Women in Racing: The Anti-Feminist Pioneer

by | 12.05.2014 | 1:03pm
Marion du Pont Scott with Battleship, a son of Man o' War who became the first American-bred horse to win the Grand National at Aintree

One can hardly flip through the pages of racing (or, for that matter, U.S.) history books without finding the fingerprints of the du Pont family. The American branch of the family made its money in the Du Pont Corporation, the now-chemical company established as a gunpowder manufacturer by Éleuthère Irénée du Pont in the early 1800s. The Du Ponts were recognized as one of the wealthiest families in the United States through the 1800s and 1900s (and still are—the company reported $35.7 billion in net sales last year) and as such, a number of them dabbled in the horse business.

There was Allaire du Pont, the trap shooter, pilot, and stunt woman who campaigned Kelso and helped found the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation. There was William du Pont Jr., who built success as an owner/breeder racing as Foxcatcher Farm. William won the 1938 Preakness with Dauber and owned six champions. He also arranged the mating that produced Hall of Famer Arts and Letters but died before the horse was born—the dam was sold to Paul Mellon, who is credited as breeder.

And then there was Marion du Pont Scott, William Jr.'s sister, an unapologetic tomboy who perhaps left a more lasting legacy on the East Coast flat and steeplechase worlds than any of her relatives.

Du Pont Scott's mother was, by some accounts, a somewhat distant parent, which could be why Scott devoted herself to the pastimes favored by William Sr.—particularly riding. William built a pony barn for Marion and William Jr. on the family farm at Montpelier, the estate of fourth U.S. president James Madison. Scott rode Hackneys and Saddlebreds but ultimately turned out to be a talented show jumper — so talented, in fact, that she became the first woman to ride astride in a jumping competition at Madison Square Garden in 1915. The move was upsetting to some in attendance, and it seems Scott adopted the style more as a statement than practical preference—she switched back to sidesaddle for her remaining classes—but the judges heard her. They also sent her home with a blue ribbon.

That victory, which would have been a lifetime landmark for many, paled in comparison to what Scott accomplished on the racetrack. In her decades-long stint as an owner of both flat and jumping runners she bred/owned five steeplechase champions (Rogue Dragon, Neji, Shipboard, Benguala, and Soothsayer) and two year-end champions (Mongo and Parks).

Battleship, a diminutive son of Man o' War, also picked up some significant hardware for Scott as the first American-bred horse to win the famous Grand National at Aintree, and remains the only 'chaser to win both the English and American Grand Nationals. Scott was on hand for the landmark victory in England, though she didn't know at first where the 15.2-hand horse ended up.

“When we got down off the stands to the unsaddling enclosure, I was hopping along. I'd lost the heel off one of my shoes,” recalled the petite Scott years later. 'The unsaddling stalls were numbered one, two, and three. I couldn't see anything until friends made a seat for me with their hands and pushed me up. I could see chestnut ears in number one. The other ears were bay.

“That's when I knew. Battleship was a chestnut.”

She filled Montpelier's paddocks and barns with Thoroughbreds and hired an in-house trainer to manage her string of horses, which traveled between Montpelier, her farm in South Carolina, and private barns at Saratoga and Belmont the rest of the year.

In the early 1970s, that in-house trainer was Peter Howe, who lived near Montpelier with his wife and two daughters. One of those little girls was Jill Byrne, now the on-air communications director for Churchill Downs.

“My sister and I pretty much grew up at Montpelier,” recalled Byrne. “Here's my sister Debbie and I running through James Madison's home at age five, six, seven, like it was our own—running up and down the stairs, up and down all the corridors where there's millions of dollars' worth of old paintings and old chairs James Madison had sat in, and of course we're not thinking at the time.”

Marion du Pont Scott (Courtesy: University of Virginia Library)

Marion du Pont Scott (Courtesy: University of Virginia Library)

Byrne remembers Scott as an imposing woman who was small but severe, even frightening to a young child. Scott is often seen scowling in photos, though a reporter for In and Around Horse Country magazine attributed this to camera shyness. Scott was not a fan of the spotlight and kept her personal life as much out of the papers as possible (her second marriage, to film star and childhood friend Randolph Scott, took place in secret).

In retrospect, Byrne realizes how fond Scott was of the family, particularly Byrne's mother, who was one of Scott's few female confidants. Scott invited the girls and their mother for afternoon tea after school in her famed Red Room, which was decorated in wall-to-wall win photos, awards, and books on Thoroughbred racing and pedigrees. Byrne and her sister played on the tennis courts (renovated especially for the girls) and poured over a matchstick replica of Royal Ascot Scott had constructed.

“When I think about all the time we spent with her as little kids and not really appreciating who this person was in this industry, and me now having devoted my life to this industry … she paved the way for so many of the female owners at that level,” said Byrne.

Despite being known as one of the most successful female owners in history, Byrne recalled that Scott was anything but a feminist. Scott had mostly male friends, as she found women flighty and overly emotional. Women were not allowed to work in the barns or gallop horses at Montpelier, although Byrne's father found a way around that rule when Scott came to the barn.

The famous Red Room at Montpelier

The famous Red Room at Montpelier

“At that point in time, her eyesight was failing,” Byrne remembered. “He would have the girls with their hair put up under their racing helmets, and they were not allowed to speak.

“It's funny that even though she was such a matriarch in the racing world, she didn't believe in women being involved in it.”

Scott's stern rules were in fact a reflection of her intense involvement in her operation. She came to the barn every morning as long as she was able and planned all the horses' matings herself. Byrne also remembered Scott and her friends holed up for hours in the winter, carefully reflecting on the proper Jockey Club name for each of Montpelier's horses. Scott also insisted on looking over breeding stock herself rather than choosing matings based on the book alone. She favored the Fair Play line and would double up on it whenever she could.

“Doubling strengthens the pedigree of any mare,” Scott said in her memoir, Montpelier. “Always though, I made sure the mare and the sire were physically sound. Unfortunately, too many people breeding horses today would go the most fashionable sire, even if he had only three legs. If a horse isn't sound, he's no good to me.”

(There was at least one instance in which Scott's success did not result from a carefully-crafted mating: Accra, the mare who gave her Mongo and Neji.

“Actually, Accra was an accident,” reflected one reporter after Mongo's success. “Her dam, Ladala, had been left at Montpelier by the husband of her owner, who had died. The arrangement was made without Mrs. Scott's knowledge and when she one day saw Ladala, who was anything but a thing of beauty, in the field, she asked her identity. On being told, she asked that Ladala be sent home. However, Ladala had no other home at the time and it soon became apparent that the young mare was in foal to Annapolis. The result was Accra.”)

Scott did not forget the thrills her horses gave her, even from the grave—when she died in 1989, the breeder of 53 flat racing stakes winners left $100,000 to the Grayson-Jockey Club Foundation, and Springdale, a steeplechase course she established, went to the state of South Carolina with a $1 million endowment.

Scott's father had stipulated that she could not will the Montpelier estate out of the family but Scott, who was determined to see the house go to the National Trust, had things her way even after death. She left the Trust an endowment to restore the home and decreed that her nieces and nephews would forfeit their right to her money if they did not give the house away. After a legal tussle they gave in, and the house underwent a renovation that removed 60 percent of its floorplan to compensate for the additions and re-decoratings the du Ponts had made in the family's time there. Montpelier is now open to the public year-round.

Scott's legacy lives on in the horse world, too—the Montpelier Hunt Races that she began on the house's lawn in 1934 are still run today. Springdale still hosts the Carolina and Colonial Cup, and her $4 million endowment to Virginia Tech resulted in the Marion du Pont Scott Equine Medical Center, a full-service equine hospital in Leesburg, Va.

To read about other female pioneers in the world of racing, see our previous Women in Racing stories featuring owner Barbara Banke, trends in equine education, stallion manager Sandy Hatfield, racing journalists, Ada Evans Dean, and handicapper Judy Wagner.

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