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The ShortRead: Felix Francis

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The ShortRead of 9 September

Front Runner

Front Runner

Author: Felix Francis

What's the story: Dick Francis was what you'd describe as an "active man". A ground crew worker and pilot in the RAF during World War II, at the close of conflict he became a jump-jockey, winning some 350 races. Having hung up his riding boots, he then became a writer and journalist, clocking up over 40 novels - all set in the world of racing.

After passing away in 2010, his son Felix took up the reins (figuratively), continuing in the style of his father's best-selling novels. 

Front Runner is his latest crime thriller, which sees undercover investigator Jefferson Hinkley approached by multi-time champion jockey Dave Swinton. When Swinton admits to throwing a race, only to then wind up dead in his burnt out car, Hinkley realises that he's stumbled across a far larger conspiracy. 

Release date: 10 September


Extract

The display on the digital thermometer to my left read 105 degrees – 105 degrees Celsius that is, 221 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sweat ran off the end of my nose in a continuous stream and I could feel the heat deep in my chest as I breathed in the searing air.

I’d been in saunas before but never one this hot.

‘So what do you want?’ I asked.

My companion in this hellish place didn’t answer. He simply stared at the floor between his feet.

‘Come on,’ I said. ‘I haven’t come all this way for my health. It’s far too bloody hot in here. You wanted to talk to me, so talk.’

He lifted his head.

‘At least you’re not in one of these damn things.’ He tugged at the black nylon sweatsuit he was wearing. As if the heat alone wasn’t bad enough.

‘Maybe not, but I didn’t come here to be slow-roasted.’

He still didn’t talk. He just looked at me. Dave Swinton, twenty-nine years old and already eight times champion steeplechase jockey. At five foot ten, he had a continuous struggle with his weight, that was common knowledge, but owners and trainers were often happy to accept a touch overweight in order to have his exceptional skill in the saddle. And for good reason – the stats showed that he won almost a third of the races in which he rode.

‘Off the record?’ he said.

‘Don’t be silly,’ I replied.

I was an investigator for the British Horseracing Authority, the organization responsible for regulatory control of all Thoroughbred racing in the United Kingdom. Nothing I saw or heard to do with racing could be off the record.

‘I’ll deny I said it.’

‘Said what?’ I asked. ‘I’ve been in this bloody oven now for over ten minutes and I’m starting to look like a lobster. Either you tell me why I’m here or I’m gone.’

I wondered why he’d been so insistent that we should talk in his sauna. I had thought it was because he needed to shed a pound or two before racing at Newbury that afternoon, but maybe it was actually to make sure that I had no recording equipment hidden about my person. As a rule I used my iPhone to record meetings but that was in the pocket of my jacket and it was hanging up on a peg outside, along with the rest of my clothes.

Dave went on looking at me as if still undecided.

‘Right,’ I said. ‘I’m done.’ I stood up, wrapped the towel I had been sitting on round my waist and pushed open the sauna’s wooden door.

‘I lost a race this week.’

I put one foot through the doorway. ‘So? You can’t win them all.’

‘No,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘I lost it on purpose.’

I stopped and turned to him. I knew most of the Rules of Racing by heart. Rule (D)45.1 stated that a jockey was required, at all times, to have made a genuine attempt to obtain from his horse timely, real and substantial efforts to achieve the best possible placing.

To lose a race on purpose was to wilfully flout that rule, an offence that could carry a penalty of ten years’ disqualification from the sport.

‘Why?’ I asked.

He didn’t answer. He simply went back to studying the space between his feet.

‘Why?’ I asked him again.

‘Forget I ever said it.’

‘I can hardly do that,’ I said.

Winding back time wasn’t possible. Just as uninventing the atom bomb wasn’t ever going to happen.

I looked down at him but he went on scrutinizing the floor.

‘Can’t we get out of this bloody heat and talk about this over a glass of iced beer?’

‘I can’t drink anything,’ he replied sharply without moving his head. ‘Not even water. What the hell do you think I’m doing this for? I’ve got to lose two pounds to ride Integrated in the Hennessy.’

‘Won’t you be dehydrated?’

‘Usual state for me,’ he said, trying to produce a laugh. ‘I’ve been wasting every day since I was sixteen. I can’t remember what a square meal looks like. Nor a beer. In fact, I haven’t had a proper drink for years; alcohol contains far too many calories. Not that I miss it much, I don’t like the taste.’ He laughed again, but just the once. ‘Why do I do it? you ask. That’s a bloody good question.’

He stood up and we both went out of the wooden box into the coolness. I wondered how many people had a sauna in the corner of their garage, not that there wasn’t still plenty of room for a couple of expensive cars as well: a silver Mercedes saloon and a dark green Jaguar XK sports coupé, both adorned with personalized number plates.

Dave flicked off a big red switch next to the door.

‘It must cost a fortune to heat,’ I said.

‘I claim my electricity bill against tax as a business expense,’ he said, smiling. ‘This sauna is a necessity for my job.’

‘How often do you use it?’

‘Every day. I used to go to the one in the local gym but then they turned down the temperature – something to do with health and safety.’

He peeled off the nylon sweatsuit and stepped naked onto some bathroom scales.

‘I’m still too heavy,’ he said with a sigh. ‘No lunch for me today, to go with my no breakfast.’

‘But you surely have to eat. You need the energy.’

‘Can’t afford to,’ he said. ‘According to his bloody owner, if I can’t do ten stone four stripped by two this afternoon, I don’t get to ride Integrated, and he’s one of the best young chasers in the country. He’s incredibly well handicapped for the Hennessy and, if I don’t ride him today and he wins, I can kiss goodbye to riding him any time in the future – maybe start kissing goodbye to my whole career.’

He could kiss goodbye to his career anyway if he’d been purposely losing races.


(Images: Flickr/Kate Hiscock; Rex)

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