Battleship: A Daring Heiress, a Teenage Jockey, and America's Horse

Dorothy Ours

St. Martin's Press

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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.
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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 identity: a cross-country champion who had never refused when his rider asked him to jump. Now, he might become the first American-bred horse to win the world’s greatest steeplechase for an American owner. British bookmakers, however, gave him little chance. Earlier that winter, Billy Barton had uncorked a dazzling win for his first English race, but he had fared badly in two later starts. Thinking that the American was in well over his head, the bookies set his National odds at thirty-three to one. Also, most of his opponents were quite literally over his head. A Maryland sportsman watching the field parade to the starting post noticed that Billy Barton—despite his good height of 16.1 hands, or five feet five inches, at the withers—was one of the smallest horses in the race.
Then again, being lighter might count for something today. Overnight and early-afternoon showers had waterlogged the turf, making it heavy underfoot as the field lined up at the far right end of the course, their backs to the grandstand, their faces aiming toward the long, distant backstretch known as “the country.” Clouds sailed overhead, threatening to rain again, unblocking random spots of sunshine. A mist had settled over Aintree. The first fence made a blur about four hundred yards ahead. Some people high in the stands near the start could see the second fence. Beyond that, fog hid everything.
Two false starts wasted several minutes, prolonging the tension. Finally, the crowded field leaped forward together. Surprisingly, everyone cleared the first fence. Then the fog began swallowing the galloping forms, and most of the quarter million spectators had no idea what was going on. Hoofbeats sounded through the mist, the only proof of an invisible race.
For several minutes, the grandstand crowd waited for the field to reappear. How many would handle the big drop on the landing side of Becher’s Brook? How many would navigate the abrupt left-handed Canal Turn, with a ninety-degree swivel to avoid diving into the Leeds and Liverpool Canal—then hurdle Valentine’s Brook and three more hedges five feet high? How many would pass the grandstand with riders still on their backs, completing the first half of the National?
Finally, hoofbeats drew near. At the head of Aintree’s long homestretch, six horses with riders charged into view. Less than halfway through the race, thirty-six had disappeared. In the stands, a French countess turned her back to the track and began saying the Lord’s Prayer. Other voices overlapped hers. “That’s the Yankee horse leading.” “Come on, Billy Barton!”
Six horses leaped the water jump in front of the stands, the one-time-only broad-jumping challenge. Billy Barton stepped in the flat-bottomed pool but sprang out with unusual agility. Six horses passed the finish line for the first time, then turned left and passed their starting point. Billy Barton led five others back into the mist while scattered groups of Americans cheered.
Again the vast crowd listened for hoofbeats, waiting one, two, three minutes for the runners to return. At last, three horses appeared: Billy Barton, Great Span, and Tipperary Tim. Two fences stood between them and the quarter-mile gallop to the finish line.
Great Span looked as if he might be going best of the three. Moments later, as he launched over the next-to-last fence, that didn’t matter. Great Span’s saddle slipped sideways, spilling his rider into the ditch. With the loose girth draped over his back and the empty saddle flapping underneath his belly, Great Span galloped onward. He had become what one horseman called “the greatest terror of Grand Nationals—a loose horse.” With no rider guiding him, a loose horse moved unpredictably. Great Span decided he wanted to be near Billy Barton.
Three horses rose as one to the final fence. Billy Barton held the inside position; close to his right side, nearly leaning into him, came the riderless Great Span. Far to their outside came the only horse other than Billy Barton who could win this Grand National: the hundred-to-one shot from Ireland, Tipperary Tim. With each stride, Tim produced a whistling sound: air rushing through his tracheotomy tube.
Three horses rustled across fence thirty, a four-and-a-half-foot hedge. The race would come down to two survivors, each with one perfect quality. The winner would be either the long shot attempting the National only because, his trainer said, “He never falls down,” or the American star who, his owner said, had never refused a jump. Tipperary Tim, not very fast but unusually steady, landed well. Billy Barton, crowded by the riderless horse and looking weary, landed awkwardly and flipped like a fish on a line, throwing his jockey off toward the inside rail. Barrel rolling on his right side, Billy stood up as his feet touched earth and let a spectator who rushed under the rail catch his reins. Other spectators helped jockey Tommy Cullinan to his feet and boosted him onto Billy’s back, nearly sending the dazed rider all the way over. Meanwhile, Tipperary Tim opened an insurmountable lead. He was pulling up, an easy winner, as Billy Barton slogged past the finish line, accompanied by astonished murmurs and boisterous Irish cheers.
The only tubed horse to win the Grand National, Tipperary Tim had found salvation through his seeming disability. Kept to a far outside path so that other horses wouldn’t kick debris into his breathing tube, Tim had enjoyed a trouble-free trip. Billy Barton, on the other hand, had won a moral victory even greater than the grandstand crowd had seen. Billy had been severely tested because Easter Hero, the fast but inexperienced horse who led the pack over the first several fences, had a bad habit. Instead of aiming straight ahead when he jumped, Easter Hero sometimes angled his body to the right. Leaping a simple fence, this might not matter. But the Canal Turn at Aintree presented complications: an open ditch two feet deep yawning in front of a hedge five feet high. Furthermore, the hedge fanned forward to the right, angling into the course’s hard left-hand turn.
Well after the race ended, spectators returning from the distant, foggy Canal Turn described what the grandstand crowd had missed. Easter Hero, taking off too far ahead of the open ditch and jumping to the right, not knowing that the fence line angled forward, had stuck on top of the hedge. While Easter Hero struggled in the brush, gradually sliding backward, waves of horses behind him misjudged their leaps or refused to try. An American reporter noted that, as Easter Hero thrashed and slowly dropped, “others bumped and sideswiped everything within reach,” many of them landing in the ditch. An English reporter said it looked as if a machine gunner was attacking the fence, taking almost everyone down.
A horse named Eagle’s Tail found himself standing in the ditch, parallel to the hedge, his jockey still in the saddle, while Billy Barton galloped straight toward him. Billy had two choices: slide to a stop and a likely collision, or jump over the standing horse and rider as well as the massive hedge.
Billy jumped.
When Billy Barton emerged from the mist to complete the first lap, few people knew what a prodigious effort had brought him that far. More than two miles later, when he rose to the final fence, few guessed how much heart had brought him to that place beside the leader, his rider still upon his back. As the word spread, Billy Barton became known as more than a talented cross-country horse. He represented a young nation itching to show its parent that it measured up. He showed that an American might be the real thing. But according to British horse-racing authorities, American racehorses weren’t actually Thoroughbred.
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Connoisseurs don’t take kindly to substitutes. Champagne should come from a single region of France. Thoroughbred horses should come from Great Britain. How could an imitator match the original?
Back when the United States was merely a colonial frontier, England had been setting standards for the emerging Thoroughbred breed. Although exported Thoroughbreds eventually took root around the world, Great Britain held what wine producers call terroir: the flavor absorbed from the landscape. Even Kentucky’s famous Bluegrass region couldn’t claim the same genetic blend, geography, and training conditions that produced such dominant racehorses in the first place.
Plus, there were problems with pedigree. In America, you could be forgiven for having several poorly documented ancestors. The proof wasn’t on paper but in the pudding: did a horse win races or produce winning offspring? Pedigree didn’t seem like a problem until nearly 1900, when American horses began winning lots of English races and American breeders infiltrated English bloodstock sales. Protecting their domain, British horsemen winched their eligibility rules tighter and tighter. Finally, in 1913, British officials decreed that every line of a Thoroughbred pedigree must trace “without flaw” only to horses found in the first volume of Britain’s General Stud Book, published in 1791. More than 90 percent of Thoroughbreds foaled in the United States suddenly were considered “half-bred.” These included the supreme champion and world record holder, Man o’ War.
The arithmetic was ridiculous. According to English rules, Man o’ War was half-bred because one of his thirty-two great-great-great-grandparents—a phenomenally successful American stallion named Lexington—had two ineligible lines far back in his pedigree. Whether those ancestors harmed or enhanced his racing ability was impossible to say. The stigma placed on American horses, however, was severe. If Man o’ War himself were offered at stud in England, his offspring would be considered mongrels. Perhaps the greatest racehorse that America had produced would be officially invisible in the country where his breed began.
There were loopholes. Not wanting to punish its own horsemen who were stuck with outdated inventory, Britain allowed so-called half-breds to continue racing within its borders. Many found success in steeplechasing—that is, long-distance racing over jumps. But only one horse bred in the United States had won the Grand National—and even then, America couldn’t take much credit. California-born Rubio had been exported to England as a yearling, sold to a British owner, and trained as one of England’s own. When Rubio won the 1908 Grand National, Americans didn’t feel much connection. Other home-grown athletes would become popular heroes: Philadelphia’s Bill Tilden uncorking “the soundest and brainiest tennis ever seen on English courts” to win Wimbledon; “American-bred” golfer Walter Hagen capturing the British Open by a single stroke. The New York Times predicted that “some day an American-bred and American-owned horse may carry off the Grand National.” If that happened, it would be like an American sparkling wine surpassing French champagne.
But so far, American owners had done best with British runners. In 1923, Stephen “Laddie” Sanford had broken through with Sergeant Murphy, a thoroughly British gelding who had performed well several times at Aintree before Sanford bought and won with him. In 1926, the Wall Street financier Charles Schwartz paid $20,000 for a well-primed British horse, Jack Horner, only two weeks before winning the big race.
Could money buy merit? For some observers, Sergeant Murphy’s success under American colors raised a deeper issue: it isn’t only what you do, it’s how you do it. “Now the shift of economic power to the United States brings to America the problem of aristocracy,” newly created Time magazine declared. The writer saw two possibilities: the shortsightedness that had made King Louis XV of France not care if ruin followed his reign, as long as he lived in luxury; or the more demanding choice, where people who enjoyed the greatest privileges also were expected to serve the best interests of their country for the long run.
“Which tradition,” Time wondered, “is being accepted by rich Americans?” Its writer supposed that “the answer will come from the sons of Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Stotesburys, Armours, MelIons, Bakers, Biddles, Fords, who can, if they like, win Grand Nationals.”
The magazine writer overlooked a couple of things. He left out one of America’s most vigorous dynasties. And he failed to mention the daughters.


 
Copyright © 2013 by Dorothy Ours