Unbreakable: the Woman Who Defied the Nazis in the World’s Most Dangerous Horse-race

Lata Brandisová (top left) riding in the Grand Pardubice steeplechase

I never meant to write a book about horse-racing.  Nor – after ‘Today We Die A Little‘ – did I mean to write another book with a Czech hero. Then I came across the story of Lata Brandisová. It was simply too good to leave untold.

It’s set in what used to be Czechoslovakia. Its defining scene takes place in October 1937. Europe’s youngest, most idealistic democracy is on its knees. Millions are mourning the death of the nation’s founding father, the saintly Tomáš Masaryk. Across the border, the Third Reich is growing ever more menacing – and plotting to invade. 

In the Czechoslovak heartlands, vast crowds have gathered to watch the threatened nation’s most prestigious sporting contest: the Grand Pardubice steeplechase. Arduous and absurdly dangerous, the race is considered the ultimate test of manhood and fighting spirit. The Nazis, as usual, have sent their paramilitary elite: SS and SA officers schooled to be Hitler’s most ruthless enforcers. Their mission: to crush and humiliate – yet again – the people they despise as “subhuman Slavs”. The local cavalry officers have no hope of stopping them.

But there is one other contestant: a middle-aged, silver-haired countess riding a little golden mare…

The story of Lata Brandisová is one of the strangest and most inspiring – and most undeservedly forgotten – in all sporting history. Born into privilege, she spent much of her life in poverty. Modest and shy, she none the less refused to accept the constraints society placed on her because of her gender. Instead, with quiet, stubborn courage, she repeatedly achieved what others said was impossible.

The scandal of her first attempt to ride in Pardubice reverberated across Europe. Ten years later, she became her nation’s figurehead in its darkest hour. Then came retribution, first from one totalitarian regime and then from another. Her achievements were erased from history, and her story, as a result, has never been fully told before.

Unbreakable is a tale of courage, heartbreak and defiance, in an age of prejudice and fear. In the background are forces – sexism, class hatred, nationalism – whose shadows darken today’s world too. In the foreground are eccentric aristocrats, socialite spies, daredevil jockeys – and a race so brutal that some consider merely taking part in it a sign of insanity. At its heart is a unique hero – and a unique love affair between a woman and a horse.

Lata, on Norma, in Pardubice following her most famous race

Hear (or read) my interview with Radio Prague here.

Order a copy of ‘Unbreakable’ from Amazon here.

Advertisements