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Monday, 21 October 2019

John Francome


John Francome was christened “Greatest Jockey” by erstwhile Channel 4 colleague John McCririck and, while he wasn’t, numerically, the greatest jockey of all time, he was the third most successful in the history of National Hunt racing in Britain. His career total of 1,138 winners, which was a record at the time of his retirement in April, 1985, pales by modern standards, by the fact remains that Francome won the jockeys’ championship seven times; only Peter Scudamore and Sir Anthony McCoy have won more.


Certainly one of the finest jockeys this country has ever produced, Francome also became known for his frankness and relaxed, irreverent sense of a humour. He was never one to take anyone, including himself, too seriously. At a press lunch, he once dubbed Jockey Club stewards ‘Cabbage Patch Kids’ and variously claimed that he rode mainly for the money and that one of the reasons for his sudden retirement, at the age of 32, was that he was fed up with always being hungry.


Francome has the dubious honour of being ‘the best jockey never to win the Grand National’, but he did win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, once, on Midnight Court, in 1978. Trained at Uplands Stables in Upper Lambourn, Berkshire by Fred Winter – whom Francome joined, straight from school, as a 16-year-old apprentice and remained with throughout his career – Midnight Court was a well-fancied 5/2 chance by the time the ‘Blue Riband’ event was run, in April, after being postponed due to snow. Nevertheless, his easy 7-length win over Brown Lad came over something of a relief to Francome, after tabloid allegations of wrongdoing as a result of his friendship with bookmaker John Banks.


Another vintage Francome moment came in the Champion Hurdle in 1981. On that occasion, Francome rode Sea Pigeon, trained by Peter Easterby, who was sent off 7/4 favourite after winning the race the previous year. Although Sea Pigeon was an 11-year-old, in an act of derring do, rode him for a turn of foot, delaying his challenge until halfway up the run-in, before sprinting away to win cosily under hands and heels.

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