UK novelist and former jockey Dick Francis dies

LONDON (Reuters) - Best-selling crime writer Dick Francis, who drew on his experience as a successful steeplechase jockey for his racing thrillers, died Sunday aged 89 at his home in the Caribbean, his publicist said.

Francis rode more than 350 winners and was champion jockey before injury forced him to take up the pen, first writing for a national newspaper as a racing correspondent and then producing 42 novels, many of them international bestsellers.

His last novel, “Crossfire,” written with the younger of his two sons, Felix, is due to be published this autumn. Francis wrote his last four novels with his son.

“My brother, Merrick, and I are, of course devastated by the loss of our father, but we rejoice in having been the sons of such an extraordinary man,” his son Felix said in a statement released by publicist Ruth Cairns.

“It is an honor for me to be able to continue his remarkable legacy through the new novels.”

Francis was one of Britain’s most successful postwar national hunt jockeys, riding in the nation’s most prestigious race, the Grand National, eight times although never winning. His riding career ended in 1957 when he retired after a serious fall.

Racing pundits said Francis would be remembered for riding the Queen Mother’s horse Devon Loch when it inexplicably belly-flopped close to winning the Grand National in 1956.

“He was the kind of man everybody in racing liked, and they all knew he was a gentleman, but I think he will forever be remembered for that moment of defeat in the Grand National, and the dignity that he showed,” racing commentator John McCririck told Sky news.

“Can you imagine losing that great prize, such a traumatic event, the horse spread-eagled 50 yards ... from the winning post.”

Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, a keen horseracing fan, was among the most avid readers of his novels, always receiving the first edition. Francis was awarded a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 2000.

Francis, the son of a stable manager and born in Wales, left school at the age of 15.

He served with the Royal Air Force during World War Two as a pilot, initially stationed in the Egyptian desert before he was commissioned as a bomber pilot to fly Spitfires, Wellingtons and then Lancasters.

His award-winning books, packed with mystery and intrigue, with the racing world invariably used as a background, included “Dead Cert” -- his first novel published in 1962 -- “In the Frame” and “To the Hilt.”

As well as his novels, Francis also wrote a volume of short stories, an autobiography called “The Sport of Queens,” and a biography of British jockey Lester Piggott.

His wife Mary, died in 2000 after 53 years of marriage. He is survived by his two sons, five grandchildren and one great-grandson.

Cairns said a small funeral would be held at Francis’ home in Grand Cayman, the largest of the Caribbean’s three Cayman Islands, followed by a memorial service in London in due course.

Writing by Avril Ormsby and Belinda Goldsmith; Editing by Andrew Roche