‘Battleship’ by Dorothy Ours is, I think, quite a unique ‘racing book’. I use the quotation marks as ‘Battleship’ is not wholly a book on racing, or indeed a racehorse. ‘Battleship’ is, essentially, a social snapshot of America in the twenties and thirties. And it is a very much a literary biography, which is rare for a non-fiction book with a climax at the finishing line at Aintree and the world’s greatest horse race. That the book is researched to the enth degree goes without saying as the author studied Battleship as a Research Fellow at the National Sporting Library and was formerly employed at America’s National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Yet from the minutiae of everyday detail comes a story so spectacular and coolly composed it will come as no surprise to find the book turned into a Hollywood blockbuster in years to come. Of course finding an actress to play Marion Du Pont will be relatively easy in comparison to finding a horse to substitute for Battleship, the little stallion ridden by a boy who sailed across the Atlantic to conquer the black uprightness of the Grand National. A better and more dramatic storyline than anything contained in the film ‘Seabiscuit’.
Marion Du Pont may have been an heiress with the wealth to build her own racecourse and to employ her own pilot but she was far from the atypical female of great fortune. She devoted her life to horses, animals and her home at Montpelier, the former home of America’s fourth President, James Madison. And as Dorothy Ours so expertly and subtly outlines Marion Du Pont’s life would have been nothing if it were not for her horses and the people who rode for her, people who she looked out for as they looked out for her. She is known for owning Battleship, the first all-American horse to win the Grand National, but she also owned Trouble Maker who failed to conquer Aintree but who won the big timber races in America. After she achieved her ambition of winning the Grand National she owned good flat horses, though her great love remained, it seems, her jumping horses.
But Ours book does not solely centre around Marion Du Pont and Battleship, a stallion by the greatest American flat horse of the time Man O’ War, but also Reg Hobbs who trained Battleship to win the National and his young son, and still the youngest rider to win the race, Bruce. I doubt if Reg Hobbs would like the manner in which his character is sketched by the author as he comes across as a dictator where his son was concerned, an adulterer and a perfectionist with a liking for getting his own way in all matters. But to me he comes across as a personification of the racehorse trainer of the time, and a father determined his son would be a source of great family pride.
Of course Dorothy Ours is American and sometimes her terms and phrases come across as quaint when she is writing about Britain and British racing. To her a racecourse is a racetrack and the home straight is the home-stretch. But that is quibbling. ‘Battleship’ is a marvellous addition to any library, sporting or biographical. You certainly don’t need to be a racing fan to enjoy the book as it is a snapshot of the social elite of the time with the added bonus of Hollywood tittle-tattle thrown in for flavouring. Make what you will of the relationship between Carey Grant and Randolph Scott. Or even Marion’s marriage to Randolph Scott.
My only gripe about the book is a lack of photographs, especially of Battleship who was a chestnut yet in all the photographs appears bay.
My only confusion about the book comes above the bio of the author. There is a photograph of a woman, perhaps Dorothy Ours herself. Though running vertical beside the photograph is ‘Gentleman stationed at Becher’s Brook April 12th, 2012’. For such an outstandingly researched book it seems such a simple faux-pas that there must be a simple explanation that I am rather stupidly missing.
‘Battleship’, a book about a daring heiress, a teenage jockey and America’s horse is written by Dorothy Ours and published by St. Martin’s Griffin. It is a book that has won a place on my writing desk to reside alongside books on Sprinter Sacre, Arkle, Red Rum and Desert Orchid. I can award it no greater honour.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.