Jefferson Hinkley is back in the newest thriller in the Dick Francis tradition, this time on a special mission to the United States to investigate a conspiracy involving the biggest horse races in the country.
Jeff Hinkley, investigator for the British Horseracing Authority, has been seconded to the US Federal Anti-Corruption in Sports Agency (FACSA) where he has been asked to find a mole in their organization—an informant who is passing on confidential information to those under suspicion in American racing. At the Kentucky Derby, Jeff joins the FACSA team in a raid on a horse trainer’s barn at Churchill Downs, but the bust is a disaster, and someone ends up dead. Then, on the morning of the Derby itself, three of the most favored horses in the field fall sick.
These suspicious events can be no coincidence. In search of answers, Jeff goes undercover as a groom on the backstretch at Belmont Park racetrack in New York. But he discovers far more than he was bargaining for: corrupt individuals who will stop at nothing—including murder—to capture the most elusive prize in world sport, the Triple Crown.
About the Author
Felix Francis, a graduate of London University, is an accomplished outdoorsman, marksman, and pilot who has assisted with the research of many of his father's novels. The co-author of DEAD HEAT, SILKS, EVEN MONEY, and CROSSFIRE, and the author of GAMBLE, BLOODLINE, REFUSAL, DAMAGE, and FRONT RUNNER, he lives in England.
Dick Francis was the author of more than 40 mysteries set against a horse-racing background. Among his numerous awards are three Edgar Awards, the Crime Writers' Association Cartier Diamond Dagger, and the Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master Award. He died in February 2010 at the age of 89.
Read an Excerpt
Where are those goddamn cops?” Tony Andretti said it under his breath, quiet as a whisper, but it was full of frustration nonetheless.
“Calm down,” I murmured back. “They’ll be here soon enough.”
Tony and I were lying side by side, out of sight in the bushes, next to a rest area off the A34 highway north of Oxford. We’d been in position for several hours, getting ever wetter thanks to the persistent rain.
“Call them in now, Jeff,” Tony hissed at me angrily. “Or we’ll lose them.”
I ignored him and went on watching through my binoculars.
Two men were standing in the rest area, between the cars in which they had recently arrived, their heads bent close together as if they didn’t want to be overheard. Not that there was much chance of that, I thought, not with a line of heavy trucks thundering past noisily on the divided highway only a dozen or so yards away.
One of the men, the shorter of the two, removed a white envelope from his pocket and handed it to the other, who then turned away from the road, conveniently facing directly toward me, as he counted the banknotes it contained.
I used the camera built into my binoculars to take a couple of still shots as the man thumbed through the wad, then I switched to video mode and zoomed in, first on the money in the man’s hands and then up to his face. The light wasn’t perfect, but my top-of-the-line digital system would be well able to cope.
Obviously satisfied with its contents, the taller man stuffed the white envelope into his anorak and then handed over a small, flat package. I filmed it all.
“Now, Nigel,” I said quietly but distinctly into the microphone taped to my left wrist.
I went on filming as the two men briefly shook hands and then started to return to their respective cars.
“We’re losing them,” Tony said to me in an irritated tone.
I was beginning to think that he might be right, that I’d left it to too late, when a couple of police squad cars arrived at speed screeching to a halt and blocking the vehicles in the rest area. Even before the cars had come to a complete stop, the doors were flung open and four uniformed officers spilled out.
The shorter of the two men stood stock-still, openmouthed in disbelief, but the taller one turned and ran—away from the police and straight for me, at the same time removing a long-bladed knife from his coat pocket.
“Knife!” Tony shouted loudly beside me as he struggled to stand up.
The man changed from looking back at the police to looking toward where Tony and I had been hiding. He saw Tony, who was now on his feet, and turned slightly to go directly for him, the blade facing upward in his left hand in a manner that suggested to me that he knew exactly how to use it.
I rolled over, grabbed Tony by the ankles and pulled hard.
He came down on top of me, his considerable bulk sprawling over my legs.
“Let go of me,” Tony shouted angrily, trying to kick out toward my face.
I hung on tight.
The man with the knife hurdled over the two of us and ran off into the trees behind us, pursued by a pair of the policemen.
They’re welcome to him, I thought, even with their anti-stab vests. I’d been on the wrong end of a carving knife once before and had no wish to repeat the experience.
I released Tony’s legs and we clambered to our feet.
“What the hell were you doing,” Tony shouted at me, his face puce with rage. “I could have had him.”
“He’d have had you, more like,” I said. “Better to live to fight another day.”
Tony stood staring at me, his hands bunched into fists, adrenaline still coursing through his veins. I stared back at him.
Slowly he relaxed and his fingers uncurled.
“I suppose you’re right,” he said. “Thanks. But I’d have taken him down if I’d had a piece.”
“Tony, you’re no longer with the NYPD.”
As a younger man, Tony had been a cop, one of “New York’s Finest.”
“I can’t get my head round you Brits and guns. Not even your cops carry them. You’re just asking to get yourselves killed.”
I resisted pointing out to him that in the previous ten years only a handful of British police officers had been killed on duty whereas hundreds of American cops had died in the same period.
The two remaining police officers arrested the shorter of the men and were applying handcuffs to his wrists while relieving him of the package, which was then carefully enclosed in a plastic evidence bag.
Nigel had followed the police in his own car and was now standing to one side, watching. Tony and I went over to join him.
“Well done,” I said, slapping Nigel gently on the back.
“You’re certainly a cool one, and no mistake,” Nigel said, smiling at me. “It was as much I could do to stop the boys in blue turning up as soon as they knew the men had arrived.”
I smiled back at him. Nigel Green was a colleague of mine in the Integrity Department of the BHA—the British Horseracing Authority—and we had together spent several weeks setting up this operation after a tip-off. We had been surprised that the police had been so cooperative, agreeing to wait on a farm road with Nigel until I called them in. Word of our past successes, when they alone had previously failed, had clearly filtered up to the powers that be.
“Damn right, he’s cool,” Tony said. “Nerves of steel. I’d have called the cops in far sooner.”
“I’m not cool,” I said jokily. “At least, not in that sense.” In temperature terms, I was extremely cool, and very wet. I shivered. “If the posse had turned up before the package was handed over, we wouldn’t have been able to implicate both men. That’s all.”
“Do you think those guys will get their man?” Tony asked in his rich New York accent, looking over his shoulder toward the woods.
“Eventually,” I said. “If not today, then sometime soon. I have all the evidence we need on disk.” I tapped the binoculars/camera around my neck.
The arrested man was frog-marched past us toward the police cars by the two tall officers who made him look even smaller than he actually was.
He stared at me with hatred in his eyes.
“Hinkley, you’re a bastard.” He said it with feeling.
“You shouldn’t get mixed up with drugs, Jimmy,” I said.
The man was placed in the back of the police car.
“He knows you, then?” Tony said to me.
“Indeed he does,” I said. “Jimmy and I have crossed swords before.”
Jimmy Robinson was a jockey—quite a good jockey—who had previously tested positive for cocaine and been banned from riding for six months as a result. That had been two years ago, but he had clearly not learned his lesson.
“I thought you always worked undercover.”
“I used to, but things change.”
It was a consequence of being a long time on the job. When I’d first started as an investigator at the BHA, fresh out of the army, I worked my entire time incognito, often using false beards and glasses to ensure that, even if I were seen, no one would recognize me again. But gradually, over time, my name and face were slowly put together by the racing fraternity and my covert work was now limited, although I could still occasionally get away with it, provided I employed some of my more elaborate disguises.
It was a situation I was not happy with. I had enjoyed living in the shadows rather than in the spotlight.
For some time I had even considered leaving the BHA altogether, packing up and moving abroad, possibly to Australia, to start again where my face was unknown.
The two policemen returned from the woods empty-handed, which didn’t please Tony.
“They should have caught him,” he said to me. “Your cops need to be fitter.”
I thought that was rather rich, coming from him. Tony could hardly run fast enough to catch a cold. He had clearly put on far more than the odd pound since his days on the force.
“We’ll have to call the dogs out,” one of the policemen said. “They’ll soon find him.”
“Get a helicopter up,” Tony said almost as an order.
The policeman shook his head. “No point. Even their heat-seeking cameras can’t see through that lot.”
I looked past him into the trees. It was, in fact, more of a plantation than a natural wood with evergreen firs, standing cheek by jowl for as far as I could see, which wasn’t very far at all due to a lack of illumination beneath the trees. If visible light couldn’t penetrate the cover, it was no surprise that infrared would be unable to do so either.
“Do you need us anymore?” I asked.
“Not here,” said the senior officer. “But you will each need to give a statement concerning this operation. Can you do that on a Section 9 form?”
“No problem,” I said. “I have one on my laptop.”
Section 9 of the UK Criminal Justice Act 1967 allowed written statements to be accepted by a court as evidence, provided they obeyed certain conditions. The Section 9 form wasn’t absolutely essential, but it contained the necessary declarations of truthfulness and I was happy to oblige. The police had been uncharacteristically helpful so far and I had no wish to upset them.
“Come on, Tony,” I said. “Let’s go home.”
Tony was my shadow, as he had been for the past two and a half weeks. His official title was Deputy Director at the Federal Anti-Corruption in Sports Agency (FACSA), based in Washington, D.C., and he was on a fact-finding mission to the UK to learn how the Integrity Department operated at the BHA.
He and I had instantly liked each other, and I had enjoyed having him around, while he, in turn, had developed a love for British steeplechasing, and especially for the Grand National.
Ten days previously, Tony and I had traveled north by train from London to Liverpool for the big race.
He couldn’t get over the excitement that a single jumping race could generate in the population as a whole, with everyone discussing the relative merits of the forty runners and every workplace running its own sweepstake.
“At home in the States, steeplechase racing is mostly a small-town affair run by farmers out in the boondocks. You’d be lucky to have more than a couple of tents in a field somewhere with some temporary bleachers. Nothing like this.” He had waved his hand expansively at Aintree’s towering grandstands and the impressive media center.
“Over seventy thousand will be here today,” I’d said as Tony had shaken his head in disbelief, “with tens of millions more watching live on television.”
And the Grand National itself had certainly lived up to all the hype, with the eight-to-one favorite catching the longtime leader on the line to win by a nose in a photo finish.
“Amazing,” Tony had said repeatedly as the victor was loudly cheered all the way to the winner’s circle flanked by two police horses. “Is all your jump racing like this?”
“No,” I’d said, laughing. “You should try a wet winter Wednesday at Hexham. Two men and a dog, if you’re lucky.”
I had gone to the National not for any specific reason but simply to watch and listen, to gather intelligence and, maybe, to defuse any trouble before it started. At least, that is what I’d told myself, although I had mostly wanted to show off one of the great showpieces of British racing to my American guest.
He had not been disappointed.
Back in the rest area, a police van arrived with a pair of vicious-looking German shepherds barking loudly through the rear windows.
Nigel, Tony and I stood watching as the excited, snarling dogs were removed from the vehicle by their handler, a mountain of a man with hands as large as any I had ever seen. He crouched down to cuddle each dog, in turn, allowing them to nuzzle their snouts into his neck, sharp teeth and all.
Rather him than me, I thought.
After this moment of tenderness, it was time for work.
The dogs were first taken over to the car that belonged to the fugitive and given a few moments to register his scent. Then they were off into the woods, the strain on their leads almost pulling over the handler. A smaller man would have had no chance.
“I’m glad I’m not the one they’re chasing,” Nigel said. “Did you see those bloody fangs?”
We all laughed, but with a slight nervousness—it was really no joking matter.
“I’ll miss all this excitement,” Tony said to us with a smile as we climbed into Nigel’s car. “I’m back to being stuck at my boring desk next Monday.”
“Don’t you get out into the field at all?” I asked.
“Not much anymore. I’m getting too old. And too fat.” He guffawed loudly and clasped his hands around his substantial midriff. “Nowadays, I have a team of young pups like you to do all my legwork.”
He remained unusually quiet and pensive all the way back to London, a smile never leaving his face. He didn’t elaborate on what was occupying his mind and I didn’t press him. He would tell me if he wanted to.
He didn’t. Not then anyhow.