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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.”
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.
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.