John Francome MBE took the racing world – including your correspondent, who had just turned 20 – when he announced his immediate retirement from the saddle, at the age of just 32, at Chepstow in April 1985. However, Francome later explained, “I was riding The Reject [a faller at the open ditch]…and my foot went through the iron and the leather twisted round stopping it from coming out. Luckily, I grabbed the reins before he could go anywhere, otherwise it would have been good night. I quit there and then.”
Born in Swindon, Wiltshire, Francome joined Fred Winter at his Uplands stables in Lambourn, Berkshire as a 16-year-old conditional jockey. He subsequently rode 1,138 winners and became National Hunt Champion Jockey seven times. Francome won the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Midnight Court, trained by Fred Winter, in 1978, but perhaps one his finest moments came three years later, when he won the Champion Hurdle on the ‘old man’ of the party, the 11-year-old Sea Pigeon.
Already victorious in 1980 under Jonjo O’Neill, Sea Pigeon was sent off 7/4 favourite for the 1981 renewal. Francome rode the perfect waiting race, delaying his challenge until halfway up the run-in, at which point he produced Sea Pigeon perfectly under hands and heels riding to overhaul Pollardstown and Daring Run and win comfortably. In typical, self-deprecating style, Francome remembers the race more for avoiding “what could so easily have been a first flight disaster” when Irish challenger Ivan King came down.
Since calling time on his riding career, Francome has been a successful trainer, TV presenter, author and builder. Personally, I still find it difficult to come to terms with the fact that “The Greatest Jockey”, as John McCririck used to call him, turned 65 in December 2017. Apparently his secret is, “Mixing with young people and plenty of sleep.”