sensing the reflection, had attempted to leap a non-existent obstacle; or that an underground cable had shorted on the horse’s racing plates.

Francis, however, preferred two more likely, if more prosaic, possibilities – either that the horse had slipped, or that he had been unnerved by the noise of anticipation of a Royal win. Whatever the cause, Francis’s failure to win the Grand National remained the great sorrow of his life, though it was his determination not to be labeled for all time as ‘the man who lost the Grand National’ that spurred him on to become a writer.

After his successful career over the jumps, Francis turned first to journalism, an ethos where such a tale as Devon Loch’s can never be rehearsed too often, and became a highly popular racing correspondent.

But his career really moved into overdrive from the 1960s onwards, when he turned to writing thrillers set in a racing milieu from which they derived their authenticity. He soon developed a large following.

Almost all of his books became international best-sellers and they made Francis a household name and a wealthy man. In this he was supported by his wife Mary, whose practical input into his books was of incalculable value.

Richard Stanley Francis was born 1920 in the village of Lawrenny on the Cleddau River in Pembrokeshire. His grandfather had been a keen amateur rider. His father was a horse-dealer, steeplechaser and farmer, and became the manager of a hunting stable near Maidenhead. Dick learnt to ride when he was five and incredibly won his first race at the age of eight.

He attended the Maidenhead County Boys’ School, but his father took the view that a day’s hunting or show-jumping was much more valuable to a growing boy than a day at school and allowed him to leave without academic qualifications when he was 15. Francis hunted regularly and two years later was riding as an amateur.

In 1939 he joined the Royal Air Force as a tradesman, but was soon commissioned as a pilot and, during the next five years of War, flew both fighters and bombers operationally.

In 1945 he met, at his cousin’s wedding, a university educated and highly literate school-mistress, Mary Margaret Brenchley, whom he married two years afterwards despite considerable opposition from both families on the grounds that they had so little in common.

It was to be an outstandingly happy marriage. Francis arrived for his own wedding with his arm in a sling, having fallen from a horse. This, by then, was no more than Mary expected.

After 18 months as an amateur jockey, he turned professional, as a steeplechaser because of his weight. Between 1948 and 1957 he rode in 2,305 races and recorded 345 wins and 525 placings. In the 1953-54 season he became champion jockey with 78 wins. After riding for Lord Bicester, he joined the Queen Mother and was her No 1 jockey for four seasons.

In 1956 occurred the celebrated misfortune that first projected his name to celebrity outside the racing world. In the Grand National of that year Francis and Devon Loch had negotiated all the hazards, had jumped the final fence, and at the Elbow, the celebrated kink on the Aintree run-in, had become the despair of the pursuing horse, ESB, ridden by Dave Dick.

The Royal Box, containing the Queen, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, was visibly savoring the moment. The crowd and commentators, roaring Devon Loch to victory, were already celebrating the first Royal win in the National since Ambush II, owned by the Prince of Wales (later to become Edward VII) in 1900.

Then, on the very verge of winning, less than 50 yards from the finishing post, Devon Loch simply sank on to its belly and was unable to get going again. Francis’s explanation was that it had been startled by the sudden roar of the crowd.

If he were cut open, he used to say, the words ‘Devon Loch’ would be found permanently inscribed on his heart. To this day, in British racing, to ‘do a Devon Loch’ is synonymous with losing a race from a seemingly unassailable position.

In 1957 the Queen Mother sacked him. The Marquess of Abergavenny, Racing Administrator and friend of the Queen Mother, summoned Francis to his flat near Hyde Park and told him it was time to stop riding.

The Marquess suggested that Francis had suffered too many injuries in falls – he had dislocated his shoulder so many times that he had to be permanently strapped for the rest of his life – and should quit while he was ahead. Francis was shattered by this oblique dismissal by the Queen Mother, for whom he had a rather old-fashioned reverence.

He asked what he was to do for a living. The Marquess said something always turned up. Francis had wept when Devon Loch fell and he wept again, walking away through Hyde Park. “I nearly flung myself into the Serpentine, I was so depressed,” he said, years later.

After a particularly bad fall at Leicester in 1957 Francis accepted that he had broken so many bones, which no longer healed as easily as they once had, that the time had arrived to quit riding. He liked to recount with pride, mixed with a certain gory relish, the more than fair share of accidents and breakages he had encountered during his riding career.

Francis once estimated he fell off once in every 11 or 12 races: “I've had a fractured skull, six broken collar bones, five broken noses, no end of ribs. Well, you simply stop countin’.”

He claimed never to have been afraid: “I never thought about it. If you can do the job, fear doesn't enter into it. When you see the whole line of a racecourse between your horse’s ears, it’s the most exciting thing in the world.”

He denied that the racing world was as sleazy as was often depicted in his novels, claiming that the closest he had ever got to crime was when he put the telephone down on someone who offered him a bribe to lose a race. He never gambled.

Francis injured his shoulder so badly that for the rest of his life he had to go to bed with his arm strapped up to prevent it from dislocating. Once, he recalled, ‘a horse put his foot right through my face, slicing my nose open. I had 32 stitches from above my eye to the end of my nose. The doctor was delighted because he could show the inside of a nose to all his students.’

This was typical Francis and, like their author, his fictional heroes endure all manner of pain and physical and mental torment with exemplary patience and composure. Thirtyish, usually dark-haired, sallow-skinned, mild-mannered and self-deprecating, the typical Francis hero is as intrepid and resourceful and as vigorously heterosexual as James Bond; but unlike the caddish Bond they are also decent and chivalrous, and the reader knows they will turn into faithful, passionate husbands: “What it comes to,” Francis liked to say, “is that I never ask my main character to do anything I wouldn't do myself.”

The Queen Mother was a fan of his books. He always got a special first edition to her, and said he did not put in the usual sex and bad language of the genre because he knew the Queen Mother would be reading it; she did once complain about the violence.

He would personally take the first copy of each of his books around to Clarence House, and soon transmuted from the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s favorite jockey to her favorite author. It was, he confessed, partly to spare her blushes that he never included scenes of explicit sex, though he once observed: “I'd be no good at that kind of thing anyway.”

Where other thriller writers probed the darker crannies of the soul, Francis reaffirmed the values of human decency and the struggle between the man of good against the forces of lust for power, dishonesty and greed. Heroes can expect to be chained, beaten, burned or flayed two or three times per book – but good always triumphs in the end.

Francis possessed all the traditional tools of the thriller writer’s trade – narrative urgency and a subtlety in intellectual problem-solving – but he combined these with an emotional realism which had eluded writers like Agatha Christie. No one could convey as well as he what it felt like to be drowned, hanged, crushed by a horse or soaked in icy water and left dangling, gagged and bound from a hook in the middle of a Norfolk winter’s night.

He also had a minute eye for detail and an ability to take even the most un-horsey of readers into his world. He was as convincing in his portrayal of the spartan existence of the stable lad as he was in that of the sybaritic lifestyle of the manipulating owner in his home-counties pad: “Not to read Dick Francis because you don’t like horses,” remarked one reviewer in Newsweek, “is like not reading Dostoyevsky because you don’t believe in God.”

His autobiographical volume, The Sport of Queens, was published in 957 and the Sunday Express commissioned six articles from him, an arrangement that was extended and turned him into a racing correspondent for the next 16 years.

Francis was not a particularly good tipster, but he was rather brave in his attacks on the Jockey Club and the ‘toffs’ of racing. He continued this in his thrillers. But his years at the Sunday Express did not make him love Fleet Street, and journalists were usually low, dishonest characters in his books.

He had approached the task of writing with little confidence, but, as in so much else, his wife helped and guided him. Journalism, however, did not pay as well as racing, and in due course, he realized that the carpets were wearing thin and their two sons’ school fees had to be paid, so Mary suggested that he might try a novel.

Drawing on his own expertise and on his boyhood reading of Edgar Wallace, Sapper and Nat Gould, he wrote Dead Cert (in 1962). It was extremely well received, and, from then on, he produced a book a year.

Horses, in training or racing or being sold, or put to stud, occur in all of these. Francis included many incidents and bits of specialized knowledge from his own experiences.

His heroes tend to be lonely men, often widowed or divorced; they are frequently beaten up or injured; but they strive doggedly, both in their pursuit of the villains and in their personal lives, proving more resourceful and resilient than their melancholy natures permitted them to expect.

In most of these novels there is, in addition to the racing, some other deliberately introduced element of authentic information, geographical or professional.

Dick and Mary Francis travelled extensively together, accumulating background material for his books — about America for Blood Sport (1967), about South Africa for Smokescreen (1972), about Norway for Slay-Ride (1973), about Russia for Trial Run (1978).

In addition, Mary explored whatever specialized fields were needed, learning to paint for In the Frame (1976), about photography for Reflex (1980) and about the wine trade for Proof (1984).

Flying Finish (1966) involved the transport of horses by air, so Francis worked his passage with the British Bloodstock Agency and Mary learnt to fly, an experience she enjoyed so much that she started, and ran for several years, an air-taxi service, conveying people to racecourses.

An unauthorized autobiography by Graham Lord, published in 1999, even went so far as to suggest that Francis’s novels were actually written by his wife. Latterly she certainly helped him a great deal in his research, and her literary background was a great help to him in the revising and editing of his first drafts, a debt that he always acknowledged.

Francis always referred to his writing career in the plural: “I always say ‘we’ because I couldn't do the books without Mary,” he said on one occasion. “I wish that Mary would let me put ‘By Dick and Mary Francis’ on the books.”

Dead Cert was made into a film, and a television series, The Racing Game, was based on Dick Francis’s characters. He received awards both from the Crime Writers’ Association and from the Mystery Writers of America.

But he had no pretentions about his writing, indeed no compulsion to write. He regarded himself simply as a natural story-teller who had struck on a blend of action and information which appealed to a readership far wider than the racing enthusiasts who might have been expected anyway to appreciate him.

This gave him the kind of life he wanted. He designed, and subsequently extended, his own house in Oxfordshire, where he boarded other people’s horses, hunted and judged local horse shows.

Each winter he would go to Miami to write and with his wife suffering from poor health, particularly severe arthritis, they moved to the warmer climes of the Caribbean island of Grand Cayman.

He would prefer, he sometimes said, to be remembered as a jockey than as a writer, but then admitted wryly that, if it were so, he would be remembered only as the man whose horse lost the ‘unloseable’ Grand National.

Instead of which, millions of people, all over the world, are grateful for the pleasure he gave with his robust but not unsubtle, and in their way morally invigorating, tales.

His prolific writing continued into the 1980s and 1990s, with such titles as Bolt (1986), The Edge (1988), Wild Horses (1994) and the short story collection Field of Thirteen (1998), which as its title implied contained 13 stories.

But after his wife’s death from a heart attack at their Cayman Islands home in 2000 he wrote no more novels for six years until the appearance of Under Orders in 2006. It was followed by Dead Heat (2007), Silks (2008) and Even Money (2009), all of which were written with his son, Felix. Crossfire, the new Dick and Felix Francis novel, is due to be published in August.

Francis was appointed OBE in 1984 and advanced to CBE in 2000. He is survived by two sons, one of whom, Felix, followed his mother into teaching, before giving up the classroom to become his father’s manager and collaborator. The other, Merrick, became an amateur jockey then a trainer, and subsequently ran his own horse transport business, which inspired his father’s novel Driving Force (1992).

Richard Stanley Francis, jockey and writer, born 31 October 1920; died 14 February 2010