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DVD Review: The Dick Francis Thriller – The Racing Game

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The Racing Game is an unusual television mystery series that started life as a book from author Dick Francis. The first episode in the series was base on Francis's book Odds Against (originally released in 1965, it was the fourth in the line of Francis's best sellers). The author then wrote five more episodes that eventually found their way to becoming three more books based the main character.

Dick Francis began his second career as an author in 1957. From 1953 to 1957 he was a jockey for Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mother. During this span of time he won over 350 races as a steeplechase jockey. He was so good that in 1956 he rode the Queen Mother's horse Devon Loch in the Grand National. Unfortunately for Francis, the horse unexpectedly fell. A year later, he was forced to retire due to another serious fall.

His first book was his autobiography, The Sport of Queens, which led him to become a racing correspondent for the London Sunday Express. He did this for the next 16 years. In 1962 he published his first thriller Dead Cert. Over the course of the next 38 years he published a book a year, until the death of his wife Mary in 2000; she is credited with researching much of the background information. He wrote no other books until 2006's Under Orders and 2007's Dead Heat which was co-written with his son Felix.

The main character in the story Odds Against is Sid Halley. Sid is a steeplechase jockey who took a bad fall and sustained an injury that resulted in the amputation of his arm. Wallowing in a depressed state, he is drawn into investigating a series of suspicious accidents at the track. With the help of his friend Chico Barns, he reinvents himself as a detective.

I have read at least 14 of Dick Francis's books including all four of the Sid Halley books, which I consider some of my favorites. Having never seen the 1980 series, when I heard about the re-release of the DVD, I decided to check it out.

In the series, Sid Halley is played by Mike Gwilym, and Chico Barns by Mick Ford. From the opening credits of "Odds Against" I could tell that this was from the late seventies or early eighties – there is just something about the music. This first episode lays the groundwork for the rest by introducing the characters and their situations in life.

Each of the others follows the progress of Sid, his becoming a private detective, and how he deals with the lack of an arm. He has to learn to cope with his own thoughts, what others think, and figure out how to use his prosthetic arm. Each episode works by itself and some of the plot points were used again by Francis in his writing.

This is definitely late '70s/early '80s-style television. There is a graininess to the film and the style of music is reminiscent of Charlie's Angels.

Having read the Francis stories, my first take on watching "Odds Against" was that the character of Sid Halley was all wrong. It did not seem like the character that I had imagined, but I quickly bought into Gwilym's portrayal.

The remaining five stories written for the show include:

• "Trackdown" – Sid gets a new prosthetic hand. He and Chico investigate why a winning horse keeps losing to long shots.

• "Gambling Lady" – Sid travels to Milan to discover the truth about the death of a valuable horse and an insurance scam.

• "Horses for Courses" – Sid and Chico discover a complex scheme for fixing bets.

• "Horsenap" – A famous retired race horse is kidnapped and the crime is linked to a to a man in prison who claims he is innocent.

• "Needle" – When a syringe is discovered outside the stable of a promising colt, new issues come to light about why horses that are favored to win are running poorly.

While there are some quality issues transferring a 1980 television series directly to DVD; the technical quality of the time being moved to the technical quality of today, I think that The Dick Francis Thriller – The Racing Game is pulled off quite well. In their defense, it is noted on the outer box about the limited ability they had to correct these technical problems. Sure there is some graininess and some sound quality problems, but they quickly fall to the background as you become immersed in the story.

The one thing that is missing is that other than a biography of Dick Francis, there are no extras on this DVD. It contains two discs, runs around 308 minutes, is 4:3 full screen, and is in full color. Being a Dick Francis fan, I can say that I genuinely enjoyed this series. It was well done and outside of being a bit dated, was thoroughly entertaining. If you enjoy mysteries, Dick Francis novels, or just want to be entertained, I can easily recommend this set.

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About T. Michael Testi

Photographer, writer, software engineer, educator, and maker of fine images.