Dick Francis is the kind of clipped, neat and pleasant chap one might expect to step out of one of his books. In the comfort of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel suite, he all but apologises for not wearing his jacket. A champion British jumps jockey, he retired in 1957 on doctor's advice and took up writing. First a small series of feature articles, then a column with the London Sunday Express (which continued for 16 years), then his autobiography, and finally crime thrillers with a horseracing flavour. Now, after 40 years, 39 novels and two biographies, and more than 60 million books sold in 34 languages, Richard Stanley Francis is bowing out with Shattered - researched with but published without his late wife, Mary. At 81, Francis has weathered well despite a jumps jockey's inevitable falls. 'I have a little arthritis in my feet which gives me problems sometimes but where I live in the Cayman Islands I can walk on the beach in the mornings and the water is lovely and warm,' he smiles. Such are the simple pleasures afforded by the success Francis has enjoyed. 'But I do miss Mary terribly. She wasn't horse-minded at all. When I was riding, the other jockeys' wives thought it was very funny that Mary sat reading a book and only came to drive me home if I got hurt. We had already decided that Shattered would be my last book, then she died suddenly last year. Mary was my co-researcher - she had a better education than I did, degrees in French and English - and she was my only editor. I always wanted her name on the dust jacket but she said the sales would be better with just my name.' In 1999, journalist Graham Lord claimed that Mary had in fact written all the books under her husband's name. Francis still bridles at the memory. 'I had known him when we worked on the paper, and he asked if he could write my biography and I said no. Next thing, he'd gone and done it anyway and it was inaccurate all the way through.' Perhaps Francis' most famous book was his 1986 biography of champion jockey Lester Piggott, with whom he caught up during Melbourne Cup week this year. 'We are great friends but writing his biography was difficult since Lester and his wife Susan always had different recollections of what happened, and because Lester cannot really converse well. I remember when I was close to finishing it, saying 'I know your favourite of nine Epsom Derby winners was Sir Ivor, so tell me all about him'. And Lester thought for quite a while, then said 'Hmmm. Nice horse'. That was it, so I had to make up all these things about the horse.' In Francis' thrillers, though his evildoers kill, steal, dope and even kidnap to achieve nefarious ends, betting is not often a factor. 'There's not a lot of gambling because I am not a gambler, never was,' Francis says. 'When I was riding, I thought it was hard enough to make a living without giving it back to the bookmakers. I also like to think my books are bought by people with no interest in racing.' His publishers have refused to allow Francis to move totally away from horseracing, but his last two novels, Second Wind and Shattered, have seen him tugging hard at the reins. 'Well, you can't keep flogging a dead horse!' is his favourite comment. 'There are so many other things I want to put in the books. In this one it is glassblowing. But my publisher says I am known for horseracing so there must always be some. In Shattered, a jumps jockey is killed at Cheltenham and leaves a secret to the glassblower, who is the central character.' Francis had never considered setting his books in the Air Force because he had hated his years in the RAF but flying has rarely been far away, and he and Mary once ran a charter plane business. 'Mostly taking jockeys to meetings and Lester was our best client,' he says. 'Mary even flew him herself until our insurance company found out. A few books later, I wrote Rat Race about it.' Francis says he turned professional as a rider when he was five, for a fee of sixpence. 'At my grandfather's farm in south Wales, my brother bet that I couldn't sit backwards on a donkey while he chased it over a fence,' he recalls. 'Six times I fell off but the next time I got his sixpence.' England's champion in 1953-54, Francis' career will be remembered above all for his incredible defeat aboard the Queen Mother's horse, Devon Loch, in the 1956 Grand National. 'We had a great run the whole four-and-a-half miles,' he remembers. 'I jumped the last fence in front and we were going to win easily. There were 250,000 people at Aintree and I think every one was roaring for the Queen Mother's horse to win. A tremendous noise they made and you could almost hear the stands shaking. 'Now the Grand National is a two-circuit race. The first time, there is a water jump about 30 yards from the winning post, but when they come back they gallop past it to the line. We were 12 lengths in front as we came towards the water jump and Devon Loch suddenly recognised where he was. You can see on the film that he pricked his ears. When he did that, this roar from the huge crowd hit him and just for a second he froze, his hindquarters failed to act, all four feet were in the air and he came down sprawled on the ground. How I didn't fall off I'll never know. 'He picked himself up and we were still that far in front that we would have won if I could have got him to go but he had pulled back muscles in the fall and couldn't move. E.S.B. went past us and I walked off in disgust. When I went up to the royal box to explain, the Queen Mother was very philosophical. 'That's racing', she said.' Popular novels invariably become movies but it has been a bumpy ride for Francis. Blood Sport, In The Frame and Twice Shy were made into telemovies in 1989 with a mixed reception, but Francis was quite pleased with the BBC mini-series based on Odds Against, which was called The Racing Game. Only his first novel, Dead Cert, has been taken to the big screen and the 1974 result was disappointing. 'It was terrible. There were some wonderful action scenes but the story was murdered,' he reflects. 'For instance, the main evil character in the book was Uncle George, but he wasn't even in the movie. There is a company hoping to make a film of Banker.' He has set thrillers in England, Italy, Canada, Norway, even Russia, but never in racing-mad Hong Kong. 'Well I had never been racing here until I went to Sha Tin last Sunday,' Francis reveals. 'I was here in 1972 on my way back from Australia but there was no racing on. I saw Happy Valley from the hills but Sha Tin was not even built. Still, I do have one Hong Kong connection - David Oughton's father, Alan, whom I rode against and liked very much. He finished fourth in Devon Loch's Grand National.'