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Archive for September, 2012

This article is dedicated to the mystery and magic of a thoroughbred champion. As well, it is dedicated to the racing spirit of Ann-Maree Matthews, at whose request I wrote it.

 

This is Germany’s diminutive — at slightly over 15h — superstar, doing what she does best: humbling every colt in the field, with the exception of the gallant Nathaniel.

In Australia, turf discourse affectionately substitutes “pony” for a thoroughbred horse of either sex. Whereas Black Caviar is clearly not a pony, as far as her statuesque height goes, Danedream really is. She’s certainly not the first pony-sized thoroughbred to become a superstar, nor is she even invincible at current statistics of 17-8-0-4, but Danedream certainly has overcome her size and even her defeats with a quartet of Group 1 victories, including the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes (shown above) over the last two years. All of them were run at distances of over 1 mile 4f, and all were run against colts.

Danedream just moments after her birth with her dam, Danedrop. Photo and copyright, Frank Sorge.

The beautiful Lomitas, Danedream’s sire, a turf champion who rose to become a German folk hero. Lomitas died in 2010 of complications from colic surgery.

Danedream’s story begins at the turn of the last century in France. In 1914, famous owner-breeder Marcel Boussac bought an interest in a mare called Diana Vernon, whose family plays a pivotal role in the arrival of the tiny filly foal who would conquer the 2011 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Over a period of 50 years and 12 generations of thoroughbreds descended from her, Diana Vernon’s family would reward Boussac’s fine investment with some handsome payoffs, notably in the form of 1974 Prix Lupin winner and top French 3 year-old, Dankaro and the mare Coronation V, a daughter of Djebel ex. Esmerelda, a great granddaughter of Diana Vernon, who won the 1949 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe for Boussac.

Coronation V wins the Arc for owner-breeder Boussac in 1949.

Boussac was committed to “extreme” line-breeding and the stallion, Tourbillon, was both the sire and broodmare sire of the filly, Coronation V.

Marcel Boussac was a fabulously wealthy industrialist with a passion for breeding and racing thoroughbreds. Boussac turned his passion into buying and breeding an array of thoroughbred champions. He is seen here leading in his 1950 Epsom Derby winner, Galcador. Among other claims-to-fame, it was Boussac who acquired the Triple Crown winner, Whirlaway and Boussac who sold the American foundation mare, La Troienne, to Edward R. Bradley.

Danedrop’s filly foal also descended from a branch of Diana Vernon’s family, beginning with Esmeralda’s half-sister, Geranium (1941). A daughter of Mahmoud, and a great grandaughter of Diana Vernon on the bottom of her pedigree, Geranium — another Boussac home-bred — only produced one offspring, a daughter of Pharis named Monrovia (1948). Through Monrovia, we arrive at the mare Lady Berry, a prodigious producer whose blood, like that of Pretty Polly’s, flowed down through generations.  A daughter, Featherhill, is great- grandam to Group 1 winner, Plumania. Another daughter, Sea Hill (Seattle Slew) produced the very good colt, Legerete. Rose BonBon (1984), by High Top, met up with the prepotent Danehill. The result was Danedrop.

The year before Danedream’s arrival, her dam had produced Danestar (2007), whose grandsire was the excellent Machiavellian. Danestar earned over a half million in his racing career, but was the only progeny of note out of four foals. In fact, the mare changed hands several times before Danedream was foaled, culminating in her recent purchase by the canny Coolmore “lads.” But in Danedream, the Danehill-Lomitas nick has proved to be loaded with endowments, although it would take someone with a sharp eye to see it. Or maybe not.

After all, Danehill was an enormously important sire whose premature loss to Coolmore, in a tragic paddock accident, is likely one of the worst breeding disasters the enterprise has ever sustained. A son of the brilliant Danzig, Danehill remains the first stallion to sire 347 stakes winners, 14% of his total get. As well, he was the leading Australian sire for 9 consecutive years, the leading sire in Great Britain for 3 years and in France for two. Suffice it to say that any thoroughbred with Danehill as a BM sire is going to get attention in the sales ring.

Lomitas (pronounced low-me-tis) is Danedream’s sire. Germany’s champion at 2 and again at 3, as well as its champion juvenile sire in 1998, Lomitas’ stirring narrative deserves to be a Hollywood movie.

Lomitas and Monty Roberts were to become best friends, when America’s “horse whisperer” was called in to deal with a terrorized colt.

Although he won two races at 2 and made it clear that he was a champion in the making, Lomitas developed a terror of the starting gate. So terrified was the grandson of Nijinsky that he was actually banned from racing, after taking 30 minutes to load and savaging those who struggled to load him. Walter Jacobs, owner of  Gestut Fahrhof (excuse the lack of proper punctuation over the u and a) brought in American horse whisperer, Monty Roberts, who concluded that the colt was claustrophobic. As you might expect, Roberts solved the “Lomitas problem” and, in so doing, fell in love with him.

“Before Monty”: struggling to load Lomitas. Photo and copyright, Monty Roberts.

If this drama was not enough, as a 4 year-old Lomitas had to be sent into hiding.

In 1991, after a 4-length win at Hamburg, his owner received a letter demanding a huge amount of money. Should the money not be delivered, Lomitas would be killed. Guards were stationed around the clock to protect him and, as winter progressed, Lomitas’ connections began to feel that the crisis had been averted.

In 1983, the Irish champion, Shergar, had been kidnapped and was never seen again. The likely murder of the gentle champion — whose kidnapping remains unsolved to this day — would never be forgotten. The parallel must have shaken Jacobs, since Lomitas had become a German racing hero just as Shergar had stolen the hearts of the Irish, making the connection to the latter’s fate even more striking.

In his next appearance, the Düsseldorf Group 1 ” Preis der Berliner Bank, ” a race he had won easily as a three-year-old, Lomitas seemed unusually dulled, as was his coat, and he ran listlessly. The next day, another letter arrived, stating that the horse’s loss was proof that he could be “gotten at”  any time and that this should be considered a warning. Subsequent examination by vets found poison in Lomitas’ system.

It was then that Walter Jacobs’ asked his horse’s faithful groom, Simon Stokes, to accompany Lomitas into exile and Monty Roberts contacted the famous British ex-jockey, Lester Piggott, to ask if the horse could stay at his stables in the UK. The next day, accompanied by an armed guard, Lomitas and Stokes boarded a plane bound for England. Once in Piggott’s stable, Lomitas was given a different, temporary name.

Easily one of the greatest jockeys ever, Lester Piggott was the first to provide Lomitas and Simon Stokes with a “home away from home.”

Lomitas thrived under Stokes’ care, but he was also a race horse and cantering over field and plain was not really a suitable replacement to the call of the turf. But racing Lomitas in England was deemed too risky. Instead, arrangements were again made through Monty Roberts to deliver Jacobs’ champion to HOF trainer, Ron McAnally (trainer of the greats, notably John Henry, Paseana and Bayakoa). But the horse never really rebounded from his last start, losing two races in California. Finally, after spending some time at Monty Roberts’ ranch, Lomitas flew back to Germany to commence stallion duties, at which he was to prove a success. As well, it is accurate to say that without Monty Roberts’ critical intervention on behalf of her sire, little Danedream might never have become.

In 2009 Lomitas’ still unnamed yearling daughter was offered at auction, where she was purchased by Heiko Voltz who, with trainer Peter Schiergen, thought she might be promising enough to “have some fun with.” German racing was failing and prospective owners were unwilling to spend a fortune on thoroughbreds; as well, it was less than a year after “the crash heard around the world,” and investors worldwide were in a conservative mood. No surprise then that Voltz managed to secure the little bay filly with the blaze and snip and one white stocking for slightly over $11,000 USD.

Danedream and her regular exercise rider, Cynthia Atasoy.

It was clear to Schiergen that the newly-christened Danedream had speed, but she got off to a rather slow start as a 2 year-old, a bit like her sire had done over 2 decades earlier. Even though she didn’t dazzle, her trainer recognized her honesty and cultivated her stamina. In the final race of her juvenile season, Danedream had shown a smart turn of foot to finish first, only to be DQ’d to third.

Here is Danedream winning her maiden at Wissembourg, considered an “easy contest” by Schiergen. Watch for her on the lead (orange silks).

Her 2011 campaign kicked off with a second in the Derby Italiano, but Danedream came back to take the Italian Oaks impressively from a tough competitor, Good Karma. As a 3 year-old, Danedream was stronger and more confident. She could rate and then move out speedily when asked. And she was starting to show a big, big heart and the determination a thoroughbred needs to win.

Next, she was off to beat up the boys in the Grosser Preis von Berlin (Group 1), followed by another win in the Grosser Preis von Baden.

That did it. German racing fans woke up to find that they had a little champion in their midst.

Danedream represented the fulfilment of hopes and dreams to more than just her racing family and fans. Lomitas’ owner, Walter Jacobs’  — in a kind of exquisite irony — was responsible for refurbishing the Baden-Baden racing facility that was the scene of Danedream’s pre-Arc triumph. One can only imagine the tremendous pride he must have felt watching Lomitas’ daughter bring its luscious turf and sparkling grandstand to life.

Danedream sweeps to victory in the 2011 Longines Grosser Preis von Baden, to the roar of her fans.

The Baden-Baden win was her last race before the champion filly shipped to France for a try in the coveted Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Also running in the Arc were the Australian champion, So You Think (now running for Coolmore) and Juddmonte’s brilliant Workforce, winner of the Epsom Derby in record time (in only his third start) and the 2010 Arc winner. As well, Coolmore ran the Irish Derby winner, Treasure Beach, and the game St. Nicholas Abbey. Too, there were the excellent fillies Snow Fairy (who had finished a 1/2 length behind the winner, So You Think, in her last outing), Shareta (a daughter of the great Sindar and a very competent runner) and Sarafina (who had finished a short 2 1/4 lengths behind Workforce in 2010). Rounding out the field were Reliable Man ( winner of 4 of his last 5 starts), Goldikova’s sister, Galikova, John Gosden’s Masked Marvel (Montjeu), as well as Testosterone, Meandre, Silver Pond and two from Japan, Nakayama Festa (Stay Gold) and Hiruno d’Amour.

Danedream had to be supplemented to run in the Arc, despite her growing reputation as a 3 year-old. However, a shrewd Teruya Yoshida, owner of the Shadai Stallion Station in Japan, bought a half-interest in the mare prior to the race.

The day of October 2, 2011 dawned bright, with an autumnal snap in the air. The Longchamps turf was deemed “good.”

Danedream and her jockey, Andrasch Starke, go down to the post of the 2011 Arc. Note the mare’s form. Horses who “get down” in this way (i.e. close to the ground) are able to cut through the resistance to the body posed by the speed at which horses travel, allowing them to conserve valuable energy.

Danedream went down to the post at odds of 27-1. The field she was about to face was one of the deepest seen at Longchamps for decades. In Germany, they held their breath. And Danedream’s owner and trainer dared to hope that their game little filly would crown her 3 year-old campaign with a win in the world’s most esteemed race ……

“…But the bird has flown.” And indeed, she did. Looking more like a greyhound than a horse, Danedream loped to a 5-length win, breaking the record held by Peintre Celebre in 1997, to become only the second German-trained thoroughbred to ever win the Arc.

For her trainer, himself a champion jockey whose 273 wins in a single season remain a European record, as well as for the jockey who had been with her from the very beginning, Andrasch Starke, it really was a dream come true. Of her effort, Starke said, “… She made a fabulous burst when I asked her to give it her all. The acceleration was worthy of a very, very great filly.”

You’d never know from their excitement that Danedream, not being French-bred, hadn’t earned a dime of prize money for her stupendous effort.

Coming home in her wake were two other great fillies: Shareta, followed by Snow Fairy. So You Think ran a brilliant race, coming from almost dead-last to take fourth place.

Danedream hits the wire, 5 lengths ahead of the rest of the field. Photo and copyright, The Racing Post.

Wearing the blanket of honour, little Danedream suddenly looks like a much bigger filly!

It should have been enough.

But possibly based on pressure from part-owner, Yoshida, Danedream shipped to Japan in November to try her luck in the prestigious Japan Cup. Winning it would have made history, making her the first thoroughbred to ever take both the Arc and the Japan Cup.

But it was not to be.

A recent shot of Danedream depicts her as a long, lean running machine.

Returning to Germany, Danedream was crowned their 2011 Horse of the Year.

Danedream has the look of her sire, Lomitas. Germany’s 2011 Horse of the Year ignited a passion for thoroughbred racing that had been lost for over a decade in her homeland.

In 2012 as a 4 year-old, Danedream has had a testing but judicious campaign, leading up to a defence of her 2011 Arc win in October. She began by winning the Grosser Preis der Badischen Unternehmer at Baden-Baden. She then ran fourth in the prestigious Grand Prix de Saint Cloud in France. This was followed by an impressive win against Nathaniel, the only thoroughbred to ever have really challenged the incomparable Frankel, in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth  (shown at the beginning of this article). As was true in 2011, Danedream’s last pre-Arc prep was a second consecutive victory in the Grosser Preis von Baden.

Carried wide in the final stages, the mare seemed to just squeak by to win, but trainer Schiergen confided that the idea was only to give Danedream a “bit of a run” without emptying the tank. In the footage below, viewers can see the mare’s running style to good advantage as she defeats Ovambo Queen, Girolamo and Pastorious.

This year’s Arc will be her second to last start. But Danedream really has nothing left to prove. Given the field she left behind in last year’s Arc, Danedream could have retired right then and there, and still be considered one of the best thoroughbreds ever on the international stage. Without question, she is the greatest German thoroughbred of her sex and one of the all-time greats of German thoroughbred racing.

Her final race is to be the 2012 Japan Cup. Then — sadly for her fans — Danedream will be retired and sent to Japan’s Shadai Stallion Station. At the time of this writing, it is unclear whether or not this great, great mare will ever be sent to stallions outside of Japan.

Portrait of a champion, with her racing family.

In this year’s Arc, Danedream lines up against the likes of Nathaniel (whom she narrowly defeated at Ascot earlier this year) and Japan’s Triple Crown winner, the mighty Orfevre. Snow Fairy is also slated to run, should the turf be to her trainer’s liking, as well as returning runners Shareta, Reliable Man, St. Nicholas Abbey and Meandre. Pastorius, who finshed third to Danedream at Baden-Baden earlier this year, Imperial Monarch (Coolmore’s impressive 3 year-old son of Galileo, who has already run at Longchamps with success, but will be pulled should Camelot run), Sea Moon, Al Kazeem, Novellist (the other German-based horse in the field), Last Train and Saonois complete the field. Whether or not Camelot will indeed run has yet to be announced.

As of today, Danedream starts as one of two favourites. The other is Orfevre, with Camelot and Snow Fairy coming in as second and third choice, respectively.

On October 7th, run on heart little lady.

For when wishes are horses, then you, Danedream, will always lead the herd.

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When I write I try to get under the surface of mere facts to weave a story. But as I delved into the extant articles about him, I discovered that there is very little out there about Battleship, even though he is, without question, one of Man O’ War’s most accomplished offspring. Facts related to him are not only scant, they are downright sparse. 

Since Battleship was a steeplechaser rather than a runner on the flat, it seems that he was easier to forget. Even looking back at newspaper reports of the day, one is struck by their brevity and lack of genuine interest, as though his steeplechase credentials were somehow second-best to those of traditional turf champions.

As I continued to research, I came across the news that author Dorothy Ours (who wrote the most recent book about Man O’ War) is now working on a book about Battleship. Apparently, she has devoted two years or more to just doing the research, a retrieval that is, in every sense, akin to an archeological dig.

I was delighted to learn that Ours is piecing the fragments of Battleship’s story together into a coherent and definitive narrative, since he is one of the truly great figures of the thoroughbred pantheon. Small of stature he may have been, but Battleship carried Man O’ War’s heart — and did it proud. 

Battleship was Man O’ War’s best steeplechase son. In this shot, it is possible to see his likeness to his sire, especially through the head and heart.

Beginning at the end of the nineteenth century, chasing, hurdling and steeplechasing in the United States enjoyed much the same popularity as it did in the United Kingdom (UK). Although the roots of National Hunt racing lie in eighteenth-century Ireland, where it rapidly became a popular mainstream sport, in the USA chasing was more associated with the accoutrements of post-colonialism.

Despite the association with colonial days and elitism, “the chasers” in the USA were certainly not neglected in the early days. As a guideline, consider that in their tome, Thoroughbred Types 1900-1925, Vosburgh, Lanier, Bryan and Cooley devote 85 pages to steeplechase and cross country thoroughbreds, a little less than a third of the volume. Their names are long forgotten — Grandpa, Good And Plenty, Cherry Malotte, Kintore, Herculoid, River Breeze, Algoma, Sally Combs, The Virginian — but these horses were fearless competitors, winning the Maryland Hunt, the American Grand National and other races. And, as the authors point out, few of these great thoroughbreds ever ” (went) down.”

(Whether here or “across the pond,” each type of National Hunt race has its own features. A hurdle race, for example, typically involves a minimum of 8 hurdles over 3.5 feet high and is run over a distance of at least 2 miles. On the other hand, a chase involves horses jumping fences of 4.5 feet minimum and courses that range from 2 – 4.5 miles. In both the USA and the UK, the steeplechase is restricted to thoroughbreds that have a hunter certificate. The most famous steeplechase in the UK is the Grand National; in the USA, the American Grand National shares the stage with the Maryland Hunt Cup, even though the latter isn’t a steeplechase, but a hunt, or chase.)

….As our story opens, National Hunt racing in the USA is a little less than a decade away from a crisis point, largely caused by the association of the sport with the monied class. Critics of the day, like John “Salvator” Hervey, noted that this “inner sanctum” seemed less interested in defending their sport than they were in socializing, and largely failed to defend the abolishment of what some saw as a barbaric practice. There were other problems, too: a failure to stagger hunting and steeplechasing events, so that they didn’t run at the same time; the reduction of purse money in major races; a perceived lack of competent horses; and the monopoly of the sport by a small number of stables. It was quite ironic to find National Hunt racing in this pickle: in 1908, when the Hart-Agnew Act shut down racetrack wagering and plunged flat racing into chaos, it was steeplechasing and other types of jump racing that kept racetracks like Belmont and Pimlico open.

It is into this world, on  March 19, 1927, that a chestnut colt-foal was born to a mare named Quarantaine (1915) at Walter J. Salmon’s Mereworth Farm, in Kentucky. The little fellow was to be his dam’s last foal and hopes for his future were high — he was a son of the mighty Man O’ War, out of a mare who was a proven producer.

Salmon had imported the mare from France in 1924. At that time, Quarantaine had already produced four brilliant fillies: Mademoiselle de Montigny; Quoi, winner of the Prix de Diane (Gr.1) (French Oaks) and the Prix Vermeille (Gr. 1) and grandam of En Fraude, winner of the Prix de Diane in 1937 and champion 3 year-old in France, as well as the producers Quarantola and Quine IV. Prior to the arrival of her last foal, Quarantaine had given Mereworth the winner Indian Corn, as well as a filly, Quarante, who would go on to become the dam of the good steeplechaser, Santi Quaranti.

In the thoroughbred world of the early twentieth century Walter J. Salmon was a giant. A New York real estate developer by profession, Salmon’s capacity to breed winning thoroughbreds at his Mereworth Farm was already established by the time Quarantaine arrived there. Mereworth had raced Preakness winner Display, whose son, Discovery, was bred by Salmon at Mereworth. Display was one of three colts who won the Preakness for Salmon; the other two were Dr. Freeland and Vigil. Discovery raced for Alfred Vanderbilt in the 1930’s and was a hardy competitor. But, significantly for Salmon’s reputation as a canny breeder, Discovery went on to become the broodmare sire of both Native Dancer and Bold Ruler.

Alfred G. Vanderbilt’s champion, Discovery, at work during his racing career. Copyright The Baltimore Sun.

Salmon was considerably interested in the early genetic theories of one Dr. Harry Laughlin, whom he subsidized for well over $75,000 between 1923-1932 to come up with the genetic traits of winning thoroughbreds, using Mereworth stock as the basis for his research. In collaboration with Laughlin, Salmon bred Discovery and arranged to have Quarantaine sent to Man O’ War. In the latter case, the aim was to produce an individual who would carry important influences from American, French and British bloodstock.

The little chestnut, who was named Battleship, was tiny. As a result, he made his first start at Bowie Race Track late in his two year-old season, finishing well back in the pack. But in his second attempt, this time at Keeney Park in Florida, Battleship won over a big field of non-winners in a 6f. race. At 3, the colt raced eight times, winning three, the most prestigious being the James Rowe Memorial Handicap. He finished in second place twice. After his victory in the James Rowe, Salmon decided to enter the colt in more prestigious races. But Battleship returned a non-winner from the Chesapeake Trial Purse at Havre de Grace with an injury to his right front foreleg.

The injury proved difficult to overcome and, despite the best of care, Battleship seemed to have gone lame. Then, in the context of a conference at the University of Kentucky on the use of X-ray plates as a diagnostic tool, Battleship was presented to the delegates as a case-in-point. In turn, when looking at his X-rays, the veterinarians concluded that Battleship had an incipient small ringbone at the coronet and that this could be overcome by trimming the toe of his hoof down and leaving the heel of the foot high. The latter could be accomplished with the support of a specially-designed shoe. Salmon implemented their recommendations and Battleship returned to the track as a 4 year-old, winning half of his 12 starts that year and bringing his career record to 22-10-2-3. His earnings of $18, 380 were respectable, but not spectacular. But when Battleship came up lame again at the end of the season, Salmon — with some regret — made the decision to sell him.

National Hunt racing was a very popular sport in the USA at the turn of the last century. This scene depicts the Maryland Hunt Club chase in 1928.

At about the same time, horsewoman Marion du Pont Scott was enjoying success in hunt and steeplechasing events with another son of Man O’ War, Annapolis. She let it be known that she was in the market for another horse who had shown some ability on the flat and had a similar pedigree.

Marion du Pont Scott, known as the First Lady of Racing, shown taking one of her horses over a jump. (Note that she’s riding side-saddle.)

The du Pont family lived on their Montpelier Estate in Virginia, once the home of the fourth American President, James Madison. William du Pont, the family’s powerful patriarch, was a business magnate; his daughter, Marion, had the means to pursue her passion for thoroughbreds as an owner and breeder. It was Marion and her brother, William du Pont Jr., who together designed many of the most famous venues of the National Hunt, notably the Fair Hill Natural Resources Area (on the site of the present Fair Hill), home to the National Steeplechase Association Headquarters and its Maryland race course, as well as Delaware Park (Delaware), Camden Race Course (South Carolina), home of the Carolina and Colonial Cup races and the Montpelier Steeplechase Hunt Races, which took place on the family estate.

Marion du Pont Scott’s horses competed in both National Hunt and flat racing under the nom de course, Montpelier Stable, wearing their owner’s French blue, dusky rose and silver silks. Other than Annapolis, Montpelier Stable campaigned Trouble Maker (winner of the arduous Maryland Hunt Cup in 1932), as well as the homebreds, Mongo (1963 American Champion Male Turf Horse), Soothsayer (1972 Eclipse Award, Steeplechase Horse) and Neji (thrice winner of the American Grand National and inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1966). Her last champion was the mare Proud Delta (1976 Eclipse Award, Champion Older Female).

A horse on a treadmill at the Marion du Pont Scott Equine Medical Center in Lees, Virginia, which du Pont Scott founded. Throughout her life, Marion du Pont Scott was an exceptionally generous supporter of thoroughbred racing.

So it was that Battleship found his way to Montpelier Stable late in 1931. Lame at the time of purchase, the colt was bought by du Pont Scott for $24,000 USD and it was agreed that she would only pay half at first, the balance being contingent on Battleship’s full rehabilitation and soundness for hunting/steeplechasing competition. For his part, Walter J. Salmon thought so much of his tough little colt that he negotiated to send 5 of his mares to Battleship, once he was retired. The colt was duly shipped to Noel Laing, who trained and rode many of du Pont Scott’s jumpers. Blacksmith J.E. Bell, of Middleburg VA.., was enlisted to see what he could do to relieve pressure on Battleship’s bothersome foreleg. It took 6 months for Bell, a master blacksmith, to come up with a combination of shoes and leathers that would help the chestnut recover his soundness. Thanks to Bell’s skill, this particular issue — which had effectively ended his racing career on the flat — was never to plague Battleship again.

Portrayed by noted author-illustrator, C. W. Anderson

Sound at last, the colt’s training over jumps could begin, and Laing proved a patient, skilled trainer. First, Battleship was asked to clear post-and-rail, foxhunter style, running with hunt clubs in the area. The 15.2 hand chestnut was no taller than some cobs, but he proved to be an astute learner — if a little too careful over the jumps. Initially, as his “gentleman” rider, Caroll K. Bassett joked, it seemed as though Battleship took as long as 16 minutes to negotiate a brush jump! (Laing was overseas, riding du Pont Scott’s Trouble Maker in the 1932 Grand National at Aintree.) Although Battleship came in third, Bassett was impressed at how high he jumped and the care he put into clearing each obstacle in his path. He told du Pont Scott that her Man O’ War colt was showing some promise in his new career.

What neither Bassett nor Laing may have known was that Battleship had always been the kind of individual who wanted to take his time. For this reason, he had earned the reputation of being lazy, since he had to be really pushed to do his best during his short career on the dirt. Nor was Battleship a “morning person” — although the colt never showed any sign of a mean streak, he was inclined to bite and kick if roused before he was ready.

Battleship is shown here in the lead in the Eastern Horse Club Steeplechase Handicap, 1933.

But despite these quirks of temperament, Battleship soon learned to jump faster and seemed his best over softer courses, like that at Belmont Park. In the Aiken Hunters Steeplechase at Belmont, arguably one of Battleship’s best races, the 6 year-old shone. He went flat out with a horse named Inception for the first 2 and 1/4 miles, to win comfortably. He repeated in the 1934 American Grand National at Belmont, over turf that was muddy and slick, carrying 147 lbs. to the veteran, Arc Light’s, 146.

American jump races were noted for their distance and difficulty, and like the demanding Maryland Hunt Cup, the American Grand National was a severe test of courage, jumping ability and stamina. Run over a distance of 2 1/2 miles, the steeplechase course featured towering jumps. Jumps that would have daunted a horse of fainter heart than Battleship.

But undaunted he was and, in the same year that saw him charge to victory in the American Grand National,  Marion du Pont Scott’s rising star also won the Malvern Hill Steeplechase at Richmond, the Billy Barton at Pimlico and two at Brookline, the National Hunt Cup and the Hunter’s Steeplechase. Battleship concluded his 7 year-old season with a record of 14 starts, 9 firsts and $ 11, 520 USD in prize money.

The little horse with the courage of a giant-killer, Battleship’s 6 year-old season was remarkable. He was victorious in the prestigious American Grand National at Belmont, despite carrying 147 lb. — an amount assigned at least partly on the basis of his being a stallion.

A steeplechase at Pimlico in 1932. Jump races kept traditional flat racing alive when racetrack betting was banned in 1908. Copyright, the Baltimore Sun.

Three weeks after his win in the American Grand National, Battleship was in light training under the guidance of Selby Burch when the colt developed a slight bow in the middle of a tendon. Burch and Marion du Pont Scott enjoyed an honest, open relationship and the latter made no secret of the fact that she was devoted to Battleship, rejoicing in his victories and applauding his effort. There was no point in challenging the horse gods, Burch knew, so Battleship was shipped back home to Montpelier and given a rest. There, a veterinarian was called in to examine the leg. Dr. McCarthy line-fired* it, while noting that Burch’s decision to suspend his training at the first sign of heat in the limb had spared Battleship still another potentially career-ending injury. (* In veterinary surgery, line-firing is a method of treating chronic inflammations, consisting in burning parallel lines in the skin, over the seat of inflammation, with a feather-edge firing-iron or thermocautery: used principally in cases of chronic tendinitis, spavin, etc., of the horse.)

The little warrior was given a lengthly sabbatical until the spring of 1936. During his recuperation, du Pont Scott began to explore the possibility of sending Battleship to England to compete in National Hunt events there, with the eventual goal of entering him in the 1937 Grand National at Aintree. She consulted extensively with trainer Reginald “Reggie” Hobbs, who had trained and/or prepped horses for her previously. Hobbs’ concern would have been concentrated on Battleship’s size: most National Hunt horses in the UK were in the range of 16-17 hands. However, du Pont Scott prevailed, albeit with the caveat that she would leave it up to Hobbs to decide whether or not her tough little stallion could handle the rigours of the UK’s most distinguished steeplechase. On July 24, 1936, Battleship and another son of Man O’ War in the Montpelier Stable, a gelding named War Vessel, were shipped to Hobbs’ stable in Lambourne, England.

Horses on “the gallops,” from one of Lambourne’s many racing stables.

Battleship with Reginald Hobbs’ 17 year-old son, Bruce, after a gallop. Copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

Once he’d had a look at him, Hobbs thought it best to acquaint Battleship with English hurdle races and chases, although he did nominate the diminutive stallion for the 1937 Grand National as well, at his owner’s insistence. Then he turned his attention to acclimatizing Battleship to a new environment and new people. Under Hobbs’ young son, Bruce, the thoroughbred was taken on “the gallops” over the Lambourne countryside, to toughen his constitution and build his stamina. It would appear, as well, that the horse and his exerciser formed a very solid relationship, since it was Bruce Hobbs who partnered Battleship through his 1936-37 campaign. They competed in what were called “park courses” — events staged in a similar fashion to what Battleship had known in the USA. Not surprisingly, the “American pony,” as he was fondly dubbed by the English, developed a modest fan following on the basis of his gameness — a determined winning spirit that seemed at least twice as great as his physical presence. The pony ran 18 times that year, with 5 wins and 2 seconds, to earn $5, 411.25 in purse money. It was a very respectable record for a horse who had sailed across an ocean to a brand new country only a short 11 months before.

Battleship (in white hood) shown competing in a chase held at Lingfield, England. Copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

By now, Hobbs Sr. had learned that he had a very gutsy competitor on his hands, but the trainer was still of the opinion that the daunting 4- mile  race at Aintree was more than his American pony should be asked to take on. Hobbs was even more convinced when the Grand National officials assigned Battleship a weight of 154 lbs., and the trainer officially withdrew him. The 1937 steeplechase was won by Royal Mail.

Royal Mail, the winner of the 1937 Grand National, would meet up with Battleship at Aintree in 1938. Copyright, the Chicago Tribune.

Royal Mail’s Grand National — he is shown here in the lead.

In 1937-38, Battleship took on nine park courses, winning only one. Even if he’d only managed a solitary win, Battleship was fit, happy and still competitive at the age of 11. Marion duPont Scott pressed Reginald Hobbs to run her horse in the 1938 Grand National. In the end, she got her own way.

Arriving in Liverpool, Battleship seemed to know that this would be “The Race” of his career. Normally a good doer, he sustained an attack of nerves that affected his digestive tract. Marion du Pont Scott had also arrived to see him race against the very best steeplechasers in the world. Outfitted in a black blinkered hood, with specially designed long reigns for his tall jockey and calks brazed into the sides of his aluminum plates, du Pont Scott’s champion prepared for battle.

America’s pony went to the start at odds of 40-1, carrying 160 lb. weight and 17 year-old Bruce Hobbs, the youngest jockey to ever compete in the Grand National. The only commentary his presence elicited was that he was an American horse, a son of the legendary Man O’ War. The other entries towered over him and Battleship indeed looked like a pony as the horses paraded before the grandstand. As far as competitors went, Battleship was up against Royal Mail, the previous year’s winner, Cooleen, who had finished a close second to Royal Mail in 1937, Workman, who would win the Grand National the following year and Royal Danieli, the thoroughbred who would push the tiny stallion to the edge of his endurance.

Cooleen, who had finished second to Royal Mail in 1937. Copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

Workman, Grand National winner in 1939 and the horse who was anticipated to win in 1938.

Royal Danieli, who ran with the leaders throughout the race and came calling on Battleship in the closing strides. Copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

The “American Pony,” Battleship. Copyright, The Chicago Tribune.

Originating in 1839, the Grand National is run over a distance of 4 miles, 4 furlongs. It comprises 30 fences, or jumps, that the horses are required to clear twice before the race is over, with the exception of two — The Chair and the Water Jump.  The majority of entries in any given year never reach the finish, due either to sheer fatigue or injury to jockey and/or horse. Becher’s Brook, The Chair and the Canal Turn are regarded as the most treacherous obstacles of the gruelling course, and rightly so: they have been the downfall of literally hundreds of horses and riders over the years. The “National,” as it is fondly called by the British, is as keenly contested as any revered flat race. Grand National winners like Golden Miller, Red Rum, Arkle and Best Mate are beloved in the UK, having triumphed over the greatest of adversity to become heroes in their own time.

Such was the challenge — and the expectation — for the chestnut son of Man O’ War.

Blue Shirt, the betting favourite, is shown “ditched” at one jump during the 1938 running of the Grand National. The horse behind him, at full extension, gives some idea of the breadth of this jump.

And now the scene is set.

Here’s the race, just as it happened, complete with voice over. Watch for Battleship, wearing the black hood, number 5. You’ll see him at the very beginning and then, off and on, throughout the race. At the last, note the little fellow’s size compared to Royal Danieli, as Battleship dashes to the wire on the near side of your screen.

(VIEWERS PLEASE NOTE: Horses and jockeys are shown going down in this footage, some with serious injuries.)

 

To summarize, Battleship was always forwardly placed and began to show the stuff he was made of about half of the way through the running, despite almost falling once. He was so completely determined to win, and so gallant, that young Bruce Hobbs’ whip was never out. It was as though Man O’ War’s son knew that he was racing into history and, close as the finish was, he did just that. And what a history! Battleship was the first American-bred and owned thoroughbred, and the smallest horse, to ever win the Grand National. He remains the only thoroughbred to ever win both the American Grand National and the British Grand National. And he was the last intact thoroughbred, i.e. a stallion, to win it. His jockey, Bruce Hobbs may have been over 6 feet tall, but at 17 years of age, he remains the youngest jockey to ever pilot a Grand National winner.

Battleship, in his menacing black hood, is in the lead the second time the horses jump the treacherous Becher’s Brook. Copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

Here we see Battleship just peeking through, towards the back of the photo. Look for the black hood and wrapped forelegs. Copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

After it was all over, Reginald Hobbs (black coat) comes to congratulate a courageous team. Bruce Hobbs is standing in the foreground, holding Battleship’s saddle. Photo courtesy of PAPHOTOOS.CO.UK

It is clear that Marion du Pont Scott loved her little chestnut long before his astounding victory at Aintree. But her emotions were such that she declined to join the throngs of admirers who accompanied Battleship into the winner’s circle.

The winner’s portrait. Reginald, “Reggie” Hobbs stands in the foreground and Battleship’s groom at the champion’s head.

You know you’re a British hero when you get your very own tobacco card!

Following a good rest, plans were made to ship Battleship home, where he would be paraded at the Foxcatcher meeting sponsored by William du Pont, Jr., Mrs. Scott’s brother, before being retired to stud at Montpelier with Annapolis and Lancegaye, the sire of Cavalcade. John “Salvator” Hervey reported that Battleship arrived home looking “…extremely well, weighed 1,040 lbs. possibly 50 lbs. over his weight in the National paddock.”

Going home! Reggie Hobbs spends time with Battleship aboard the luxury liner “Manhattan” on the voyage back to the USA. Copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

Battleship arrives home at the port in New York City on June 9, 1938. Not only his trainer, but also his jockey, Bruce Hobbs, made the crossing with him.

With Marion du Pont Scott and trainer, Reginald Hobbs, Battleship was given one public appearance before his retirement. Copyright, The Baltimore Sun.

 At stud, Battleship sired only 57 foals, largely due to the fact that he was viewed as a steeplechase stallion. Of these, he got three excellent jumpers: War Battle and Shipboard, steeplechase champions of 1947 and 1956, respectively, as well as the 1952 American Grand National winner, Sea Legs. However, these three were geldings and of his other progeny, none carried Battleship’s name forward.

The plucky little fellow remained a great favourite of his owner’s and was taken out under saddle for an hour each day until he became a very senior citizen. Battleship lived to the age of 31, dying in 1958. He was buried at Montpelier.

In 1969, Battleship was inducted into the American Hall of Fame.

War Battle.

Shipboard.

Reggie Hobbs sent out thank you’s to those who had applauded Battleship’s victory.

The final resting place of an American legend who accomplished a feat that no thoroughbred has been able to duplicate over the last 74 years.

The author is indebted to “American Race Horses 1938” by John “Salvator” Hervey, to author-illustrator C.W. Anderson and to the Daily Racing Form Archives, the Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun for making this article possible. A special thank-you to the fabulous “Mudmont” of the TVG Community.

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