Winded and coughing, I lay on one elbow and spat out a mouthful of grass and mud. The horse I'd been riding raised its weight off my ankle, scrambled untidily to its feet and departed at an unfeeling gallop. I waited for things to settle: chest heaving, bones still rattling from the bang, sense of balance recovering from a 30-mile-an-hour somersault and a few tumbling rolls. No harm done. Nothing broken. Just another fall. --From "Reflex" by Dick Francis
IDLY, thriller writer Dick Francis watched the panorama outside the vast picture windows at Laurel: the track, the green lawns, the pond with visiting geese, the clots of horses that rushed by from time to time, the crowds surging toward the fence four stories below.
It was all so far away.
Two tables were set for lunch in the president's suite. A phone waited by the favorite seat of the president himself, John Schapiro. Battered high-power binoculars stood beside the bread basket.
"It's a sport of inches," Schapiro mused. "Everything happens in the last few yards."
Francis, in town for the 31st running of the Washington D.C. International today, wanted to meet some young friends, Eastern Shore horse breeders who had an entry in the third race. So we went down to the paddock.
He slipped through the gate and stepped on the soft tanbark -- and his head snapped up like a pony hearing the grain bin's lid slam.
And suddenly he was the other Dick Francis -- the champion English rider, the Queen Mother's first jockey, the man who came within 10 strides of winning the 1956 Grand National on Devon Loch before the horse tragically, mysteriously collapsed.
Walking across the ring, he and his wife Mary embraced their friends, Charles and Cynthia (Chee) McGinnes. While jockeys led their mounts out of the stalls, the sleek, delicate legs dancing nervously, the four friends talked of Hippodrome and her chances.
"She's got a bleeding problem, internal bleeding," said Chee McGinnes. "She might take a second this time."
Francis watched Hippodrome and her rider amble toward the gate. He didn't say much. He is a listener.
"You have to think like a horse," he says. "You have to be one thought ahead of 'em."
You also have to be born to it. Francis learned at 5, on a donkey at his grandfather's farm in Wales. His father was a jockey before World War I, and his grandfather before that. By the time Francis retired 20 years ago, he had ridden at least 350 winners.
A steeplechaser averages a fall every 10 rides. That would be about 30 falls a year for Francis. He has broken his collarbone six times on each side (came to his wedding with his arm in a sling), his nose five times, his arm, his wrist, his skull and three vertebrae. He doesn't count ribs.
"Actually, it gets easier after the first break. There's not so much pain, and you know what to expect. It heals faster, too, when the break is in the same place."
So he says. Mary, his wife of 35 years, never did like racing all that much. But she always came along to the track "to drive home the bits."
She figures she has seen 4,000 races.
Turning to journalism, Francis wrote racing features for the Sunday Express for 16 years, but long before that job ended he drifted into novels. The first, "Dead Cert," came out in 1962. Now there are 21, sold by the millions in 18 languages. He does his thinking and researching all summer and fall, starts to write on Jan. 1 ("the first page takes me a long time, as I write in pencil and work on a paragraph until it flows; I don't know what's going to happen when I begin, and I never rewrite . . .") and finishes by April 30 or May 1.
The books are about any number of things, from painting to computers, and range from Norway to the Australian outback, but they all are really about steeplechasing, and the narrator is many different people but always a steeplechaser in fact or at heart, and always a bit of Dick Francis.
And there are a lot of bits. He flew both Spitfires and Wellington bombers in World War II, ran a flying school, took up ballooning with Mary, who learned to fly in middle age, got her instrument rating and wrote a book about it before retiring. They travel everywhere together, spend the cold months in their apartment at Fort Lauderdale for Mary's asthma but consider home their farm in Berkshire Downs. There are two sons and four grandchildren.
"I still ride quite a bit. I hunt and judge in show rings. In England the judges ride the horses instead of just looking at them. You ride 50 horses in a day, you learn how different they can be. Different personalities, qualities."
This is why he prefers jumping to flat races, though Americans have never taken much to steeplechasing. "Jumpers run far truer to form, you know, they can express their own competitive spirit. Flat racers get their bottoms spanked to send them around, and they don't like that."
He talks about Devon Loch's great fighting spirit and intelligence, about his superb comeback six months after the still-talked-about disaster of '56. "Off went the field at two-mile-hurdle pace," Francis writes in his autobiography, "leaving Devon Loch well to the rear, insulted and surprised. He practically snorted. He tossed his head with displeasure and set off in pursuit . . . he suddenly took hold of his bit . . . We passed bunches of incredulous jockeys all the way up the straight and won by two resounding lengths."
The book, "The Sport of Queens," gets down into the marrow of racing, the feel of it, the subtleties of the different tracks and certain celebrated barriers, the wonderful intimacy of horse and rider. In "Blood Sport" a minor character, a young groom, talks about his special understanding of mares in foal. "I don't know how I know. I got a feeling for it. I just wake up some nights and think that Rose is about ready, and I go on out to her, and maybe there she is, not needing a bit of help, or maybe with the cord round the foal's neck . . ."
It is this instinctive wisdom, this empathy, that pulses through all the violence and action and far-flung scenes of a Francis novel. Passion has a reality beyond facts.
The race named in his honor is over, and we have come back up from the winner's circle, where Francis shook the jockey's hand. People dawdle over dessert. English actor Roy Dotrice, who is appearing as Churchill in a one-man show at Ford's Theatre, studies the racing form while his wife Kay chats with the McGinneses. Their horse did indeed come in second.
Dotrice asks Francis how he keeps his weight down. "It's no great trouble," replies Francis, 170 pounds at age 62. Dotrice shakes his head. "You're lucky. Piggott lives on black coffee and cigars." That would be Lester Piggott, the famous English jockey.
Schapiro, dapper in a somber dark suit, mutters his bets to an assistant, who goes off to place them and later brings back a wad of bills. He is hitting one Exacta after another, calling the first and second finishers.
These people know a lot about horses. They can stare intently at what to a newcomer is a hopeless, shifting jumble of racers on the homestretch and say, "Uh oh, Six is pulling up lame. She's beat." How can they even pick out the numbers, let alone spot one knee in a forest of flashing knees?
Later Chee McGinnes notes in the form that the favorite has won his last five races but his asking price is down. "He must be going bad in the legs," she says. The horse wins, but barely, and as he is being led back, sure enough: "Look, see how his head nods? He's hurting."
"Yeah," says Schapiro, squinting far down at the track 100 yards away, "it's the left hind leg."
Dotrice has won again. Joe Hirsch, from the Racing Form, drops in. Various mimeographed handicapper sheets lie on the side table, but this group doesn't bother with them. There is quiet, easy talk of odds, bloodlines, past performance, complicated three-way bets.
The McGinneses don't bet. "I spend enough money on horses as it is," laughs Charley McGinnes. Neither do Dick and Mary Francis. They never bet. It's not exactly that they know too much, though a man who can tell from 50 yards off how well his mount will take a jump has got to know a great deal.
It's something about not being up here behind glass, with the knowing talk and the sherbet cups and the sporting prints, but down there, on the horse's back, clasping it with your knees, your hands brushing the sleek neck, your eyes and the horse's seeing the same track ahead, your minds thinking the same thoughts.
It's something about closeness. About seriousness.