Dick Francis, Felix Francis

Dead Heat

Our thanks to

Dr. Tim Brazil, equine veterinary surgeon

Allen Handy, principal trumpeter

Andrew Hewson, literary agent

John Holmes, resident of Delafield, Wisconsin

Newmarket Racecourse

Gordon Ramsay, restaurateur

and to


for the title


I wondered if I was dying. I wasn’t afraid to die, but, such was the pain in my gut, I wished it would happen soon.

I’d had food poisoning before, but this time it was particularly unpleasant, with agonizing cramps and long bouts of retching. I had already spent most of Friday night kneeling on my bathroom floor with my head in the toilet, and, at one point, I became really concerned that the violence of the spasms in my abdomen might result in me losing my stomach lining altogether.

Twice I resolved to get myself to the telephone to summon help, only again to be doubled up by a fresh round of dry-heaving. Didn’t my bloody stupid muscles realize that my stomach was already empty, and had been so for ages? Why did this torture continue when there was nothing left in me to throw up?

Between the attacks, I sat sweating on the floor, leaning up against the bathtub, and tried to work out what had brought on this misery.

On Friday evening, I had been to a black-tie gala dinner in the Eclipse tent at Newmarket racetrack. I’d eaten a trio of cold smoked fish with a garlic mustard dill sauce for a starter, followed by a sliced black cherry stuffed chicken breast wrapped in pancetta with a wild chanterelle and truffle sauce, served with roasted red new potatoes and steamed snow peas, as the main course, and then a vanilla creme brulee for dessert.

I knew intimately every ingredient of the meal.

I knew because rather than being a guest at the function, I had been the chef.

FINALLY, as my bathroom window changed from black to gray with the coming of the dawn, the tight knot in my stomach began to unwind and the cold clamminess of my skin slowly started to abate.

But the ordeal was not yet over, with what remained in my digestive tract now being forcefully ejected at the other end.

In due course, I crawled along the landing of my cottage to bed and lay there utterly exhausted; drained, dehydrated, but alive. The clock on my bedside table showed that it was ten past seven in the morning, and I was due to be at work at eight. Just what I needed.

I lay there, kidding myself that I would be all right in a little while, and another five minutes would not matter. I began to doze but was brought back to full consciousness by the ringing of my telephone, which sat on the table next to the clock. Seven-twenty.

Who, I thought, is ringing me at seven-twenty? Go away. Leave me to sleep.

The phone stopped. That’s better.

It rang again. Damn it. I rolled over and lifted the receiver.

“Yes,” I said with all the hurt expression in my voice from a night of agony.

“Max?” said a male voice. “Is that you?”

“One and the same,” I replied in my more usual tone.

“Have you been ill?” asked the voice. It was his emphasis on the word you that had me worried.

I sat up quickly. “Yes I have,” I said. “Have you?”

“Dreadful, isn’t it. Everyone I’ve spoken to has had the same.” Carl Walsh was technically my assistant. In fact, these days he was as often in charge of the kitchen as I was. The previous evening, as I had been working the tables and receiving all the plaudits, Carl had been busily plating up the meals and shouting at the staff in the kitchen tent. Now, it appeared, there may be no more plaudits, just blame.

“Who have you spoken to?” I asked.

“Julie, Richard, Ray and Jean,” he said. “They each called me to say that none of them are coming in today. And Jean said that Martin was so ill that they called an ambulance and he went to the hospital.”

I knew how he felt.

“How about the guests?” I asked. Carl had spoken only to my staff.

“I don’t know, but Jean said that when she went with Martin to the hospital the staff there knew all about the poisoning, as they called it, so he can’t have been the only one.”

Oh God! Poisoning two hundred and fifty of the great and the good of the racing world the night before the 2,000 Guineas was unlikely to be beneficial to my business.

Being a chef who poisons his clients was not a reputation to relish. The event at the racetrack was a special. My day job was my restaurant, the Hay Net, situated on the outskirts of Newmarket in Ashley Road: sixty or so lunches a day, from Sunday to Friday, and dinner for up to a hundred every night. At least, that’s what we’d served last week, prepoisoning.

“I wonder how many of the other staff are affected,” said Carl, bringing me back to the present. My restaurant had been closed for the evening, and all eleven of my regular employees had been working the dinner at the racetrack, together with twenty or so part-timers who had assisted in the kitchen and with waiting on tables. All the staff had eaten the same food as served at the function, while the guests were listening to the speeches.

“I’ve arranged five to do the job at the racetrack today,” I said. The thought of having to prepare lunch for forty of the sponsor’s guests sent fresh waves of nausea through my stomach and caused the reappearance of sweat on my brow.

I was due to provide a three-course meal in two of the large, glass-fronted private boxes in the grandstand. Delafield Industries, Inc., an American tractor-manufacturing multinational from Wisconsin, was the new sponsor of the first Classic race of the year, and they had offered me more money than I could refuse to provide their guests with fresh steamed English asparagus with melted butter, followed by traditional British steak-and-kidney pie, with a summer pudding for dessert. Thankfully, I had talked them out of the fish-and-chips, with mushy peas. MaryLou Fordham, the company marketing executive who had secured my services, was determined that the guests from “back home” in Wisconsin should experience the “real” England. She had been deaf to my suggestions that pate de foie gras with brioche, followed by a salmon meuniere, might be more appropriate.

“I’ll tell you right now,” MaryLou had declared, “we don’t want any of that French stuff. We want English food only.” I had sarcastically asked if she wanted me to serve warm beer rather than fine French wines, but she hadn’t understood my little joke. In the end, we had agreed on an Australian white and a Californian red. The whole meal had boredom written all over it, but they were paying, and paying very well. Delafield tractors and combine harvesters, it seemed, were all the rage in the American Midwest, and they were now trying hard to grab a share of the English market. Someone had told them that Suffolk was the prairie country of the UK, so here they were.

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