07/30/2013 4:33PM

'Battleship': Man o' War's late-blooming leaper


Battleship: A Daring Heiress, A Teenage Jockey, and America’s Horse
By Dorothy Ours
St. Martin's Press
Hardcover, 360 pages, $26.99

Movie director Dave Butler liked horse racing, a fact reflected in his film-ography, which included Oscar-winning “Kentucky” in 1938 and 1949’s “The Story of Seabiscuit” Yet, when approached to oversee a project about Man o’ War, he respectfully declined.

“There wasn’t any story − he just kept on winning,” Butler explained. “There were no reverses, nothing of heartbreak, setbacks, or conflict − things that make for drama and suspense.”

Author Dorothy Ours would no doubt disagree with this assessment. In fact, there was plenty of story in her 2007 treatise “Man o’ War, A Legend Like Lightning,” a finalist that year for racing’s highest book-length honor, the $10,000 Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award. Proving herself no one-hit wonder, in 2013 she has done it again, with the meticulously researched and beautifully written “Battleship: A Daring Heiress, A Teenage Jockey, and America’s Horse.”

Ours’s latest continues somewhat down the Man o’ War path, this time taking us through the 1930s and over fences. Battleship, of course, was the son of Big Red who overcame advanced age and lack of stature in 1938 to become the first American-owned and American-bred winner of the world’s most dangerous and challenging horse race, England’s Grand National at Aintree.

As in “Man o’ War,” Ours masterfully ties the sport of racing together with the outer world that embraces it, all the while presenting a cast of human characters we grow to care about, and whose patience and faith ultimately allowed a horse’s greatness to shine through.

There are two main protagonists: Roman-nosed, undersized Battleship − fearless, intelligent, athletic, bred in the purple, yet seemingly ill-suited physically for the stupendous challenges assigned him − and owner Marion duPont.

DuPont wasn’t your average Joe. A reserved, intensely private character, she was hard for the public to know. (Few realized she was even acquainted with Hollywood heartthrob Randolph Scott until she married him.) Off-the-charts wealthy during the worst of economic times, the heiress to the duPont explosives fortune appeared to sail seamlessly through the Great Depression, tended to by servants, traveling abroad, hunting and racing, living high, and marrying well. Yet, a steely inner core and a penchant for taking defiant chances at every turn made her an irresistibly compelling character. In her quiet way, duPont routinely thwarted convention regarding women of her era − enjoying cockfights, becoming first of her gender to win the National Horse Show while sitting astride a horse, calling the shots of an increasingly successful horse racing empire, divorcing twice. Think what you will of Marion duPont, but she probably wouldn’t care either way.

When duPont first met Battleship in 1930 she sensed something special in the mini-me son of Man o’ War. As the colt’s respectable flat career faded to black the following year, they became a team, and a daring plan gradually evolved. DuPont soon recognized Battleship’s rare combination of heart and talent over jumps, despite that he stood half a foot shorter than most of his leaping rivals. Still, her early admiration transformed over time into a conviction that here, at last, was the horse with whom she could realize her ultimate dream: to win the Grand National.

DuPont had help along the way from several key friends and horsemen, including youthful Caroll Bassett and ill-fated Noel Laing; British jumps trainer Reg Hobbs, who demanded nothing less than perfection; and Hobbs’s tall, lanky, 16-year-old son, jockey Bruce Hobbs, who delivered it. Each would become an integral members of Battleship’s supporting cast.

The story of Battleship and duPont has more ups and downs than a roller coaster. Its various plotlines run the gamut, from tragedy to triumph, with hopes and dreams and disappointments and, yes, even a bit of human romance sprinkled in for good measure. Of course, we know the outcome, but still we care − the hallmark of a gifted writer with a great tale to tell.

And as for Dave Butler? I’d like to think he would have jumped at the chance to film Battleship.