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The moving story of a tough little horse, a gifted boy, and a woman ahead of her time.
The youngest jockey, the smallest horse, and an unconventional heiress who disliked publicizing herself. Together, near Liverpool, England, they made a leap of faith on a spring day in 1938: overriding the jockey's father, trusting the boy and the horse that the British nicknamed the "American pony" to handle a race course that newspapers called "Suicide Lane." There, Battleship might become the first American racer to win England's monumental, century-old Grand National steeplechase. His rider, Great Britain's Bruce Hobbs, was only 17 years old.
Hobbs started life with an advantage: his father, Reginald, was a superb professional horseman. But Reg Hobbs also made extreme demands, putting Bruce in situations that horrified the boy's mother and sometimes terrified the child. Bruce had to decide just how brave he could stand to be.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the enigmatic Marion duPont grew up at the estate now known as James Madison's Montpelier―the refuge of America's "Father of the Constitution." Rejecting her chance to be a debutante, denied a corporate role because of her gender, Marion chose a pursuit where horses spoke for her. Taking on the world's toughest race, she would leave her film star husband, Randolph Scott, a continent away and be pulled beyond her own control. With its reach from Lindbergh's transatlantic flight to Cary Grant's Hollywood, Battleship is an epic tale of testing your true worth.
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DOROTHY OURS is lifelong horse and racing enthusiast who worked for several years at America's National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Her first book, Man o' War: A Legend Like Lightning, was honored as runner-up for Thoroughbred racing's inaugural Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award. She has freelanced as a racing journalist and studied Battleship and his world as a John H. Daniels Research Fellow at the National Sporting Library in Middleburg, Virginia. Her B.F.A. in Theater came in handy while exploring the world of Randolph Scott.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
BRUCE HOBBS WAS SEVEN YEARS OLD when he opened his eyes and saw nothing at all. Blinking, staring, straining, but nothing changed. Only darkness, beyond his control—a sudden loss he could not understand. At first, the only things assuring Bruce that his friendly world still existed were his mother’s voice, his mother’s hands. Her voice promised Bruce that he hadn’t lost his eyesight. He had hit his head very hard and suffered a concussion. While his head healed, he would have to protect himself by staying in the blacked-out room.
Bruce’s mother, Margery, blamed his father, Reginald. Taking crazy chances on horseback and making their boy do the same. Ponies might be all right, but not the way Reg made Bruce ride, following the quickest grown-ups in one of England’s most challenging foxhunts. Reg Hobbs saw things another way: doing everything possible to make his boy as good as himself. That’s how Reg had learned from his own father, Tom Hobbs, one of the most respected huntsmen and horse dealers in England.
Reg knew how destiny could suddenly stretch, even take you across an ocean and back. He had seen it at age fifteen. One day he had been a gifted young rider, winning a cross-country race in Leicestershire with a horse that his father might sell. The next morning, in his father’s office, he had met a wealthy American client—and learned that his father was, in a sense, selling him as well.
“Mr. Clark has bought your little horse, Reg,” Tom Hobbs told his son. “He wants you to take the horse over to America and to stay with him over there, helping with his stud.”
At first glance, Frederick Ambrose Clark didn’t look like much. Not very tall, a hump between his shoulders, a habit of talking “down his nose.” His appearance disguised a bold athlete. A man bent but not defeated by many broken bones, a man once upon a time described by the New York Times as “one of the most skillful and daring amateur steeplechase riders of the metropolitan turf.”
Tom Hobbs knew. His boy was going to land at one of the grandest estates on Long Island, New York. His boy would handle some of the finest foxhunters, show horses, and polo ponies that money could buy. And beyond those material benefits, his boy would report to a kindred spirit. Like Tom Hobbs, Brose Clark knew the best and would not settle for anything less. In every way, working for him would reinforce what Tom wanted Reg to be.
Everything that had followed that morning in his father’s office weighed on Reg while his own son lay in the blacked-out room. That room was provided by Brose Clark and his wife. It belonged to a cottage at Warwick Lodge, Leicestershire, where the Clarks foxhunted every winter and Reg managed all aspects of their impressive stable. A day of sport might even include the prince of Wales—and at the same time, Reg had the satisfaction of knowing that his own riding and appearance were second to no one. He also knew that his wife enjoyed a more than comfortable home and his child went to school with sons and daughters of landed gentry. For Reg, top-notch horsemanship yielded rare privileges. If Bruce only would persevere, he might enjoy the same.
But that pathway required physical risk. Working with horses, there was no way to eliminate danger. For two weeks, while Bruce existed in the dark, his mother hoped that when he eased back into the world her boy would choose a safer course. His father treated the accident as a temporary setback, best brushed away. Their fighting peppered Bruce’s daily life.
Underneath it all, the young boy felt a deep sense of security. If his parents fought this hard over him, clearly he mattered a lot. On the other hand, no matter how he tried, he couldn’t please them both. Somewhere between his mother’s protection and his father’s relentless drive, Bruce would have to find his own identity.
He wanted normal childhood pleasures. But even at age seven, Bruce Hobbs could sense a great reward waiting somewhere beyond the edge of comfort and safety. He could begin to feel that hard work and courage might bring this reward within his reach. Bruce could not yet understand how this pressure from his father was affecting his own character; he could only hope that, eventually, his father would be satisfied. But he did not see just how far his father wanted to go.
* * *
Reg Hobbs’s wildest ambition centered on a racecourse near the English village of Aintree, a few miles north of Liverpool, its horizon haunted by active factory smokestacks, its boundaries partly drawn by a railway line and the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. At this place where ancient met modern, more than a quarter million people gathered in late March every year to experience a horse race called the Grand National.
The Grand National was well named: it dwarfed everything. The winner would gallop nearly five miles and leap thirty obstacles. Most of the brush-covered fences stood at least five feet high. The only short hedge marked a broad jump over water. Reg Hobbs, who had won steeplechases in his youth, still imagined riding that course and winning the National someday.
In another decade, Reg would find his moment. During the time it would take for his boy to grow up, he would discover his own greatest role. But first, a distant person had to grow into the same dream. Someone else’s dawning ambition had to start stretching toward his own.
A catalyst came in 1928, the year of Bruce’s accident. A record number of Grand National contestants circled within Aintree’s saddling paddock. At the call for “Riders up!” forty-two men settled onto racehorses’ backs. A hand touched one horse’s throat, pulling the plug from the silvered tracheotomy tube worn by hundred-to-one shot Tipperary Tim. Being tubed, a common treatment for English cart horses who developed upper airway constrictions, was a last resort for racehorses. Unplugging the metal cylinder before hard exercise let in a full stream of air, but harmful substances could rush in, too. Tipperary Tim’s rider probably carried a cork in his pocket, an emergency stopper if they happened to fall in water.
Forty-two horses paraded onto the rain-soaked course. Most of them came from the British Isles and several from France. Nine raced for American owners. Two American entries actually had been bred, born, and raced in the United States. One of these had attracted an American entourage, hundreds of Yankees now waiting in Aintree’s chilly grandstands and many more gathered in downtown Baltimore, Maryland, where a transatlantic telephone hookup from Aintree to Sun Square would let fans follow the race as it happened. The horse drawing so much attention was a rather plain, dark brown gelding with a checkered past. As he stepped onto the Aintree course, he deserved a greeting given to his namesake in a Louisa May Alcott book: “Why, Billy Barton, how in the world did you get here?”
Five years earlier, this unassuming-looking horse had made a bad scene at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course. Rearing and kicking at his handlers in the saddling paddock, then trying to kick spectators as he headed out to the track, five-year-old Billy Barton had hardly seemed like the same performer who had won the Cuban Derby at age three. His latest owner was trying to make him win a claiming race–an event where each horse was for sale at a small price—for the second week in a row. But when Billy reached the track, he bolted, tearing along at racing speed for half a mile. Wrangled to the starting barrier, he began the race, then couldn’t keep pace. All wagers on him were wasted. He finished last.
After nearly fifty races and a steep downward trend, Billy Barton decided to quit. His trainer sent him back to school at the starting barrier, but Billy refused to run when the webbing stretching across the track sprang into the air. His determination must have been immense. Assistant starters, assertive men charged with motivating reluctant horses, often made their point with buggy whips. But the long lash didn’t change Billy’s mind, and the racing officials had no choice: they banned him from competition. In racing’s earn-your-keep economy, he was worthless.
And yet Billy Barton also was young, athletic, and sparky. That spring of 1923, a Baltimore steel factory executive named Howard Bruce saw him at Pimlico and paid $2,000 for the ordinary-looking colt with strong shoulders and sturdy legs. Bruce had him gelded and gave him plenty of time to learn a noncombative lifestyle. Out in the countryside north of Baltimore, Howard Bruce served as Master of the Elkridge Hounds. He needed a bold, fast horse to keep him up front during a fox chase.
Billy Barton, the racetrack rogue, loved his new job. Monotonous circles around a dirt track gave way to diverse miles of meadows and woodlands, hills and streams. He always would have a feisty streak, greeting his handlers with pinned ears and bared teeth. Billy Barton was nobody’s pet. And yet, in the hunt field, Bruce found him an extraordinarily willing partner. Whatever obstacle confronted them, Billy jumped.
He excelled so greatly that Howard Bruce got curious. Three years after his Pimlico meltdowns, Billy Barton entered a cross-country jumping race; three miles later, he had won easily. The sour, banned flat racer had become a ’chaser so fit, gifted, and willing that he won Maryland’s Grand National, the Maryland Hunt Cup, and the Virginia Gold Cup—three classics totaling eleven miles—during three consecutive weeks. By the autumn of 1927, Billy had won seven of his eight steeplechasing starts, some in record time. With nothing left to prove in his home country, Howard Bruce shipped Billy to one of the best trainers in England to prepare for the world’s greatest jump race.
In 1928, Billy Barton reached Aintree with a new ide...
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Book Description St. Martin's Press, 2013. Condition: Brand New. New. Seller Inventory # DH29pg1606to1905-11948
Book Description St. Martin's Press, 2013. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0312641850
Book Description Condition: New. New. Seller Inventory # M-0312641850