…and one of the nicest blokes you will ever meet.
One of Lambourn’s favourite sons
In December, John Francome will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his first winner, since when one of Lambourn’s favourite sons has become racing royalty.
Be it as the graceful seven-time champion jump jockey, forthright television pundit or author of more than 20 books, Francome is among the sport’s most respected and recognisable faces. He was awarded an MBE in 1986.
Yet he had a battle with the scales to win before any of his 1,138 in the saddle. “When I went to Fred Winter’s, I’d done a lot of showjumping and didn’t want to waste my time, so asked about the chances of making it,” Francome recalls. “He looked at me and said, ‘Your biggest problem is going to be your weight. What’s the lightest you’ve ever been?’ “I said, ‘7lb 3oz’, and he never laughed, just looked at me.” In contrast to his soon-to-be stable jockey, Winter was not known for his humour, but backed by right-hand man Brian Delaney – “an absolute genius with horses” according to Francome – built his Uplands stable into the Mayfair of Lambourn. “Fred was brilliant and I stayed there the whole time I was riding; I don’t think we ever fell out,” adds the charismatic but straight-talking 67- year-old, who still sits on the odd youngster for his Sheepdrove tenant, Clive Cox. “I think winning the Gold Cup for Fred on Midnight Court in 1978 was my best moment riding. “I got warned off for talking to a bookmaker. I never stopped a horse in my life, but Fred could easily have sacked me and he didn’t, he was incredibly loyal. He’d had the favourite for the Gold Cup a couple of times and been touched off – it was the only thing missing from his CV as a trainer.” For pub quiz aficionados, Multigrey at Worcester on December 2, 1970 was Francome’s first winner and the tough mare’s trainer Godfrey Burr repaid the rider with a sack of spuds – not exactly the most welcome reward when weight was an issue.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Your biggest problem is going to be your weight. What’s the lightest you’ve ever been?’ “I said, ‘7lb 3oz’, and he never laughed, just looked at me.”
An investment in a 70s slimming product called Ayds did not have the desired effect either. “They were square pieces of fudge and, every meal time, you’d have one instead of a meal,” explains Francome. “Another lad, Titch Bryan, and I went down to the chemist and bought this expensive box, but ate the lot before we got back to the yard – we’d eaten a month’s worth!” Riding came easily to the balletic Francome, who is convinced he has a little black gelding trained by Winter to thank for his sublime career on horseback and not under the bonnet of cars.
The Injured Jockey Fund’s former president, renowned for his humility and caring personality, says: “I phoned my dad and said, ‘I think I’ll come home at the weekend, I’ve had enough’. “I went to tell Fred, but he was out. I schooled this horse called Osbaldeston and the plan was for me to ride him the following week at Worcester. He won, and I think I went on to win 17 on him.” Many more followed including a Champion Hurdle on household favourite Sea Pigeon and braces in the King George, Hennessy and Welsh National. The Jenny Pitman-trained Burrough Hill Lad landed all of those historic chases under the Swindon native, who fondly remembers his willing partner. “The best I rode,” he continues. “Big and strong, a Denman-type, whereas the Lanzarotes, Bulas and Pendils were coming to the end of their tether by the time I took over at Fred’s.”
Retirement came in 1985 when a short spell training was followed by swapping the whip and stirrups for a typewriter, producing a series of Dick Francis-style novels. Deadly Finish and Free Fall are amongst the most popular. “I did the racing bits and plots, and a chap I teamed up with did the rest,” he goes on. “But I didn’t really enjoy it as it was too much like hard work!” Never one to mince his spoken words, Francome, a popular figure on Channel 4 during its coverage, has strong views on the whip and racing’s regulators, but mischief is never far from his mind. “Brain of Britain was a radio programme one night and they’d repeat it later in the week,” he says. “I’d be driving to the races and Fred would be doing his entries. Even though my memory was bad, I’d still get half right, like the guy who invented penicillin. Fred would shoot round and couldn’t believe I’d come up with all these answers. It must have sounded authentic because in three days I’d forgotten half of the answers!” Francome can be forgiven for forgetting much more considering the amount he has crammed into his life, but you get the feeling those Winter memories and the likes of Multigrey and Osbaldeston will be cherished forever – and rightly so.