Montpelier's new exhibit celebrates a plucky horse and his history-making victory - The Daily Progress: Lifestyles

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Montpelier's new exhibit celebrates a plucky horse and his history-making victory

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Posted: Sunday, April 7, 2013 6:00 am

The box of odds and ends, purchased at a yard sale in England, was stashed in an attic and forgotten.

The woman who made the purchase knew there were motion picture film canisters among the items, but didn't bother to see what they contained. Years later she came across the box, and decided to take a look.

As she held a strip of film up to the light and focused on the black-and-white images, her heart likely began beating a bit faster. As frame after frame slipped between her fingers, she realized what she was looking at.

The film carried her back to mid-afternoon on March 25, 1938, to Aintree Racecourse near Liverpool, England. The 100th running of the British Grand National, the most demanding steeplechase race in the world, was about to start.

Her husband had trained steeplechase horses and had raced at Aintree, so she knew what she was seeing. The film footage showed one of the most exciting and improbable wins in the race's storied history.

Of the 36 horses that leaped from the starting gate at 3:20 p.m. that day, 13 finished and one died. As an estimated 250,000 spectators watched, a small American horse named Battleship earned himself an eternal place in the pantheon of equestrian greatness.

Defying 40-to-1 odds, the chestnut stallion that called Montpelier home marshaled every sinew and muscle in his powerful body for a dramatic charge to the finish line. With only yards to go, Battleship drew eye-to-eye with the leader, Royal Danieli.

Then, as onlookers gasped, screamed and cheered, Battleship made a final mighty lunge and won the race by a head. It was a win that resonated around the globe, because it was the first time an American horse had won the prestigious competition.

The film of the historic race is one of the centerpieces of a new exhibit in the duPont Gallery at Montpelier. "Beating the Odds: Montpelier's Battleship and the British Grand National" will run through Nov. 10.

The exhibit commemorates the 75th anniversary of the race, and also honors the legacy of Marion duPont Scott, owner of Battleship and former owner of James and Dolley Madison's beloved home. It was she who, in 1931, saw greatness in the horse despite his being lame from an injury and purchased him for $12,000.

"The 75th anniversary of the race provided a great opportunity for us to bring together many objects, manuscript items and photographs that document Battleship and tell the story of his win," said Meg Kennedy, acting director of museum programs at Montpelier and curator of the exhibit.

"It also allows us to continue telling the duPont story at Montpelier. Mrs. Scott was at heart a great preservationist.

"Not only did she preserve the property and the home, her wish was that it would be returned to Madison's estate. And throughout much of the 20th century, she was a major collector of Madison objects."

In 1984, Scott willed the home of the Father of the Constitution, as well as the estate's 2,600 acres of land, to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Kat Imhoff became president of Montpelier in January.

"Given my love affair with horses, I was wildly excited about the exhibit," Imhoff said. "But I don't think the significance of it hit home for me until I heard some of the people who spoke at the exhibit opening.

"Horses used to play such a greater role in everyone's life. When Battleship arrived back in New York City after winning the Grand National, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia greets him. And then they have a big parade for him.

"I think we tend to forget just how vibrant the sport was, and how significant that win was. The enthusiasm people have for the equestrian tradition continues, but this exhibit put some color into the picture for me."

A good deal of color radiates from the 24K gold trophy on a jade base that Scott received after Battleship won the British Grand National. Displayed next to it is the silver trophy the horse won by winning the American Grand National Steeplechase race in 1934. He remains the only horse to win both races.

The gold trophy with its exquisite floral design is on loan from the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga, N.Y. Scott proudly displayed the cup in her trophy room at Montpelier until 1983, when she donated it to the museum.

Dorothy Ours was working at the museum a dozen years ago when she became intrigued by the little horse that could. On April 30th her new book, "Battleship: A Daring Heiress, A Teenage Jockey and America's Horse," will be released by St. Martin's Press.

"They had just opened a new wing at the museum and had a Hall of Fame heroes exhibit in it," Ours said during a recent telephone interview from her home in Morgantown, W.Va. "In the exhibit they had Battleship's British Grand National trophy, which is gorgeous.

"They also had the actual, corrective shoe that had been made for him before he began steeplechase racing. It was an amazing-looking hunk of metal that reminded me of the Frankenstein monster's boots.

"I knew he had won the Grand National, but when I saw this shoe I thought, 'What is the story behind all this?' At the time I was working on a book about Man o' War, but after that was done, I got curious about Battleship again."

Battleship was born in 1927 at Mereworth Farm in Lexington, Ky. It was the same year that the first steeplechase and flat-track races were held at Montpelier. The tradition, started by Scott, continues to this day, with a card of steeplechases and flat races being run on the first Saturday in November.

Battleship, bred by owner Walter J. Salmon, was the offspring of Man o' War and the dam Quarantaine. The relatively small, yet muscular horse did well on the flat track, winning 10 of 22 starts, but a series of injuries kept sidelining him.

When Scott purchased him, she paid only half of the $12,000 price, with the understanding she would pay the rest only if he recovered from his injury. With corrective shoeing and time to rest at Montpelier, he soon was fit enough to start training as a jumper.

"I think what Mrs. Scott saw when she looked at Battleship in the paddock -- and said she drooled over him -- was an economy of movement," said Martha Strawther, executive director of the Montpelier Steeplechase and Equestrian Foundation. "A horse person looks for movement, and when I see the film of him galloping, I can see he is efficient in every way.

"To a horse person, that translates to incredible beauty. He was a great jumper, and what I noticed in the Grand National film is that not only was he able to jump the height, he was able to jump the width.

"When I see him clear Becher's Brook in slow motion, he's reaching to come down to earth several feet ahead of where the other horses are reaching to come down. I think that's what made him a winning steeplechase horse."

Strawther said what makes Aintree so challenging are the height and width of the fences, and that some have ditches in front and others behind. The horses have to demonstrate faith and courage, because they can't see the other side when they leave the ground.

The obstacle at Becher's Brook, jumped twice during the Grand National, is particularly daunting, because the landing side is lower than the takeoff side. A jockey has been quoted as saying it's like "jumping off the edge of the world."

When Battleship won the British Grand National, it was big news worldwide. One of the items in the exhibit is a scrapbook Mrs. Scott filled with magazine and newspaper clippings generated by the unlikely win.

"Between World War I and World War II, there was a fascination here in the U.S. with winning the British Grand National," said Ours. "It was a period when American athletes were trying to show they were as good as the best from the British empire.

"In the 1920s, a couple of American men bought British steeplechase horses and won the Grand National. But that only got a certain amount of buzz here in America, because they basically put their name on something that was a British product.

"What made Battleship different was that he was born here, and became a champion steeplechaser here. Of course, when he went to England, he was sent to a top British trainer and had British jockeys, so it was a cooperative effort.

"But in Battleship's day, he really had crossed a threshold that was far beyond what anyone else had succeeded in doing."

During the race Battleship's jockey, 17-year-old Bruce Hobbs, nearly fell off after clearing the seventh jump. Nearby jockey Fred Rimmell saved their place in history by grabbing Hobbs and pulling him back in the saddle.

A similar example of generous fellowship was demonstrated by the woman who discovered the film footage of the incredible race. After learning Montpelier didn't have film of the race, she promptly sent the estate a copy.

The new exhibit also presents two bronze sculptures by Carroll K. Bassett that were inspired by Battleship. There also is a large oil painting of the horse standing near the temple at Montpelier.

When Battleship died in 1958, he was buried near the iconic structure. The new exhibit will help tell the story of how the courgeous horse that overcame so much earned such a special resting place.

"The challenge with this exhibit was to tell the story in a variety of ways, so it would be engaging to many different visitors," Kennedy said. "And it provided us with a great opportunity to reunite many of these objects and bring in others that had never been exhibited.

"We have pieces on loan from Bruce Hobbs' sister, who lives in the United Kingdom. She sent us documents and telegram communications between Mrs. Scott and her brother, as well as their father, Reg, who was Battleship's trainer in England.

"Battleship is well known in the equestrian community, but I'm sure many of our visitors won't be aware of him and what he did. The exhibit offers an opportunity to learn about him and his great victory."

Through the years, thousands of horses have participated in the British Grand National Steeplechase at Aintree. So where does Battleship rank?

"Just yesterday [March 28], the British newspaper Echo published an article about the 10 greatest horses that have run in the Grand National," Strawther said. "Battleship was ranked number eight."

"Beating the Odds: Montpelier's Battleship and the British Grand National" is on view in the duPont Gallery at Montpelier and will run through Nov. 10. It is free and open to the public. The property and trails at Montpelier also  are open to the public for free. Tickets have to be purchased to tour the house.



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