The Sporting Life: The Sport of Kings, not the Queen Mother

By David Flin

This article looks at an unexplained mystery in horse racing, an event that took place over 60 years ago, and has still not be adequately explained. The year is 1956; it’s the Grand National at Aintree, Liverpool, possibly one of the hardest jump races in the world. The Queen Mother’s horse, Devon Loch, is well fancied, although not the favourite. Two past winners were in the race, and had shorter odds than Devon Loch. Dick Francis was the jockey on Devon Loch, later to become a famous crime writer. Nothing he wrote would ever be as inexplicable as what transpired here.

Two of the most fancied horses fell at the first fence, and one by one, other horses faded from contention. With three fences to go, Devon Loch took the lead, and moved steadily ahead of the others. He cleared the last fence, followed by ESB, in second place.

With fifty yards to go, Devon Loch was five lengths clear, and certain to win. Then, right in front of the Royal Box, he suddenly and inexplicably jumped into the air and landed on his stomach. ESB overtook Devon Loch and went on to win, despite Dick Francis’ efforts to get Devon Loch up again.

No-one has ever satisfactorily explained why Devon Loch jumped. There have been many theories, none of which are convincing. The theories include:

He suffered cramp in his hindquarters, causing him to collapse. The difficulty with this theory is that footage clearly shows the horse jumping, which it just wouldn’t be able to do if hindquarters cramp was involved. Furthermore, Devon Loch got to his feet moments later, far quicker than would have been possible had cramp been the cause.

Another theory was that a shadow thrown by an adjacent water jump might have confused the horse. The trouble with that theory is that while the water jump was indeed adjacent, there was no shadow, cast onto the race track, nor could there be from the position of the sun.

Jockey Dick Francis stated that he thought that a sudden loud cheer from the crowd distracted and confused the horse. This was an experienced horse, who’d run recently at Cheltenham and done well in the National Hunt Handicap Chase, and had won races at two well-attended races. It’s not a theory one can totally discount, given that Francis was a very experienced jockey, but Devon Loch had never shown any similar behaviour before or after the event, and no other horse displayed this behaviour.

There were other less plausible theories: it was suggested that the horse had suffered a heart attack; that the horse had been stung either by an insect (presumably flying at the speed of a horse’s gallop) or by a projectile (which would have been an astonishing shot from any form of projectile launcher, to say nothing of the fact that one would expect someone to notice); that the jockey had been bribed to ensure the horse didn’t win; and then there the frankly bizarre explanations involving hypnosis and supernatural powers, which seems a lot of effort to go for a single, simple horse race.

The Alternate History. Normally, Alternate History is about asking the question: What if something else happens? That’s not really relevant here, as the alternative is for the race to continue normally, which is rather boring.

In this case, the question is why. Why did it happen? This is where one can get into all sorts of hidden histories, tales where the event is a clue to uncovering the truth.

For example, perhaps we can assume the jockey took a payment to make sure the Queen Mother’s horse didn’t win. This might be because of a betting syndicate linked to organised crime, which is growing in influence and starting to move into areas of politics. Less than a month later, Buster Crabbe, working for MI6, went missing when attempting an underwater investigation of the hull of the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze. Three months after that, the Suez crisis started. Coincidence? Mystery writers and conspiracy theorists do not believe in coincidence, so somehow, these events have to be linked.

Quite how these events might be linked is left as an exercise for the reader.

Other questions the author might want to consider include: Was it significant that it was the Queen Mother’s horse that was involved; was it significant that Dick Francis went into crime writing – after all, one of the basic instructions given to new authors is to write about what you know; if it was cramp, had the horse been doctored beforehand?

The options are endless, and as Agent Lavender demonstrates, taking a piece of conspiracy theory, and developing it with rigorous logic can produce an entertaining read. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, I’ll be able to read about the connection between Devon Loch, Shergar, and the IRA involvement.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow