The late Richard Stanley “Dick” Francis, who died in February, 2010, at the age of 89, was a man of many talents. He was champion jockey in the 1953/54 National Hunt season, racing correspondent for the Sunday Express for 16 years and an international bestselling writer, winning the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel on three occasions.
However, for all his achievements, Francis has passed into Grand National folklore as the jockey of Devon Loch, whose dramatic collapse at Aintree, with the race at his mercy, in 1956 remains as much a mystery as it always was. Not that Francis was suspected of any wrongdoing or apportioned any blame for the incident; in fact, he burst into tears as the magnitude of his loss sank in.
Devon Loch, owned by Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother and trained by Peter Cazalet, had mastered his nearest pursuer, ESB, on the famously long run-in at Aintree, but as he approached the wings of the water jump – which is jumped just once during the National – on his inside, he pricked his ears. What happened next has been a matter for conjecture for decades but, for whatever reason, Devon Loch half fly-jumped into the air before slithering to the turf in an unceremonious belly-flop.
Francis believed that Devon Loch was simply overwhelmed by the noise of the crowd cheering him to the finish, but various other theories have been put forward over the years. Cramp and exhaustion, attempting to jump an imaginary fence, slipping on a muddy patch and even breaking wind violently as the result of an overtightened girth have all been suggested.