John Francome MBE is often labelled, demeaningly, as ‘the best jockey never to have won the Grand National’. Nevertheless, between December 2, 1970, when he rode his first winner, Multigrey, at Worcester, and April 8, 1985, when he rode his last, Gambler’s Cup, at Huntingdon, Francome racked up 1,138 victories – in so doing, becoming the most successful jockey, numerically, in the history of British National Hunt racing – and won the jockeys’ title seven times.
Francome was Champion Jockey for the first time in 1975/1976, the season in which he won the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Lanzarote, and again in 1978/79, the season in which he won his one and only Cheltenham Gold Cup on Midnight Court. He was also Champion Jockey for five seasons running between 1980/81 and 1984/85 although, in 1981/82, he shared the jockeys’ title with Peter Scudamore, after graciously refusing to ride once he drew level with his arch rival, who’d broken his arm as the result of a fall at Southwell in late April.
Francome was employed by Frederick Thomas ‘Fred’ Winter, at Uplands Stables in Lambourn, Berkshire, for his entire career as a jockey and, together, they enjoyed many great days. At the Cheltenham Festival, aside from the Gold Cup with Midnight Court, they also won the Sun Alliance Chase twice, with Pengrail in 1975 and Brown Chamberlin in 1982, the now-defunct Cathcart Challenge Cup twice, with Roller Coaster in 1979 and Observe in 1983 and the Stayers’ Hurdle with Derring Rose and the Grand Annual Chase with Friendly Alliance, both in 1981.
In 1981, Francome also won the Champion Hurdle on Sea Pigeon, trained by Peter Easterby, showing amazing restraint to ride the 11-year-old for a turn of foot. Replacing the injured Jonjo O’Neill, Francome delayed his effort until well after the final flight but, in an outrageous act of derring-do, still won comfortably under hands and heels. In his title-winning years, Francome also won the Hennessy Gold Cup twice, on Brown Chamberlin, trained by Winter, in 1983 and Burrough Hill Lad, trained by Jenny Pitman, in 1984 and the King George VI Chase twice, on Wayward Lad, trained by Michael Dickinson, in 1982 and Burrough Hill Lad in 1984.