Dick Francis was a champion steeplechase jockey of the British National Hunt before retiring and becoming a best-selling novelist of mysteries woven with horse-racing themes and characters. He won over 350 races in his career, but he may be best known for a race he lost, the Grand National, the world’s most famous steeplechase, then and now.

In 1956, Francis was aboard Devon Loch for owner Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. A victory would be the first for the royal family in this famed race in over 50 years. Devon Loch had a large lead and looked to be a sure winner about 50 yards from the finish when he did a belly-flop. Francis later said he thought the deafening roar of the grandstand crowd startled the 9-year-old gelding and caused him to lose his balance. Toward the end of Francis’ life, he acknowledged that he never got over the incident. By contrast, with predictable British outward calm, the Queen Mother remarked, “Oh, that’s racing.”

Since Francis’s death in 2010, his mystery writing has been continued by his younger son, Felix Francis. The latter’s first novel following his father’s passing was titled Gamble, and its lead fictional character is Nick “Foxy” Foxton, one of the youngest jockeys ever to win the Grand National.

True stories like the belly-flop by Devon Loch and imagined ones like Gamble illustrate the lore and legend associated with what today is called Crabbie’s Grand National.

The 2014 edition is to be run at Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool on April 5, culminating a 3-day festival of racing and entertainment. The on-track crowd and an estimated 600 million television viewers will watch as upwards of 40 horses contest a nearly 2 ¼ mile race in which the entries must jump 30 fences and then sprint on the flat for 494 yards to the finish line.

Odds are typically generous because of the large field. Last year, the winner Auroras Encore went off at 66-1 and the next four finishers were 12-1, 10-1, 66-1, and 16-1, respectively.

The Grand National has officially been run at Aintree since 1839. The winners of each rendition have their names recorded for posterity, except for a horse by the name of Esha Ness, who came home first in 1993. That year there were two false starts but on the second try about half the jockeys did not recognize the false start and completed the course. Esha Ness became legendary for winning the Grand National that never was because the stewards voided the race and bets were refunded.

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