Battleship – the “American Pony” who triumphed at Aintree

Photo by: Unknown / Public Domain

Throughout the history of the iconic American and British Grand Nationals there have been some truly memorable horses who have made their mark on racing history. Red Rum, Aldaniti, McDynamo…they are all worthy entries in the record books, but none of these great horses have been able to top what a 15.2hh OAP managed way back in 1938…

Born into greatness

In 1927, a chestnut colt was born into a racing dynasty. The son of a champion-producing mare named Quarantine and the mighty stallion, Man O’ War, Battleship seemed destined for greatness. But, tiny foal that he was, few could have known just what that greatness would be, or what he’d have to contend with to get there.

Battleship enjoyed a promising start to his racing career, winning three out of eight races as a 3-year-old, including the prestigious James Rowe Memorial Handicap. He was soon entered into more elite races, but suffered a leg injury at the Chesapeake Trial Purse at Havre de Grace. The cause was difficult to identify and it seemed that this potentially great racehorse had gone lame.

Luckily, during a conference at the University of Kentucky, equine specialists found the root cause of his injury – an incipient and very small ringbone at the coronet of his right foreleg.

Soon, Battleship’s owner and trainer implemented special shoes that would enable the colt to start racing again. He returned to the track aged 4 and won six out of the twelve races he ran that year, bringing his record to 22-10-2-3 and total earnings to $18,380. Sadly, the success was short lived and at the end of that season Battleship went lame again. Regretfully, Walter J. Salmon, his owner, made the decision to sell Man O’War’s son.

The First Lady of Racing 

During that time, Marion duPont Scott – a renowned horsewoman dubbed ‘The First Lady of Racing’ – was making a name for herself in the steeplechasing world with Annapolis, Battleship’s half brother by Man O’War. Naturally, she was on the lookout for another horse with a similar pedigree and potential for flat racing and Battleship seemed the perfect choice.

Within 6 months of moving to his new home, Battleship was equipped with specially designed shoes and leathers, created by the blacksmith J.E Bell and Battleship’s new trainer Noel Laing. This ingenious method meant that that particular issue never troubled Battleship during his racing career again.

As a 6-year-old, Battleship really started to shine, but it was as a 7-year-old that he started on the trajectory that would associate his name with horse racing for all time. Not only did he win the Malvern Hill Steeplechase at Richmond, the National Hunt Cup, the Hunter’s Steeplechase and the Billy Barton at Pimlico, he was also entered for the demanding American Grand National.

Going national 

Filled with seemingly insurmountable jumps that dwarved a horse of Battleship’s size (he was barely bigger than a cob), this 2 ½ mile steeplechase course wasn’t for the faint hearted of either rider or horse. But the little chestnut was hardier than most and he went flat out around the course carrying a total weight of 147 lbs. Victory! He finished up that season with nine wins out of fourteen races and $11,520 in prize money.

That would’ve been more than enough to retire the brave Battleship on, but duPont Scott had other ideas. In the years following, she was determined to take Battleship international and in 1938, when he’d reached the grand old age of 11, she got her way.

He was entered into the British Grand National at Aintree, the most formidable steeplechase in the history of horse racing, both on that side of the pond and this. 4 miles, 4 furlongs in length, almost twice as long as its American counterpart, the British National includes 30 jumps, 28 of which have to be tackled twice. Infamous jumps like The Chair, Canal Turn and the polarising Beecher’s Brook have been the downfall of countless horses throughout its history, but they all lay ahead of that plucky stallion.

Going international 

It was the race of Battleship’s life. Approaching the starting blocks with 160lb in weight in the form of the youngest jockey to ever compete in the National, Bruce Hobbs, and odds of 40-1, the ‘American Pony’ was about to compete against the best steeplechasers in the world, all of whom towered above him at 16-17+hh. He would be running against the 1937 winner, Royal Mail, the eventual winner of the 1939 race, Workman, and Royal Danieli, the thoroughbred who would push little Battleship to his limits.

It was said at the time that he knew he was racing into the history books, that he was determined to win and that Hobbs Jr. never once had to use the whip. The race was at times gruesome, nail biting, exhilarating and the finish was close…but Battleship did it! Carrying a 6 foot jockey, at 11 years of age, the smallest horse to ever run the National, Battleship became the first American-bred horse to win it.

His racing days behind him having accomplished a feat that no horse before or since has managed to top, Battleship was beloved by duPont and all at Montpelier stables. He passed away in 1958 at the grand old age of 31 – a senior citizen in equine years – and was inducted into the American Hall of Fame in 1969.

A record never beaten

Despite the major advances that have been made in both horse breeding and horse training since Battleship’s day, a victory at both the American and British Grand National has eluded every horse since.

Perhaps the only trainer who’s ever come close to matching Battleship’s feat is renowned Irish trainer, Gordon Elliott. Having been one of the first trainers on the other side of the Atlantic to send over numerous horses, Elliott is a trainer who knows that sometimes you need to employ different tactics to win the Grand National.

Although he’s been a fixture in the racing scene for years, Elliott rose to international fame over the past two seasons by winning the 2018 Irish Grand National (after entering a record 13 horses), the Grand National at Aintree in 2018 and ’19 with Tiger Roll, and the 2018 American National with Jury Duty. Despite this, however, not one of these championship horses has been able to manage what that brave little horse did 80 years ago.