Written by Felix Francis — Carrying on his father’s series of horse racing mysteries from the year 2000 – when Dick Francis retired – Felix Francis has fallen into a perfect gallop with them. Triple Crown is his fifth novel writing solo, after having co-written several with his father. This time, he takes us to the US where three-year-olds race for one of the world’s most famous equestrian trophies, the Triple Crown.
Francis effectively captures the excitement, behind-the-scenes anxiety, traditions, and pageantry of these iconic meets. The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs is the first of them, and the most prestigious. The Preakness Stakes at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course is the oldest, dating back to 1873. The mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes at New York’s Belmont Park, which always takes place five weeks after the Derby, is the most demanding – an insurmountable hurdle in many Triple Crown quests.
However, the story begins in England, where protagonist and narrator Jefferson Hinkley is an investigator for the British Horseracing Authority. He meets a US observer from the fictional Federal Anti-Corruption in Sports Agency (FACSA), there to see how Hinkley works. He likes what he sees and invites Hinkley to the States on a secret mission to identify a mole in the agency. Horse owners and trainers are being tipped off before FACSA raids. Hinkley misses his adrenaline-fueled days working undercover and is grateful for the change of pace.
A few days before the Kentucky Derby, the timing of a FACSA raid on barns at Churchill Downs is moved up several days, surprising even the agents and certainly the suspect trainer, who is shot dead. Moments later, two huge vans arrive by prearrangement to take the horses to a distant stables. If there are no horses, no doping tests can be performed… the mole is still at work.
Two Derby favourites come down with equine influenza, an unusual infection among thoroughbreds. This leaves only one favourite, Fire Point, who wins. To speed up his investigation, Hinkley goes underground, posing as an Irish groom, and is hired by Fire Point’s trainer at his Belmont Park stables. Oddly, since Francis is from the UK, Hinkley’s speech doesn’t seem especially British, nor particularly Irish in word choice or rhythm when he’s impersonating the groom.
At the Preakness Stakes, Fire Point’s main competitor doesn’t run as expected, and Hinkley is pretty sure why. There isn’t much mystery as to who is tampering with the horses and how they’re doing it – the author provides a clue as big as Secretariat’s legendary 31-length win in the Belmont Stakes. Nor is it a question of motive. Any Triple Crown winner will generate many millions in stud fees, well beyond his potential racing purses. But if a horse has had equine influenza, his stud career is over before it starts.
Francis’s plot effortlessly and admirably engages the ticking clock device that has become such a staple of thrillers, because the time period between the Triple Crown races is firmly established. The rapidly approaching Belmont Stakes means some of the world’s most valuable equine athletes are at risk. And that mole is still out there.
In an unconvincing subplot, a young Puerto Rican hot-walker is attracted to Hinkley until her over-protective cousin goes on the attack. However, his fellow groom’s hostility adds to Hinkley’s unease as he works around the barns, where he’s under near-constant observation. Then there’s the risk he’ll be recognised and outed, and he is well aware of the lengths to which people will go to make sure Fire Point becomes a Triple Crown winner.
If you liked Francis’s other novels, such as Front Runner, or enjoyed former jockey AP McCoy’s Taking the Fall, or if you just love the pulse-pounding Sport of Kings, you should enjoy this latest entrant in a storied bloodline.
Simon & Schuster
CFL Rating: 4 Stars