Dorothy Ours’ nonfiction epic BATTLESHIP: A Daring Heiress, A Teenage Jockey and America’s Horse is about the 1930s-era Grand National champion horse Battleship, son of the legendary Man o’War. But before you can discuss eleven-year-old Battleship’s epic win at the British Grand National Steeplechase at Aintree, you need first to look at Battleship’s owner — Marion du Pont Scott — to see first why she believed in Battleship at all.
Marion du Pont was mad for horses from a very early age. Her brother loved horses, too, but her brother was allowed to sit on the du Pont corporation’s Board of Directors, while Marion (despite all her business acumen) was not due to her gender. Marion was a trailblazer in the horse racing industry for a number of reasons, partly because she trained many of her horses herself early on, and partly because she was an award-winning rider at a time very few women were active in the horse racing industry. Marion mostly rode astride, too, rather than sidesaddle, as she found it just wasn’t possible to accurately judge what her horse was able to do any other way.
Now, why did Marion du Pont get away with this? While her father’s fortune played a significant role in getting Marion’s foot solidly in the door as a judge of horseflesh, Marion’s own knowledge and willingness to learn was what kept her in the game.
Ours depicts Marion’s life with her first husband, Thomas Somerville, her second husband, film star Randolph Scott, and her later years after she divorced Scott, and shows her to be a modern women in just about every respect — a woman ahead of her time, for certain. Marion was ladylike, yes, and knew how to eat with royalty and all the other clichés told about the very wealthy, but she also keenly enjoyed the business of horse racing. And because of this, Marion was able to make herself a full-fledged career as an owner and breeder at a time very few women were able to do so.
The one constant in Marion’s life was horses. She loved them, loved horse racing of all sorts, on “the flats” (Belmont, the Preakness, the Kentucky Derby, etc.) and the steeplechases, including Aintree. She knew what types of horses were likely to do well at each type of event, and she wasn’t willing to give up on a horse she believed had more potential yet to be shown. Which is why she bought three important horses — Battleship, Annapolis (also out of Man o’War), and Trouble Maker — and entered them in various races.
Ours’ command of horse racing is formidable, but her researching ability is even better. Consider, please, that Ours had to go back to various newspaper clippings and whatever stock film footage was available in order to look at Battleship’s epic win — which was well-documented, as Battleship was the first-ever American-born and American-bred horse to win at Aintree. But she also looked and found a great deal of evidence of Annapolis’s career and the aforementioned Trouble Maker — a big bay gelding with a heart like a wheel and, as Ours depicts him, as game of a horse as may have ever raced. Trouble Maker won the 1932 Maryland Hunt Cup (the Grand National of American horse racing), and ran at Aintree in 1933 but did not win, instead finishing fifteenth.
In fact, Trouble Maker quite steals the show from Battleship in many respects, as Trouble Maker’s career was obviously what Marion du Pont Scott wanted for Battleship. Trouble Maker, while not in the United States Horse Racing Hall of Fame like Battleship or Man o’War, was a particularly good horse with a winning personality, a horse that would run all day for you whether he felt well or ill. And it’s a credit to Ours’ writing that when Trouble Maker takes a particularly hard fall after a jump during his last race, I just couldn’t help wishing he’d get up and finish as he’d done so many times before, even though I knew he was done for.
The teenage jockey who rode Battleship at Aintree was a young man by the name of Bruce Hobbs, who came from a legendary training family and was mad for horses from a particularly young age. Marion du Pont Scott liked him when she met him, and apparently felt he had steady hands and a very good feel for Battleship, a horse that needed careful handling by someone with steely nerves and an excellent grasp of how Battleship raced (saving something for the finishing kick was essential, as Battleship was definitely a strong finisher). And as Reg Hobbs, Bruce’s father, had the training of Battleship while Battleship was in England acclimatizing for his try at the Grand National at Aintree, well, Bruce riding Battleship was as close to a done deal as it ever gets in horse racing.
The whole story of the late-blooming Battleship, his owner Marion du Pont Scott, his jockey Bruce Hobbs, and all of the incredibly vibrant people surrounding them — not to mention the incredibly vibrant horse Trouble Maker — is well worth reading. It’s cinematic in scope, rich in depth and nuance, and absolutely wonderful to behold.
Bottom line? If you love horse racing, women’s history, history of the 1920s and 1930s, non-fiction epics, or all of the above, you will love BATTLESHIP. The writing is stellar, the research is excellent, the historicity is outstanding and the command of the large cast of characters is top-notch.
— reviewed by Barb