The seven-time champion was not only “poetry on horseback”, but changed the public perception of jockeys, writes Julian Muscat
Just occasionally, in the self-perpetuating world of horse racing, a shimmering talent emerges from beyond the sport’s perimeters. Since it does not emanate from familial succession, it is unencumbered by conventional wisdom.
This novel force will redefine the art of the possible. André Fabre, the son of a diplomat, is one such talent. Fabre has been champion trainer in France no less than 30 times. His equivalent in Britain is Martin Pipe, the son of a bookmaker who was champion jumps trainer 15 times in 17 seasons, starting from 1988-89.
Then there was John Francome MBE, the son of a fireman/builder who was raised in a Swindon council house.
Michael Dickinson, whose mastery of training jumpers was amplified when he saddled the first five home in the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup, would say of Francome: “He is the best jockey I have ever seen.”
Francome changed everything during his 15-year reign, when he was champion jockey seven times before his retirement in 1985. His riding style was unique: a fusion of the demands of race-riding and a prowess at showjumping that saw him ride on Britain’s junior team that won gold at the European Championships.
Seeing him on horseback conjured up images of a centaur, that mythological creature with the upper body of a man and the undercarriage of a horse.
“I have watched other people try to copy him, but nobody can,” says Francome’s friend and saddle rival, Peter Scudamore. “He made the rest of us feel inadequate.”
Beyond that, Francome changed the perception of jockeys from monosyllabic serfs to the well-paid public face of the sport. He smiled a lot, wore his hair long and was seen initially as too big for his boots.
He also had a sharp sense of humour. During a lengthy stewards’ inquiry, when video footage of the finish was being replayed incessantly, Francome interrupted proceedings by asking the stewards when an usherette would be bringing round ice cream and popcorn.
Francome is happy to talk about that aspect of his professional life. Nothing infuriated him more than brazen rudeness of the kind frequently thrown at him by the authorities – in particular racecourse stewards, whom he once dubbed “Cabbage Patch Dolls”.
But try talking to him about his saddle deeds and he becomes uncomfortable. Press on with that line of questioning and discomfort quickly turns to embarrassment. “When I look back, I remember the horses as individuals more than the people or the races I won,” he explains.
Francome’s Champion Hurdle-winning ride on Sea Pigeon in 1981 was a career-defining moment as he delivered the 11-year-old fast and late with a confidence bordering on insouciance. That ride is still seen today as an incarnation of poetry on horseback.
“Nah,” Francome replies dismissively. “The horse won so easily; anyone could have ridden him. He’d won the race the previous year and Peter Easterby, Sea Pigeon’s trainer, told me when he legged me up that the horse was in better shape. There was really nothing to it.”
The closest he gets to acknowledging he may have played a small part in a big-race triumph comes when he reflects on Burrough Hill Lad, aboard whom Francome, substituting for the horse’s regular rider, won the 1984 Hennessy Gold Cup and King George VI Chase.
“I never rode a better horse,” he says of the Jenny Pitman-trained monster whose formative days were characterised by his propensity to plough headlong into a fence.
“He was like Denman: an absolute tank of a horse who won the Hennessy with 12st on his back,” Francome continues. “I suppose I probably understood how he liked to jump. When he was on a long stride he liked you to keep a good hold of his head and let him just set himself. The worst thing would have been to sit still and do nothing.”
Mesmerised by horses
It’s impossible to exaggerate the culture shock Francome experienced when, aged 16, his father frogmarched him into the Uplands stable of Fred Winter for an interview. At that point he’d never ridden a racehorse and cared not a jot for racing.
He’d become mesmerised by horses as a six-year-old when he rode one for the first time on Barry Island. The connection never abated, and led to his first pony, Black Beauty, for whom his father gave £50 with no funds left for a saddle.
In contrast to Winter’s forbidding demeanour, the teenage Francome loved nothing more than playing practical jokes. The pair were like chalk and cheese, but Francome, who had much to learn, realised he was fortunate to be apprenticed to the best jumps trainer in the land.
“Together with my parents I owe Fred Winter everything, certainly professionally and to a large extent personally as well,” Francome says. “He and Brian Delaney [Winter’s head lad] taught me three things I never forgot. How to do things properly, to avoid cutting corners and the meaning of loyalty.”
“You don’t see too much loyalty in the game today,” he continues. “In 1972 I had only just lost my claim, but Fred let me ride second favourite Cardinal Error in the Grand National because I’d previously won on the horse.”
Cardinal Error’s race ended abruptly when he refused, which was symptomatic of Francome’s fortunes in the world’s most famous race. He would never win the Grand National. He even passed over the chance to ride the 1976 winner, Rag Trade, in the process describing Rag Trade as “the most horrible horse” he had ever ridden.
He chose instead to ride Golden Rapper, and while Rag Trade’s connections started celebrating, Francome was in the back of an ambulance bound for Walton Hospital after Golden Rapper came a cropper when leading at Becher’s second time round.
It would take years of hard toil before Francome secured the position as Winter’s stable jockey. He found his apprenticeship tough; in the early 1970s his weight had ballooned and his rides were few and far between. So much so that he once wrote out his notice, which he intended to serve at lunchtime – only for fate to intervene.
That morning he was asked to school a near-lunatic called Osbaldeston. He struck up such a rapport that he was told he’d be riding the horse the following week at Worcester, where the combination posted the first of 17 victories in tandem.
“It was pure luck Osbaldeston came along when he did,” Francome says. “I once rode him in a double bridle at Fontwell, where there were 16 runners. He was last away from the tapes and three lengths clear by the time he jumped the first. He wouldn’t have been out of place in the six-furlong July Cup.”
Quirky horses like Osbaldeston allowed Francome to express his natural gifts. “I enjoyed riding him because that was how you got on,” Francome says. “When you get a tune out of a bad one, you start riding the better ones.
“To every lad who complains to me they are not getting decent rides, I tell them the only thing that matters is that you’ve got to make sure the horse runs better for you, and jumps better for you, than it did for everyone else who’s ridden it before. That’s the mindset you need.”
A natural sense of balance
It was easy for Francome to outshine other jockeys. He allied his natural sense of balance, refined by riding his first pony bareback for more than a year, to an early comprehension of the virtues of rhythm.
“When you ride bareback it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to sit in the wrong position on a horse,” Francome says. “You learn to balance, to grip with the right parts of your body. And suddenly, when you get a saddle and stirrups, you feel like you are glued on. You feel absolutely invincible.”
He gleaned about rhythm from watching one of showjumping’s all-time greats.
“David Broome was brilliant: a complete master of his craft,” Francome avers, “and rhythm was the secret of his success. Even in jump-offs against the clock, he would never change rhythm from the second the bell sounded to when he went through the finish.
“Racing is exactly the same. You can’t ride anybody else’s horse so you’ve got to concentrate on your own; know what he is doing, and ride your own race. There are a lot of sheep in the weighing room these days.”
Francome’s alliance with Winter spanned the jockey’s entire career. It was founded on mutual trust. Francome courted controversy with the way he liked to anchor horses towards the rear of the field before making his move. A former top-class jockey himself, Winter was sympathetic, if a little perplexed.
Inevitably, there were occasions when Francome closed fast, but too late, which prompted suggestions that he had “mistimed” his challenge deliberately. The very idea infuriated him, although Winter made reference to it in is autobiography.
“At times Johnny is absolutely brilliant,” Winter wrote, “but there have been occasions when he has upset me. He will go right round the outside, come in fifth or sixth and then jump off and say he’s pleased.
“I have to bite my tongue then, because he’s a sensitive bloke. But the silence on those days is worth it for the winners he has ridden which no one else would have come close on. Everyone has bad days. Jockeys are no different.”
The only time the mud vaguely stuck came when Francome was fined £750 and suspended for the last five weeks of the 1977/78 season for his relationship with the bookmaker John Banks.
Francome’s conversations with Banks about the horse he rode were born of naivety, rather than anything more sinister. The jockey was unaware he was breaking any rule and openly admitted to the relationship under questioning; hence the lenient penalty. The sanction applied to Banks was altogether more draconian. He was banned from the racecourse for three years and fined £2,500.
A prodigious talent
Unlike most jockeys of his era, Francome was tee-total and looked after his money. There’s a deal of truth within the jocular assertion that he is the biggest landlord in Lambourn, where he lives.
Since his retirement from the saddle he has fastidiously added to those assets, among them Beechdown Stables, which he built himself before installing Clive Cox as resident trainer.
Francome’s retirement, the year before he was awarded an MBE, was unexpected by all except those closest to him. It came soon after he’d tumbled from The Reject in the Arkle Chase at the 1985 Cheltenham Festival.
“When he fell, he slid down on to his withers and turned over,” Francome recalls. “I went down the right side of him and my foot went through the iron, the leather wrapped itself around my ankle and I was hung up. If the horse had got up and started running it would have been the end of me.”
He was then buried by The Reject when that horse fell at Chepstow four weeks later, prompting Francome to draw stumps on the spot. He would never tighten his girth on a racecourse again; instead he made a seamless transition to television punditry with Channel 4 Racing, where he worked for more than 20 years.
“I have only had two jobs in my life,” Francome says. “There was my time with Fred Winter and then with Andrew Franklin and John Bromley at Channel 4. In both jobs I worked for nice people with nice people, which makes all the difference. I have been absolutely blessed.”
Those who followed racing during the Francome era maintain it is they who are blessed to have witnessed such a prodigious talent at first hand.
Peter Scudamore on Francome
“You can’t talk about John without remembering his devilment, which is a large part of him. He was always pulling pranks in the weighing room and he has great natural charm. I’ve seen people try to copy his riding style, but nobody can, because when he rode he became part of the horse.
“When I came along he was possibly getting comfortable as champion jockey and I made him more competitive. It was the greatest disservice I could have done to my career.”
Oliver Sherwood on Francome
“Working, schooling and doing everything else with John was unbelievable. You didn’t realise at the time how good he was; you took it for granted because you were with him every day. He was a horseman turned jockey, rather than a jockey.
“God gave him the gift of looking totally natural on a horse, whereas the likes of AP McCoy had to work at it. He could see a stride 10 strides away, it was three or four for the rest of us.”
Greatest horses Francome rode
Lanzarote: won Christmas Hurdle in 1975
Midnight Court: 1978 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner
Sea Pigeon: Champion Hurdle winner (1981)
Wayward Lad: King George VI Chase victor in 1982
Brown Chamberlin: Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup winner in 1983
Burrough Hill Lad: winner of the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup and King George VI Chase in 1984
“Three horses I remember”
“Sea Image, who was an absolute legend. He wasn’t much good, but he tried his heart out every time. You could never get to the bottom of him,” said Francome.
“I rode Looks Like Trouble one morning just before he won the 2000 Cheltenham Gold Cup. He was a fabulous, well-mannered horse who went through his paces with no fuss, and stood still afterwards for you to wash him down.
“The other one is Pipper, a hunter of Enda Bolger’s in Ireland. He fell back into a ditch with me, but all he wanted to do was turn around and have another go. He was the most extraordinary horse.”
Jim McGrath (TV pundit with Francome on Channel 4 Racing)
“Everybody knows about his brilliance in the saddle, but John has many other qualities. One of the lots at a charity auction was a round of golf with John, and it was bought by a lady from Fakenham. On the appointed day John drove all the way there from Lambourn – only to find the lady had completely forgotten about it. He’d spent nine hours in his car, but he drove back there two weeks later and played the round with her. That’s the sort of bloke he is.”
Francome’s career in numbers
7 times champion jockey (1 shared with Peter Scudamore)
1 Cheltenham Gold Cup
1 Champion Hurdle
2 King George VI Chases
2 Hennessy Cognac Gold Cups
1,138 winners (1970-1985, then a record)
Ref Horse & Hound; 30 July 2020