Dick Francis. Under Orders

(Sid Halley — 4)

This book is dedicated to my late wife Mary

and to the memory of

Dr Jara Moserova

my Czech language translator and friend for forty years who died the day this book was finished.

My thanks to

Andrew Hewson, literary agent Alan Stephenson, Roehampton Rehabilitation Centre Professor Alex Markham, London Research Institute Dr Rosemarie Hutchinson, DNA specialist Jonathan Powell, racing journalist Edward Gillespie, Cheltenham Racecourse Rodney Pettinga, Raceform Interactive Catrina McDonald, RGN, nurse

And especially to my son


for everything


Sadly, death at the races is not uncommon.

However, three in a single afternoon was sufficiently unusual to raise more than an eyebrow. That only one of the deaths was of a horse was more than enough to bring the local constabulary hotfoot to the track.

Cheltenham Gold Cup day had dawned bright and sunny with a fine dusting of a March frost showing white between the grass. The forecast for the day was dreadful, with heavy rain due to drive in from the west, but as I stood in my ex-father-in-law’s kitchen looking through the window at the westerly sky, there was no sign yet of the warm front that was promised.

‘There you are, Sid,’ said Charles, coming into the kitchen in his dressing gown over striped pyjamas, with soft blue velvet slippers on his feet. Rear Admiral Charles Rowland, Royal Navy (retired), my ex-father-in-law, my confidant, my mentor and, without doubt, my best friend.

I still introduced him to strangers as my father-in-law although it was now some ten years since his daughter, Jenny, my wife, had seen the need to give me an ultimatum: give up my job or she would give me up. Like any man at the top of his profession, I had assumed she didn’t really mean it and continued to work day in and day out. And so Jenny left with acrimony and spite.

The fact that a crippling injury put paid to my chosen profession just a few months later was one of those little ironies from which there is no escape. Our marriage had been irreparably damaged and there was no going back. Indeed, by then, neither of us had wanted to go back but it still took many years and many hurtful exchanges before we were both able to move on. In time, Jenny and I had divorced and she had remarried, to a title and some serious wealth. Nowadays, we are civil to each other and I have a real hope that an arm’s-length affection may be the end game of our tempestuous relationship.

‘Morning, Charles,’ I said. ‘It’s a good one, too.’

‘Bloody forecasters,’ he replied, ‘never have the slightest idea.’ He leaned towards the window to get a better view of the weather vane on the garage roof. ‘South-westerly,’ he remarked. ‘That front has still to arrive. Better take an umbrella with us.’

I didn’t doubt that he was right. A life at sea had given him the uncanny ability to predict the future simply by sticking a wet finger into the air. However, on this occasion, I think it may have been more due to his listening to the radio in his bedroom. His years afloat had also left him with a preference for all-male company, there being no female personnel on ships in his day, and a slow but determined approach to a problem. As he had often told me, it takes many miles to turn round an aircraft carrier and it is better to be sure in which direction you need to go before you start zigzagging all over the place and showing everyone what a blithering idiot you are.

We went to the races in his Mercedes, with raincoats and umbrellas stacked on the back seat. As we drove west from his home in the Oxfordshire village of Aynsford across the Cots-wold Hills towards Cheltenham, the sun began to hide behind high cirrus clouds. It had disappeared altogether by the time we dropped down from Cleeve Hill to the racecourse and there were spots of rain on the windscreen as we parked but the racing festival at Cheltenham is one of the world’s great sporting occasions and a little rain couldn’t dampen our spirits.

I had ridden so often round this course that I felt I knew each blade of grass as an old friend. In my dreams I still rode here, surging down the hill towards the home straight, kicking hard into the downhill fence when others would take a hold to steady themselves at this notorious obstacle. Here, many a partnership would come crashing to the turf if not foot perfect, but winning was the important thing and, while taking a hold might have been safer, kicking your horse hard could gain you lengths over the fence, lengths the opposition may not be able to regain up the hill to the finish line.

It had been a racing fall that had ended my riding career. It should have been easy. My young mount, stumbling while landing over the second fence in a novice chase, had failed to untangle its legs from underneath his neck and went down slowly to our right. I could have almost stepped off but chose to move with the falling animal and roll away from his flailing hooves. It was just unfortunate that a following horse, having nowhere else to go, had landed with all its weight on the outstretched palm of my left hand. But it was more criminal than unfortunate that the horse had been wearing an old racing shoe, sharpened by use into a jagged knife-edge, which had sliced through muscle, sinew, bone and tendon, leaving my hand useless and my life in ruins.

But I shouldn’t complain. I had been Champion Jockey for four consecutive years having won more jump races than anyone else, and would probably, by now, have had to retire anyway. At thirty-eight, I was well past the age at which even I thought it would be considered sensible to inflict the continuous battering on a human body.

‘Sid,’ Charles said, snapping me back to reality, ‘remember, I’m the guest of Lord Enstone today and he asked me whether you’d be coming up to his box for a drink later.’

‘Maybe,’ I said, still half-thinking about what might have been.

‘He seemed quite insistent that you should.’

Charles was pressing the point and I knew him well enough to know that this was his way of saying that it was important to him.

‘I’ll be there.’

If it were important to Charles, I would indeed be there. I owed him a lot and paybacks such as this were cheap. At least, that is what I thought at the time.

We joined the throng pouring into the racecourse from the car parks.

‘Hello, Mr Halley,’ said the gateman. ‘What do you fancy for the big race?’

‘Hello, Tom,’ I replied, reading the name on his badge. ‘Oven Cleaner must have a good chance, especially if we get much more of this rain. But don’t quote me.’

He waved me through with a laugh and without properly checking my badge. Ex-jockeys were a thorn for most racecourses. Did they get free entry or not? And for how long after they’d retired? Did it depend on how good they had been? Why wouldn’t they go away and stop being an embarrassment, always carrying on about how much better it had been when they were riding and that the jumps were getting too easy and hardly worthy of the name.

If Tom had studied my badge more closely, he would have seen that, like me, it was getting a bit old and worn. I had simply not returned my jockey’s metal badge when forced to retire and I had been using it ever since. No one seemed to mind.

Charles disappeared with a wave to make his way to the private luncheon boxes high in the grandstand while

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