Flying Colours

Nicholas Best

  • Lester: The Official Biography by Dick Francis
    Joseph, 338 pp, £12.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 7181 1255 5
  • Born Lucky by John Francome
    Pelham, 157 pp, £9.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 7207 1635 7

High over the Lambourn Downs, in the dark days of 1943, two American fighter planes collided in mid-air. Even as the wreckage spiralled to earth, a seven-year-old boy was galloping towards the spot on a horse much too fast for him. His father caught up with him just as the boy reined in to have a closer look at something on the ground – the twisted, mangled corpse of one of the pilots. ‘He’s dead,’ said Lester Piggott, without a trace of emotion. No tears, no hysterics, no outward sign of shock. Just a calm assessment of the situation, with no frills, either then or later. In the racing business the professionals show their colours early.

And a professional business it certainly is, as both these biographies testify. On the flat or over the sticks there is no quarter given in racing, none expected. Jockeys may be the best of friends in the weighing-room – though the most successful are often loners – but once under starter’s orders it is every man for himself. No room for the amateur, no room for any but the most hardened, mentally and physically. Bumping, boring, illicit use of the whip, dirty work in the back straight, professional fouls professionally executed, professionally accepted, all part of the game. And the injuries too. A misshapen thumb for Lester Piggott, a punctured lung, a chunk missing from his femur, an ear almost torn off, a fractured skull, fifteen years’ worth of headaches – Dick Francis devotes two chapters of his biography to injuries alone.

It was no doubt a marketing man’s dream to bring Piggott and Francis together for the official version. Each king in his own field – they even raced against each other a few times, during Lester’s brief flirtation with the sticks – each a warm enthusiast for the other’s work. The result will undoubtedly be a bestseller and ought to have been an outstanding book as well. Yet it is curiously disappointing in some ways, for reasons one suspects are no fault of the author’s. The most obvious complaint – the only serious one, actually – is that it doesn’t tell us a great deal about Piggott that we didn’t already know. The deafness, the happy childhood, the wartime austerity of his formative years, the impeccable racing pedigree stretching back to the early 19th century, the superb judgment of horseflesh and anything to do with horses – all this is well documented. Lester the public figure is hardly tabula rasa. Lester the private man is infinitely more difficult to pin down.

He is of course an intensely private person, unable to hear what people are saying for much of the time, smiling politely at the Queen without having the faintest idea what she is on about, taking no notice of anyone else at all. He doesn’t bother with a deaf-aid because he doesn’t want to hear anyway. He can’t stand talkative people. He has his family, his friends and his private inner world, and he doesn’t care a damn what anyone else thinks – and quite right too. He is oddly reminiscent of that shrewd old turtle Somerset Maugham, both of them small and wrinkled, both shrinking from human contact and yet with a very clear-eyed view of human folly. Intelligent too. Lester has never passed an exam in his life (despite a spell at boarding school), yet he knew his way around the Financial Times from the age of 13 and is as sharp a businessman as you could hope to meet.

So sharp that he has an almost legendary reputation for tightfistedness – undeserved, according to Dick Francis. He will never pay his share of a taxi if he can help it, and loves to wriggle out of obligations so that others are landed with the bill. It is a game to him. Among his own people, though, he is open-handed and generous to a fault. He is perfectly capable of ringing up an injured jockey in hospital with offers of financial help, quite happy to scatter the cash about when it suits him. He just doesn’t like outsiders taking him for a ride. He laughs a lot too, when the photographers aren’t looking. The dour Piggott of the sports pages is not the Piggott of the weighing-room, where he was always liked and respected by the other jockeys. A pro among pros, the first rider to break loose from his retainer and make a successful living as a freelance, one of the first to be called ‘Mr’ by the more autocratic stewards. Both the authors under review-Dick Francis on Lester’s behalf, John Francome on his own – draw attention to the stewards’ irritating habit of treating jockeys like fags at public school, servants on the estate. Times are changing, thank goodness. Lester’s knighthood can’t be far off now (just before the election, probably); we could even wish him a peerage if it wasn’t for the awful company he would have to keep.

A great man in his field, a genius even. If Dick Francis’s portrait verges on hagio-graphy, it is because he has scratched around for something nasty to say about Lester and insists he has found nothing of any importance. Nobody has an unkind word for him. There may be people in the racing fraternity who can paint a darker picture, but, if there are, they are keeping their own counsel. He is a tough customer certainly, not to be crossed at any price; a long-time survivor in a notoriously murky profession; but a decent man who comes across as likeable and level-headed, nobody’s fool in a world which has more than its share of phonies. A man who has charmed millions and will not be forgotten.

One of his last public appearances before his retirement was a special race at Warwick against the seven times jumping champion, who was also bowing out that season: ‘John Francome, six weeks after hanging up the seven-league boots in which he had jumped his way into folklore, John Francome with his curls, his huge grin, his unmistakable voice and his megawatt personality’, as Dick Francis puts it. The race was held on the flat in front of a capacity crowd, and for a mile and a half there was never more than a length between them. Lester won by a whisker to the delight of the onlookers, but only after he had fought every inch of the way. It was, says Francis, like Agincourt, a battle not to be missed.

A battle indeed. Steeplechasing did of course originate as a method of preparing the cavalry for war: the list of injuries sustained by jump jockeys in a typical career would not disgrace an old soldier. Like Lester, Francome has had his share of tumbles – he gives a graphic description of the bones of his forearm protruding through his colours after one particular fall – and calculates that he lost more than 460 working days to injury during his career, almost 10 per cent of his professional life. Like Lester, he never regarded a broken bone as any reason for not getting right back into the saddle – until a fall at Chepstow at the end of his reign convinced him at last that enough was enough.

Rather than hire a professional scribe for his biography, he has taken on the job himself, and the result is a candid, highly entertaining read – The Confessions of a Jump Jockey, almost – written in a style more serviceable than elegant, yet little the worse for that.

He cheerfully admits that the best thing about English lessons in his youth was the prospect of observing a nubile 14-year-old in her gymslip through the classroom window. In other respects too, his childhood appears to have been perfectly normal: forging luncheon vouchers, painting the caretaker’s cat, driving a car without a licence. Like Lester, he learned to disregard rules from an early age and was ruthless about money. Like Lester, he enjoyed a secure, happy boyhood. Unlike Lester, he did not come from a horsy background. His father was a railway fireman-cum-chimney-sweep and he learned to ride, rather ingloriously, on a donkey at the seaside. After much pestering his parents did buy him a horse of his own, but it was a year before they could afford a saddle to go with it. Thereafter he rode for Britain in the winning junior European show-jumping team, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Francome was apprenticed to Fred Winter, a relationship that lasted for 16 years. He shared a bunkhouse with 11 other lads and – as he discovered his first afternoon – numerous girlfriends (they all got dressed at six to go to the pub). He began at the bottom and stayed there just long enough to learn everything he needed to know about racing. It comes across as an unsavoury business. Again and again in these pages he returns to the subject of pulling horses, an accusation levelled at him throughout his career (though never proved), but one which evidently got him down. The stable lads all believed he was at it; so, he thinks, did the trainer’s wife. He says in his own defence that he would have beaten Stan Mellor’s record two years earlier than he did if he had won on all the horses he was supposed to have stopped.

In fact, he has only himself to blame if people didn’t always believe him. He was not pure as driven snow, as he freely confesses. Part of the charm of the book is his frank admission of the tricks jockeys get up to, everything from fiddling their weight (he explains how it is done), to fiddling the results of the race in collusion with other riders. He once saw a jockey forfeit third place in a race by ‘forgetting’ to weigh in afterwards, having been bribed by the fourth jockey in the 30 seconds or so between finishing post and unsaddling enclosure. One of his own earliest gambits was to telephone a rival and claim that a horse had been withdrawn, thus ensuring the ride for himself. And he knew another rider, on a foggy day at Chepstow, who didn’t bother to jump any of the fences except the one in front of the grandstand, a feat which earned him third place ahead of an unprotesting Francome.

Francome’s worst moment came in 1978, when he faced a mammoth Jockey Club inquiry into his association with John Banks, the flamboyant bookmaker. Francome had broken the rules of racing, which he had never bothered to read, by talking to Banks about horses in training. For this he was fined £750 and suspended for six weeks, a further charge of stopping horses for the bookie’s benefit remaining unproven. Banks was banned from every racecourse in the country for three years. Naturally the press had a field day. Francome was always good for a story, even if there wasn’t a word of truth in it. And always the suspicion of pulling horses. It surfaced again in 1984 when two unpleasant-looking individuals from the Daily Mirror informed him that his telephone was being tapped and produced the tape-recorded conversation of a plot – so they interpreted it – to stop a horse at Cheltenham. Nonsense, as it happened. Francome rightly secured an injunction against the newspaper with costs in his favour. But he was never able to find out who had invaded his home and tapped his phone. The Mirror refused to say, and the costs of going to court again were prohibitive – a state of affairs which doesn’t say much for the rights of the private citizen in that most Orwellian of years.