Unbreakable: the Woman Who Defied the Nazis in the World’s Most Dangerous Horse-race (2019)

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

What they’re saying:

“One of the most remarkable racing stories I have ever had the pleasure of reading” – James Crispe, Thoroughbred Owner/Breeder

“A fabulously written book about a remarkable lady. A must-read for National Hunt enthusiasts” – James Fry, International Racing Bureau

“Heart-stopping reading that left me in tears… An extraordinary story of an exceptionally courageous woman who needs to be remembered and deserves to be celebrated.” – Clover Stroud, Daily Telegraph

“Astonishing, inspiring, sad… I found it utterly compelling” – Rose Paterson, chairwoman, Aintree Racecourse

“Fascinating” – Stephanie Cross, Daily Mail

“Thrilling” – Wall Street Journal

“A racing story of Hollywood proportions…  [This] thoroughly researched, deeply moving account does justice to a remarkable life” – John Cobb, Racing Post

“[An] extraordinary story… Askwith’s compelling book, as much about 20th-century history and women’s equality as it is about racing, is a fitting tribute to a truly remarkable and courageous woman” – Camilla Swift, Mail on Sunday

“Lata Brandisová… overcame massive gender prejudice to compete in the world’s most dangerous horse race, becoming a national heroine by going on to triumph in it over the sporting elite of Hitler’s Germany… The Czech nation will surely feel that [Richard Askwith] has done her justice” – Robin Oakley, Literary Review

“An inspiring story of an indomitable spirit” – Nick Pitt, Sunday Times (Best Books of 2019)

“What an amazing story – uplifting but tragic. I really enjoyed it. I cannot believe that someone hasn’t snapped up the film rights” – Paul Hawksbee, TalkSport, (Hawksbee and Jacobs)

“All the ingredients of a compulsive page-turner: an aristocratic heroine; a broken country; henchmen of the Third Reich; and an extraordinary horse… A thrilling story that I can only recommend you read” – The Field

“Vivid, stirring stuff” – History Revealed

“Outstanding” – Dostihový svět

“A riveting story” – Aktuálně

“Inspiring, heartbreaking… an intense roller-coaster from start to finish” – Publishers Weekly

Reviews:

Read Clover Stroud’s review of Unbreakable in the Daily Telegraph (30 March 2019) here.

Read James Crispe’s review of Unbreakable in Thoroughbred Owner/Breeder magazine (February 2019) here.

Awards:

Unbreakable has been long-listed for the 2019 William Hill Sports Book of the Year award.

Background:

Read my article about Lata for the Sunday Telegraph here

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

Events:

Find information about forthcoming events at which I will be discussing Lata and Unbreakable here.

Buy:

Order a copy of ‘Unbreakable’ from Amazon here.

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