Cantering Countess who took on the Nazis and won!

Cantering Countess who took on the Nazis and won! Fascinating new biography recounts the life of the woman who competed in the world’s most dangerous horse race

  • Richard Askwith recounts the life of Countess Marie Immaculata Brandisova 
  • The horse racer known as Lata competed in Czechoslovakia’s Grand Pardubice
  • Grand Pardubice involves 31 fiendish obstacles across nearly five miles  
  • National hero Lata became an enemy when the Communist Party came to power 

BIOGRAPHY 

UNBREAKABLE

by Richard Askwith (Yellow Jersey £16.99, 432 pp)

Imagine a horse race designed by the Devil himself — a nearly five-mile test of man and beast with 31 obstacles so fiendish that, by comparison, the Grand National seems like a hack round the park — and you have Czechoslovakia’s Grand Pardubice: ‘the world’s most dangerous steeplechase’.

Every sporting contest has its legends. The Grand Pardubice’s is Countess Marie Immaculata Brandisova (or Lata). Her story is as moving as it is hair-raising.

Born in 1895, Lata was the fifth of nine children. Horses ran in her blood. Her father had once swum his horse across the Danube for a bet. Her great-uncle, whose party piece was to drive his coach round the balcony of his castle ‘turning corners so fast the outer wheels hung in the air’, founded the Grand Pardubice in 1874.

Author Richard Askwith recalls the life of Lata (pictured after the race in 1937) in a fascinating new biography

By her mid-20s, Lata was exercising a trainer’s powerful thoroughbreds. This left her ‘totally shattered’ at first, but she was soon at ease in the saddle.

‘The horse is the noblest animal,’ she believed. Its trust should be won ‘through love and not through brute force’.

Lata’s dream was to compete in the Grand Pardubice, but this ‘went down like a plate of horse manure’ with the male sporting establishment. This, after all, was the ultimate test of manhood. ‘It was far too tough for a woman.’ And what if — God forbid! — she should win?

But Lata wasn’t taking no for an answer. After some delicate diplomacy, she was finally accepted for the 1927 race. Come race day, an estimated 20,000 spectators gathered to watch the field of 13 risk life and limb. They didn’t want for gruesome drama: four horses suffered fatal injuries in the ten-minute race, and there were numerous fallers, Lata included.


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Naturally, she remounted — as she did four more times. She came fifth, which was greeted with thunderous applause and front-page headlines. But privately the shy Lata was disappointed: she hadn’t won.

With the years, her placings improved: fourth, third, second. She found her perfect partner, too: Norma, a pale gold mare, ‘tough, brave and faithful’.

By 1937, Lata, then 42, must have thought twice about risking her neck again. But her country had never needed a hero more. Czechoslovakia’s beloved founding father, Tomas Masaryk, had died in September, and a German invasion seemed inevitable.

The ‘Devil’s Race’ had become a battle between the Czechs and the elite horsemen of the Third Reich. ‘The impending race was now seen as a battle between good and evil.’

UNBREAKABLE by Richard Askwith (Yellow Jersey £16.99, 432 pp)

Race day dawned grey and chill. Special trains had been laid on to convey more than 40,000 spectators to the course, as Czechs across the country huddled round their radios, willing on the indomitable, silver-haired countess and Norma.

Five Nazi jockeys were among the 15 starters. But at the off, Lata wasn’t afraid. She had her Virgin Mary medallion around her neck, and beneath her the brave mare.

As the race took its brutal toll, the field narrowed. With two jumps left, Lata’s sole rival was a German rider, but as Lata kicked on for the finish she drew further and further ahead.

‘Norma reached the line with a seven-lengths lead . . . ears pricked up with what looked remarkably like joy. The noise and emotion were almost too volcanic to take in.’

A fairytale ending? No — far from it. By March 1939, Hitler was celebrating his invasion of Czechoslovakia in Prague Castle, and for Lata there was worse to come.

When the Communist Party came to power in 1948, she went from national hero to class enemy. She and her siblings were ultimately reduced to penury by the state. In 1953, Lata was forced from the family estate, with her remaining possessions in a cart.

But she never once complained about the cruelty shown to her by the nation for which she had risked her life. ‘The nobility that defined her was not that of a countess,’ Askwith concludes. ‘Hers was the same brave, loyal spirit that animates the great heart of a horse.’

 

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