I’ve got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere, and here’s a guy that says that if the weathers’ clear, can do… can do… this guy says the horse can do. If he says the horse can do… can do… can do.”
— Nicely-Nicely Johnson, “Guys and Dolls”
I’ve been getting into horse racing of late, which kinda surprises me. I’ve never been much a fan of the Sport of Kings, although I will sit for the two minutes it takes to run the Kentucky Derby if it happens to be on. My interest, like just about everything else I get into, came by way of reading.
Last autumn, I faced the prospect of sitting through the girls’ soccer practices without a book on hand to read, so I made a quick run to the book store and picked up a paperback titled “Rat Race” by Dick Francis. I have seen Dick Francis books in book store mystery sections for 20-some-odd years, but never picked one up, mainly thinking it was most likely of the Damon Runyon variety—gamblers and gangsters running amuck at the race track, sort of like the “Lemon Drop Kid.” I like Runyon a lot, but didn’t figure I’d want to read a knock-off of the original, so I always passed on Francis.
Well, better late than never, I suppose. I love these stories. For an author to have written some 40-plus novels, all centered on horse racing (both flat racing and steeplechase) in England and not have reoccurring central characters is amazing. The novels are self-contained stories, with a brand new protagonist each time, and the plots do not revolve around the races themselves, instead getting into the weeds of the different aspects of horse racing, not only from the jockeys and trainers and owners’ points of view, but also also about professions on the periphery of the sport: the veterinarians, people who drive the horse trailers, the people who fly the air taxis to the race tracks, various bankers and artists and other hangers-on, etc. And then there are characters that just happen to get caught up in a murder or other crime committed near the track or stables.
The width and breadth of Francis’s knowledge was surprising, until I learned that he was a championship jockey himself, with more than 350 victories to his credit, with a stint as an RAF pilot sandwiched in the middle of this racing career. I’ve read nearly a dozen of his books, and have three more in reserve. Unfortunately, Francis died last year, so the canon will not getting any larger, although his son Felix—who did much of the research for his dad—is taking up the mantle and writing these mysteries, too.
Through osmosis, I’ve picked up quite a bit of knowledge about how horse racing works, and I think I would probably do fairly well at picking winners if I ever made it out to the track and put some money where my mouth is. But I’m going to take it slow. In fact, this is probably the kind of race I should start with: