They called him the American Pony when he arrived in England, but the little son of Big Red proved himself to be no joke when he won steeplechasing's greatest challenge: the Grand National at Aintree.
A son of Man o' War, who needs no introduction, Battleship was bred by Walter J. Salmon, Sr. At his Mereworth Farm in Kentucky Salmon was responsible for breeding the great handicap horse and broodmare sire Discovery. He also won two runnings of the Preakness Stakes, both times with homebreds. His famous bad boy Display won in 1926, and Dr. Freeland won in 1929.
Racing for his breeder, Battleship broke his maiden in his second start as a juvenile. His first serious challenge was the 1930 Florida Derby, in which he ran fourth behind Titus. By April, he had raced eight times as a three year old, and had tasted victory on three occasions. He had also scored a stakes win, having taken the James Rowe Memorial Handicap at Bowie. Unfortunately, he was injured in the starting gate before the Chesapeake Trial, and he was done for the season. The classics were left to Gallant Fox.
When he returned in 1931, Battleship ran twelve more races, and won half of them. His most notable win that year came in the Great Lakes Handicap. With career earnings of $18,380, he was sold to Mrs. Marion duPont Scott for $12,000.
Battleship spent 1932 in training over fences, and when he returned to competition as a six year old in 1933, he carried Mrs. duPont Scott's pinks silks to victory in three of four starts, including the Billy Barton Steeplechase at Pimlico and the National Hunt Club Handicap at Brookline.
The highlight of 1934 came when he beat Arc Light in America's most important steeplechase, the Grand National at Belmont Park. He gave away a pound, and won by a length. He won three other races and placed once in six starts.
In 1935, Battleship was shipped to England, where he was treated for a bowed tendon, and then put into training with Reginald Hobbs. It wasn't until the age of nine that he went to post again. That season he managed one win and one second in five tries, earning the equivalent of eight hundred eight dollars. He raced more the following year, earning $4,553 and scoring five wins in thirteen starts. His biggest accomplishment was victory in the 1937 Lonsdale Handicap, worth 417 pounds.
Then came the biggest challenge of the little stallion's career. He was entered in the 1938 Grand National at Aintree. The course for that legendary race is nothing less than treacherous. Entrants are faced with a course over four miles long consisting of thirty obstacles. Aintree's famous course will very quickly separate those who belong in the race, and those who don't. Just to finish at Aintree is no small accomplishment.
The field begins in front of the stands, without benefit of a starting gate. Before reaching the first fence, they cross Melling Road, which is actually a public street. This means the horses must cross a dirt surface, since the rest of the course is on the turf. The field is then said to "go out into the country" as they leave the flat course and head out to the body of the National course.
After a pair of thorn fences four and a half feet in height, an open ditch, and another pair of thorn fences, the runners come to the famous Becher's Brook. The fence itself is only four feet ten inches, but the drop is breathtaking.
Those who survive Becher's jump another thorn fence and then approach the Canal Turn. It requires the clearing of a five foot fence followed instantly by a ninety degree turn. Then comes Valentine's Brook, a five foot thorn fence followed by a brook. Three more imposing fences, two of which include ditches, and the horses cross Melling Road again, this time at Anchor Bridge Crossing. They then have two more thorn fences with which to contend.
Next the field reaches The Chair. This fence, the biggest of the course, is an open ditch of six feet, with a thorn fence just over five feet. Named for the location of the distance judge of days past, it is definitely the most impressive obstacle on approach.
The trick of the water jump is not to underestimate it. The fence itself is a deceptive two foot six, which results in a number of horses not jumping big enough to clear the nearly fifteen foot spread.
The horses now have a long run past the start to the Melling Road crossing, and are asked to jump the first fourteen obstacles again. After the thirtieth (and fourteenth) jump, they have a long uphill stretch drive which truly tests the stamina of any horse still in contention.
Battleship had his work cut out for him when he went to post against 35 others in the grueling race. Carrying 160 pounds, the so-called pony went off at 40 to 1 odds. He lacked the size and typical rangy conformation of the so-called ideal steeplechaser. He also lacked a major win in England.
The little stallion gave good account of himself, and when he reached Becher's Brook the second time, he was one of the leaders. Battleship and Royal Danieli were about five lengths ahead of Workman. At the twenty eighth fence, Workman moved past Battleship. Then at the last fence, Battleship regained his place spot and headed for home. He steadily narrowed Royal Denieli's leading margin. Two lengths dwindled until the horses were even, and Battleship gained the lead at the final post. The crowd waited tensely to learn whether Battleship had taken the lead in time to claim the win. The judges declared that he had, and in the good time of 9:29 4/5.
Since he was both American bred and American owned, Battleship was the first true American winner of the great race. The American-bred Rubio had won in 1908, and Jay Trump later later won with American rider Tommy Smith, Jr.
Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1969, Battleship stood stud in Virginia and sired fifty seven foals. Despite the low number of offspring, he nevertheless sired two champions. War Battle was named champion steeplechaser in 1947 and Shipboard was voted champion steeplechaser in 1956. His son Sea Legs won the American Grand National in 1952. He also sired the stakes winners Floating Isle, Tide Rips, Navigate, Westport Point, Navy Gun, Eolus, Cap-A-Pie, and Mighty Mo. Twenty percent stakes winners from total progeny is no small feat. He lived to the age of thirty-one.
|Man o' War||Fair Play||Hastings||Spendthrift|
|Fairy Gold||Bend Or|
|Merry Token||Merry Hampton|
|Saf Saf||Le Sancy|
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