Richard Stanley (Dick) Francis was born on October 31, 1920, into a horsey family of Welsh gentry in his family's old farmhouse in a remote corner of south-west Pembrokeshire. He was five when he had his first ride, bareback on a donkey called Jessie, and won sixpence when his elder brother Doug bet him that he could not jump Jessie over a low rail fence while he faced backwards. At six, Dick announced that he was going to be a jockey, at seven that he would win the Grand National.
Francis' education was minimal. He played truant two or three times a week and escaped punishment because his father was by then running a riding stables at Holyport, near Maidenhead, Berkshire, and saw no point in forcing the boy to school when he was obviously destined to be a rider.
He showed little aptitude for any subject and from the age of seven spent more time in the saddle than at his lessons, riding at numerous horse shows each summer (often for the circus owner Bertram Mills), and hunting two or three times a week each winter with the Berks and Bucks Farmers' Staghounds.
Francis left school at 15 without any qualifications and became his father's assistant, helping to train horses ridden by Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen) and Princess Margaret.
By now he was hunting as often as five times a week - with the Duke of Beaufort's Hunt, the Belvoir, the Pytchley, the Whaddon Chase - but his dream of finding a job in a National Hunt racing stables was ruined by the outbreak of World War II.
During World War II, Francis volunteered, hoping to join the cavalry. Instead, he served in the Royal Air Force, working as ground crew and later piloting fighter and bomber aircraft, including the Spitfire and Hurricane. He said in an interview that he spent much of his six years in the Air Force in Africa.
In October 1945, he met Mary Margaret Brenchley at a cousin's wedding. In most interviews, they say that it was love at first sight. (Francis has some of his characters fall similarly in love within moments of meeting, as in the novels Flying Finish, Knockdown, and The Edge.) Their families were not entirely happy with their engagement, but Dick and Mary were married 1947. She had earned a degree in English and French from London University at the age of 19, was an assistant stage manager and later worked as a publisher's reader. She also became a pilot, and her experiences flying contributed to many novels, including Flying Finish, Rat Race, and Second Wind. She contracted polio while pregnant with their first child, a plight dramatized to a greater extent in the novel Forfeit, which Francis called one of his favorites. They had two sons, Merrick and Felix.
Francis was one of the most successful post-war National Hunt jockeys. The winner of over 350 races, he was champion jockey in 1953/1954 and rode for Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mother. He became a hugely successful thriller writer after the Queen Mother's horse Devon Loch, which he was riding, mysteriously collapsed 50 yards from the winning post in the 1956 Grand National. The huge wave of public sympathy after he had triumph so cruelly stolen from his grasp, when his mount collapsed in the run-in within sight of certain victory, led to him being asked to write an autobiography. On his retirement from the sport he published the autobiography, The Sport of Queens, before going on to write forty-three bestselling novels, a volume of short stories, and the biography of Lester Piggott. He was rightly acclaimed as one of the greatest thriller writers in the world.The success of that book inspired him to start thriller-writing. The first novel, Dead Cert, was published in 1962 and others followed in 34 languages at the rate of one a year - with an estimated total of 60million sales.
Mary was a crucial part of the thriller-writing 'team'. Although partly paralysed by polio and suffering chronic asthma and bronchitis, she researched all the books - in the process becoming a computer expert, photographer, accountant, painter and wine buff, even qualifying as a pilot for the book Flying Finish.
Francis would have preferred to be remembered as a rider not a writer. But it will be for his prolific career as the author of thrillers that Dick Francis will go down in history. His last four novels were written in collaboration with his younger son, Felix, a former teacher who helped research many of the Dick Francis novels.
In the 1980s, Francis and his wife moved to Florida; in 1992, they moved to the Cayman Islands, where Mary died of a heart attack in 2000. In 2006, Francis had a heart bypass operation; in 2007 his right leg was amputated. He died of natural causes on February 14, 2010 at his Caribbean home in Grand Cayman, survived by both sons.
Graham Lord, Francis' biographer, was convinced (as were many others) that Francis, who was poorly educated and not at all literary, did not write the books himself but were written by his clever, literate, university-educated wife and published under his name because as a famous jockey he would sell more copies. Mary told him, "Yes, Dick would like me to have all the credit for them, but believe me, it's much better for everyone, including the readers, to think that he writes them because they're taut, masculine books that might otherwise lose their credibility."
When Lord revealed the truth in his double biography of the Francises in 1999, Mary was 'evasive when asked bluntly whether she is the true author. She stated, "It is not exactly true to say that I write Dick's books ... I could get him to write you a letter and you would see he can write. The amount of sharing we do is, to my mind, sort of private. We would really like people not to press us too hard on this."