Bruce Hobbs remains the youngest jockey to win the Grand National, the world’s greatest steeplechase. Less than 3 months after his 17th birthday he guided the American bred and owned horse Battleship to a dramatic victory at Aintree on 25 March 1938. To add more spice to the young jockey’s historic victory, Battleship’s owner, the American heiress Marion Du Pont was then married to film star Randolph Scott, famed for his cowboy roles.
Hobbs, born in New York, who later achieved Group 1 success as the last resident trainer at Palace House had won his first race under National Hunt rules at Wolverhampton when only 15. Growing up in the Leicestershire hunting area of Melton Mowbray where his father Reg trained hunters for the American Singer Sewing machine heir Ambrose Clark, Bruce first sat on a pony at 4 years old. His prowess as a rider, mixing with the hunting set meant he was given his hunt buttons at the age of nine before he became a Pony club teen star. His opening race under rules over hurdles followed at 14 and he turned professional shortly after his 16th birthday.
Marion Du Pont’s little horse Battleship, who was only 15.1 ½ hh was a son of the legendary Man of War, winner of the 1920 Belmont and Preakness Stakes and out of the French classic filly Quarantine, hardly the type to tackle the giant Aintree obstacles. However, it was Marion Du Pont’s dream to win the Grand National and with her first attempt in 1933 her horse Trouble Maker managed to finish fifteenth.
The following year Battleship won the American Grand National in 1934 as a 7 year old but unfortunately three weeks later it was discovered he had suffered an injury known as a bowed tendon in the taxing ground at Belmont Park. His leg fired*, ‘the little pony’ as he became affectionately known in America then spent an extended period recuperating at Marion Du Pont’s sporting estate of Montpelier in Orange County Virginia.
Battleship recovered from his injury and with Marion Du Pont’s heart set on winning the world’s most famous steeplechase she decided to send the chestnut across the Atlantic in July 1936 to be trained by Reg Hobbs, who was now based at Rhonehurst stables in Lambourn.
After running unplaced in his opening two outings at Nottingham and Wolverhampton with Tim Hamey in the saddle, Reg’s son Bruce took the reins at Newbury in early December, where he came 4th. Ten days later the duo won their first race together, over two and half miles in the Pond Steeplechase at Sandown. However, after running 4th in the National Hunt Handicap Chase at Cheltenham, Reg decided to scratch the horse from the 1937 Grand National citing the horse’s size and his tendency to land too steeply over his fences.
The decision might have deterred Marion Du Pont for the time being but she was still determined for Battleship to contest the race the following year. Meanwhile, the boy Bruce Hobbs did get his chance to experience the historic race, riding Flying Minutes for his father, but they fell at the third last when looking like finishing in the frame.
The 1937/38 season saw Battleship start his busy campaign at Cheltenham in November but as in the previous year Reg avoided running the American horse at the Liverpool meeting of the same month which was considered ideal preparation for the Grand National. However, Bruce riding Flying Minutes was beaten a short head in the Grand Sefton Chase at Liverpool.
Battleship won the Lonsdale Chase over three miles at Hurst Park in December, a field that included the 1933 Grand National victor Kellsboro Jack. Known for his battling qualities the little horse was regularly running against top quality opposition the like of former Aintree heroes Golden Miller, Reynoldstown and Royal Mail, carrying hefty weights without making the frame.
When Flying Minutes went lame in early March Marion Du Pont informed Reg that she wanted Bruce to ride Battleship at Aintree. Her offer of £200 for Bruce to ride was quickly accepted. The normal fee at the time was £3.
Battleship, now confirmed for Aintree had his last prep run at Cheltenham where he finished an impressive 3rd in the National Hunt Handicap Chase. Unfortunately Bruce Hobbs missed the ride as he had broken his nose when falling on Free Fare, the odds on favourite in the Champion Hurdle.
With Aintree looming the British public had now nicknamed Marion Du Pont’s horse ‘Pocket Battleship’. Although the 11 year old was safely in on-course stables by Wednesday night the owner, on board the German ocean liner Europa from New York had been delayed from docking at Southampton due to rough weather.
In those days the big race of the three day Aintree meeting was run on the Friday so Reg, taking no chances, let his son have the day off on Thursday. Meanwhile, Marion Du Pont after catching trains to London and Liverpool was there early on Friday morning to walk the course with the trainer.
Thirty six horses went to post for the 1938 Grand National with last year’s winner Royal Mail heading the weights with 12st 7Ib while Battleship was set to carry 11st 6Ib. One horse missing for the first time since 1932 was the legendary Golden Miller, the winner in 1934. Joint favourites were the previous year’s runner up Cooleen and Blue Shirt at 8/1 while Battleship was a 40/1 outsider.
The Aintree fences looked enormous to the diminutive Battleship and his trainer had remarked that the little horse would not be able to see over the mighty Chair. Indeed to counter the horse’s tendency to land on his nose, he had the reins lengthened by eighteen inches.
Early on Bruce Hobbs settled Battleship in the middle of the field and was jumping well. The little horse was over Becher’s but at the next, (now the Foinavon fence) after jumping, Bruce nearly fell out of the saddle and without the firm hand of his friend and fellow jockey Fred Rimell alongside, who yanked him back into the saddle, Marion Du Pont’s dream would have been over. Regaining his balance Bruce pushed on, whilst poor Fred fell at the next fence, the Canal Turn.
After hunting round the first circuit Battleship was in 7th place as they headed out into the country. At Becher’s second time Bruce chose the inside and the longest drop and they took the lead, a length ahead of the Irish horse Royal Danieli ridden by Dan Moore. The pair of them shared the lead until the fourth last when they were joined by another Irish horse Workman (who won the race in the following year).
At the third last Battleship made a terrible mistake taking off too soon and but for the riding skills of his 6ft 2in young jockey he would have fallen. Remaining calm way beyond his tender years Hobbs settled the horse and they were soon passing the labouring Workman. Jumping the last, three lengths behind Royal Danieli a tremendous battle to the line ensued with the two horses on opposite sides of the course and as they flashed across the line it was left to the judge to decide. The verdict was Battleship by a head.
Battleship’s courage and the horsemanship of Bruce Hobbs had created one of the Aintree’s greatest ever stories. An American bred and owned horse, (practically a pony), an entire, wearing blinkers, who was ridden by a seventeen year old, who by quirk of fate was born in New York. In addition the horse had been superbly trained by the jockey’s father, who we believe never wanted Battleship to tackle the fearsome Grand National fences. What more could you want!
Marion Du Pont had been vindicated in her belief, that despite his size, Battleship had the character, stamina and jumping ability to win the world’s greatest steeplechase.
Battleship returned to the United States in June 1938 and never raced again while two weeks after his Aintree victory Bruce Hobbs won the Welsh Grand National although before the year-end he had broken his back in a race fall at Cheltenham.
This weekend at Aintree, Welsh teenager James Bowen, who turned seventeen just before this year’s Cheltenham festival is booked to ride Shantou Flyer in what will be his one shot at breaking Bruce Hobbs’s achievement as the youngest jockey to win the Grand National. Bowen, like Hobbs a pony racing star, has already won the Welsh Grand National this season as a sixteen year old but can he on Saturday break one of racing’s greatest ever records.
*Firing – Is an old fashioned treatment to a horse’s leg by burning with a thin rod of hot steel. The practice is now illegal.
Blog by Stephen Wallis, Visitor Services