Dorothy Ours, Battleship: A Daring Heiress, a Teenage Jockey, and America’s Horse (St. Martin’s Press, 2013)
Full disclosure: this book was provided to me free of charge by Amazon Vine.
This is the stuff Hollywood dreams are made of, but Hollywood never made a picture of it, despite there being a Hollywood connection to this tale (more on that later). Why? Because, I’m guessing, when Sam Goldwyn and his lot heard the story, they collectively snorted and said “it may be true, but audiences will never believe it!” And to be fair, it does stretch the imagination—but the evidence is all there.
We all know, at least those of us who follow horse racing at all, that there is some sort of germ in the minds of horsemen that isn’t satisfied with being the best in their own country. We’ve all gotta cross borders and do stuff in other places to let ’em know how good we are. Secretariat’s final race was his first time in Canada. Sheikh Mohammed and his brothers from Dubai have spent millions upon millions of dollars trying to win the Kentucky Derby. Gary Stevens, before his first retirement, was one of the first American jockeys to be a regular at England’s fabled Ascot meet. Horses from around the world contest France’s famous Arc de Triomphe, the Japan Cup, and the Vase Stakes (at Hong Kong’s Sha Tin racecourse). And, of course, one has to have the money to do it, so the fact that the owner of the horse in question, Battleship, was filthy rich isn’t news. But there are a lot of people in America (and there were a lot of people in America even during the depression) who are filthy rich without also being filthy famous. That’s where you start adding the icing to this cake, with the duPont family. Everyone in America knows who the duPonts are, and in depression-era America, everyone knew it even more. Marion duPont, the heiress of the book’s title, was quite the fan of the jumps (and rode them quite well too, by all accounts I’ve read). And if you’re a fan of the jumps, and you have some horses who are really, really good at them, there’s one place you dream of being: the Grand National, England’s most famous, and most dangerous, race. In the ensuing seventy-odd years between the events that take place in this book and now, there have been a number of changes made to Ascot’s storied course for safety reasons, and it’s still the most harrowing professional course in the world. In America, the headlines blare whenever a horse dies during a race. In England, the headlines blare when a horse doesn’t die during the Grand National. It’s a race that remembers tradition—that jumping isn’t about watching horses or betting or any of that dross, it’s about whether the 1,200-pound beast under you is going to be able to handle obstacles while you’re chasing down your (and, most likely, his) dinner without killing either or both of you. The jumps are life and death. And when some of the obstacles you are going to be facing are damned close to six feet high, the conventional wisdom goes, you want a horse that can at least see over them, and a jockey experienced enough to not get shaken. In America, the conventional wisdom is that you never back a first-time jockey at the Kentucky Derby. The average crowd at a racetrack, even a marquee track like Keeneland, rarely exceeds 10,000 spectators on a non-major-stakes-race day. Derby day? The crowd is sixteen times that size. The roar when the crowd hears that bell is about the same volume as a jumbo jet engine…if you happen to be standing inside it. It can be…a little disorienting. Jocks can get shaken. But some first-timers win the Derby. And some little horses take to jumps higher than they are with the kind of aplomb that makes you wonder how these generally ungainly creatures can fly like swans.
And that bit about the experienced jockey? How about you grab a green teenager—granted, one trained by the best horseman in England, who just happens to be his father—and stick him on the back of the minuscule animal, called by the press leading up to the race “the American pony”? And then send them out there in one of those massive Grand National fields (the Kenctucky Derby field is capped at twenty; I don’t know if they’ve implemented caps at the Grand National yet, but I remember watching one back in the nineties where forty-five started the race. It was gorgeous chaos.) and, the cheek of it all, expect them to win? Against the best horses the British Isles, and few other countries to boot, had to offer?
It’s an incredible story. (And I’d meant to make note of the Hollywood connection, but this is getting ridiculously long, so I’ll just mention that one of Battleship’s most ardent fans was actor Randolph Scott, who eventually married Marion. Ever since I finished this book I’ve been watching Randolph Scott movies on Netflix every chance I get. None of them feature jump racing.) I’m not sure Dorothy Ours would have been my first choice to tell it, though I rush to qualify that by saying she’d be somewhere in my top five. Horse biographies have a tendency to focus more on the people around the horse than the beasts themselves, and one can lose sight of the actual animal on occasion. Getting the balance right can be tricky. It’s the difference between a worldbeater-style horse bio like Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit and Elizabeth Mitchell’s somewhat disappointing Three Strides Before the Wire (about the tragic career of 1999 Kentucky Derby winner Charismatic). Ours gets it right about ninety percent of the time, but she gets caught up in the family drama between Bruce and Reginald Hobbs a bit more than is really necessary in service of this particular tale. That is, however, a minor quibble at best. Less so is Ours’ air of detachment at times. I hate to keep coming back to Seabiscuit, but it really is the gold standard of horse bios, for my money; another of the things that make that book great is that Hillenbrand gets a horse race in a way Ours doesn’t (and that, to be fair to Ours, very few authors do, in my experience). There’s a rhythm to every race, and that rhythm can be different between any two races on a given card. Writing a horse race may be even more difficult than writing a good love scene. And when the race you’re attacking is the Grand National, you’ve set yourself a monumental task. Ours reached, and she outperformed about 95% of those who would deign to try such a thing. But that last 5% is priceless.
Neither of these downsides is enough of a showstopper for me to not recommend this book; it is very good. It could have been better, but you can say that about almost any book. If you’re interested in the source material, you’ll probably like it a great deal. If you’re not, this is most likely not a book that will get you there. (I should also note for the record that those who are squeamish about animal injuries would probably do well to steer clear.) *** ½