LONDON - Dick Francis, the bestselling British thriller writer and former champion jockey, died Sunday in his home in the Cayman Islands. He was 89.
A successful steeplechase jockey, Francis turned to writing after he retired from racing in 1957. He penned 42 novels, many of which featured racing as a theme. His books were translated into more than 20 languages, and in 2000 Queen Elizabeth II - whose mother was among his many readers - honored Francis by making him a Commander of the British Empire.
His son Felix said he and his brother, Merrick, were "devastated" by their father's death, but "rejoice in having been the sons of such an extraordinary man."
"We share in the joy that he brought to so many over such a long life," Felix said in a statement. Francis' spokeswoman Ruth Cairns said the writer had died from natural causes, but did not elaborate.
During his writing career, Francis won three Edgar Allan Poe awards given by The Mystery Writers of America for his novels "Forfeit" (1968), "Whip Hand" (1979) and "Come to Grief" (1995).
He also was awarded a Cartier Diamond Dagger from the Crime Writers' Association for his outstanding contribution to the genre. The association made him a Grand Master in 1996 for a lifetime's achievement.
Aside from novels, Francis also authored a volume of short stories, as well as a biography of British jockey Lester Piggot.
In recent years Francis wrote novels jointly with son Felix, including "Silks" (2008) and "Even Money" (2009). A new novel by the two, "Crossfire," will be published later this year. "It is an honor for me to be able to continue his remarkable legacy through the new novels," Felix said in his statement.
Richard Francis was born Oct. 31, 1920, as the younger son of a horse breeder in Tenby, South Wales. During World War II he joined the Royal Air Force in 1940 and was stationed in the Egyptian desert before being commissioned as a bomber pilot in 1943, flying Spitfires, Wellingtons and Lancasters.
A few years later he returned to his father's stables and became a steeplechase trainer's assistant. Later, as a professional jockey, he won 345 of the more than 2,300 races he rode in between 1948 and 1957, taking the title of Champion Jockey for the 1953-54 season.
His most famous moment in racing came just a few months before he retired, when, riding for Queen Elizabeth, his horse collapsed inexplicably within sight of certain victory in the 1956 Grand National.
Despite his many successes, he had expressed regret at never winning the prestigious Grand National. "The first one I rode in I was second, and the last one I rode in I won everywhere except the last 25 yards. I would love the opportunity of having another go, but it's a young man's job," he said once during an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp.
Francis' first book, published in 1957, was his autobiography, titled "The Sport of Queens." His first novel, "Dead Cert," came out in 1962 and was followed by a new title every year since.
Francis is survived by his two sons as well as five grandchildren and one great-grandson, Cairns said.