Odds-on favourite

WHILE visiting Australia recently, Dick Francis gave me a tip for the Melbourne Cup: ''Keep your money in your pocket.'' Not a tip an Australian or a Hongkonger welcomes but the best-selling author is adamant that ''gambling is the quickest way to the poorhouse''.

The former champion steeplechase jockey whose 32 novels are all set in the racing world, including his latest Decider, hasn't been to the races in Hong Kong, although he is keen to and approves of its non-bookmaker system of betting.

''English racing is in a bad state financially because so many people like to have their bets with the bookmakers, and they make millions out of the racing industry, and that ought to go back into it as it does in America and probably Hong Kong,'' he says.

Asked if he is advocating an end to the British bookmakers he looks worriedly at his publicity minder and says: ''I'd better not say that.'' But he points out that when the cars leave the course after the last race, it's usually the bookmakers, not the punters, who are driving the Rolls Royces.

Dick Francis is 72 now and moving rather slowly after a hip replacement earlier this year. But he's as cheerful and dapper as ever, immaculate in navy blazer and red-patterned tie and pocket hanky.

He says he last visited Hong Kong before the Sha Tin course was built and has just had to turn down a Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club invitation to its December feature races because he'll be back home in the Cayman Islands after his current publicity tour and about to start novel number 33. He writes one a year from January to May.

He admits it's difficult to keep finding racing-related topics. ''But the people who go racing come from every walk of life and that's the best thing with writing the books, thinking of a new subject and researching that subject and connecting it to the racing world.'' And whatever subject he settles on, his trusty researcher who also happens to be his devoted wife of 46 years, Mary, will be as deeply involved as her husband.

After all, it was Mary who learned to paint for In the Frame, to fly for Flying Finish and became such a proficient pilot she set up a small air charter company in Britain in the 70s, and Mary who mastered the camera so successfully for Reflex that she now takes her husband's publicity photos and has done a portrait of one of his greatest fans, the Queen Mother.

For Decider, not his best, but vintage Francis - entertaining and easy to read - an in-depth study of architecture aided by an architect godson was needed.

The story revolves around an architect/builder who gets caught up in a family feud over the future of a country racecourse.

''I haven't had any criticism yet. I like to think Mary and I do the research fairly thoroughly,'' he says, recounting a lesson learned after his second book, Nerve.

''I had a few letters - the main character was from a musical family and I said the London College of Music was near the Albert Hall and the letters said it was the London School of Music.'' Since then, he's been noted for the meticulous preparation that is just one of the factors in creating his enormous following.

He has sold 60 million books worldwide and that shows no signs of slowing - on the morning of our interview he had heard Decider was number seven on The New York Times bestseller list after less than two months.

And while his minder was stunned that most of the 200 readers in the queue at his Brisbane signing had all his books, including his autobiography and biography of top jockey Lester Piggott, Mr Francis says that is common: ''This year I did a short US tour, just New York, Washington and Virginia and on the last day I signed 1,000 books.

''I couldn't sleep my legs were so sore from sitting at the desk. Every third person says, 'I am your greatest fan' and it's surprising how many people have all 32 novels. It's lovely really.'' But he admits it isn't lovely writing them - hours of slog transcribing the long hand first draft he writes in notebooks on the verandah of his home, to his word processor.

And he is frank about why, after so long he's still doing it: ''The writing is always hard work but I cannot say I am sick of it because look at the life we live. We live in the Cayman Islands, have an apartment in Florida and love travel. We pay for ourchildren and five grandchildren aged seven to 18 to come and see us in the Caymans and we couldn't do that if I stopped writing.

''To maintain the sort of lifestyle I like, you can't live on what you have made in the past.'' But Mr Francis says when his current agreement with publisher Michael Joseph for two more books is complete, he may cut back to one every two years, as he has been threatening to do for years - and that's especially so if the second of his two sons, Felix, now his manager, succeeds in having some of his books made into films.

Dick Francis' first book was his autobiography, The Sport of Kings, written after he retired from steeplechase racing in 1957.

He'd been a professional jockey for 10 years, starting after delaying that childhood dream to spend six years as a fighter pilot during the war.

Although he rode 350 winners, he looked set to be remembered for the race he lost: in the 1956 Grand National he rode the Queen Mother's horse, Devon Loch. It was the favourite and in front, less than 45 metres from the finish line of the gruelling seven-kilometre course when, for no reason ever able to be explained, it collapsed.

The horse got up, apparently healthy, but the race was lost. And the following January when he fell and broke his wrist - one of almost 20 fractures during his career, he quit while at the top.

Mr Francis became a racing writer with the Sunday Express, but money was short, his boys were needing a good education and he thought a novel might ''cover a few expenses''.

In 1962 Dead Cert was published to immediate success.

Nerve followed two years later, and he has been on the bestseller lists ever since.

In that time his books have lured many new race-goers through the gates of courses worldwide - a fact that makes him popular with the clubs. ''That's quite rewarding,'' he says. ''I have readers who say, 'I never knew anything about horses but we had to go and see them'.'' He says he hopes that doesn't mean he is responsible for new gambling habits - after all, he has already been accused of giving the kidnappers the idea for the abduction of the Irish champion racehorse Shergar, with his book Bloodsports , in which a Derby winner is hijacked.

He says the research for that book is an example of the opportunities writing has brought him - he and Mary covered 12,000 kilometres of the US by Greyhound bus in three weeks. And they've been to Europe, Scandinavia, Russia, South Africa, the US and nowthis a visit to Australia.

Dick Francis says he writes the books he'd like to read. The writing of them can be a chore and the publicity is definitely so - ''you always get asked the same questions'', he says.

But though he'd like to be remembered as a jockey and wouldn't mind another shot at the Grand National, he knows it's not racing but writing - or at least, a combination of the two, that have brought him the lifestyle that will keep him producing bestsellers in years to come.

The writing is always hard work but I cannot say I am sick of it because look at the life we live. We live in the Cayman Islands, have an apartment in Florida and love travel.

The people who go racing come from every walk of life. That's the best thing with writing the books, thinking of a new subject, researching it and connecting it to the racing world.

In the frame. . . Dick Francis says his books are ones he'd like to read. He has sold 60 million copies worldwide