‘The truth is I’m not that attached to life’ - The forgotten female sports icon who defied the Nazis

Richard Askwith tells the remarkable story of Lata Brandisová in a new book.

Updated at 12.07

YOU MAY NEVER have heard of Lata Brandisová, and if so, you’re not alone.

A trailblazing figure, she remains the only female to triumph in the Grand Pardubice Steeplechase — widely perceived as the world’s toughest horse race.

Yet even many aficionados of the sport as well as people in her homeland are unfamiliar with this incredible achievement.

Brandisová’s rise and fall feels like the story of Czechoslovakia writ large. From its liberal, idealistic beginnings from its foundation, after being declared independent from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, to its troubled status as the century progressed amid the hardships inflicted by World War II and subsequent Communist rule.

Despite Brandisová’s success and fame when she triumphed in the Grand Pardubice just as Europe was on the verge of war, her story was soon forgotten. She was consigned to a life of poverty as Communism took its grip on the beleaguered country, and the star’s story was virtually erased from history thanks in part to the concerted efforts of authority figures who wanted it forgotten.

‘Unbreakable’ seeks to redress this issue and to re-assert Brandisová’s legacy.

The42 recently caught up with the acclaimed author to discuss this remarkable tale.


What prompted you to write the book?

I just came across the story by chance, after I’d written a previous book on Emil Zatopek, the great Czech runner and I had spent a lot of time in the Czech Republic and was very interested in Czech cultural history.

When I came across Lata Brandisová, the most interesting thing about her is even in the racing world, barely anyone had heard of her. And yet, she was a figure of enormous significance in horse racing.

She was the first woman to ever ride in the Grand Pardubice Steeplechase, which is a notoriously dangerous and difficult steeplechase. No woman had ever ridden in it before, and she caused a great scandal by insisting on her right to ride in it.

Not only that, but 10 years later, she became the first and remains the only woman to win the Grand Pardubice Steeplechase.

I know Katie Walsh has won the Irish Grand National but if you look at the Grand Pardubice and the Grand National in the UK, those are considered the two really tough steeplechases and she’s the only woman to have won one of those.

The other thing about the Grand Pardubice Steeplechase [in which she triumphed] is it was right on the eve of World War II. It was in circumstances of extraordinary political significance. A time of national crisis and a showdown with Nazi paramilitary officers, who considered the Czechs sub-human, and yet somehow, through a combination of talent and sheer courage, she became an icon for her nation and her gender.

And then her story was just erased from history. To me, that’s why it’s important. Female high achievers in sport and other fields often get a raw deal from history, but Lata Brandisová more than most. So I got a hint of what happened and tried to find out more, and found that even in the Czech Republic, even in the Czech horse racing world, people knew very little about her. It was just too interesting to leave. The story drew me in and initially I hadn’t planned to write a book about it, but it became a sort of obsession, recreating her story.

imago-20181014 The Grand Pardubice steeplechase is considered by many to be the toughest steeplechase on the planet. Above is a picture of the 128th edition of the event in 2018. Imago / PA Images Imago / PA Images / PA Images

Was it tough to find information on the topic given how long ago these events took place?

It was a tricky thing and several people advised me that really, it was too long ago to recover a story. I was actually lucky, some parts of her story are well recorded in the Czech archives. In other parts, there are great gaps in her life that are very difficult to find out about.

But it’s also not just a Czech story, it’s a story about a critical moment in Europe’s history.

A lot of the story came from German archives and these Nazi SS officers she was riding against. I found out about them in the German archives, although they too are incomplete.

The second thing is, though it was a long time ago, she did have surviving family in the Czech Republic and other countries that I was able to track down.

Everyone I spoke to was really kind in terms of help. People wanted her story to be told and were sharing all sorts of memories of her.

The other thing is having reached the limit of what I could find out in the conventional historical way by looking at archives, I also spent a lot of time just being a journalist locally, going around the village she used to live, talking to all these old people in various parts of the country who did have first-hand experience of her and who could share their memories.

Putting all those sources together, I have been able to reconstruct the vast majority of her story.

royalty-kaiser-king-of-saxony-1912 Soldiers during World War I. PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

It was not a great time to be a woman generally speaking, but would it be fair to say Czechoslovakia was more progressive in that regard than most countries back then?

That’s absolutely right. After World War I, this rather idealistic democracy, Czechoslovakia, was founded on the ruins of Habsburg Empire and it was backed by the allies in the First World War. Tomáš Masaryk was the founding president and president for most of its existence — he was this wonderful noble, idealistic man. It actually said in the founding constitution of Czechoslovakia that all distinctions based on gender were to be abolished. And Tomáš Masaryk was really admired by feminists.

In the 1920s, there was this real movement towards equal opportunities for women. And there were people like Alice Milliat starting the Women’s World Games, when they weren’t getting a fair shot at the Olympics.

But then when you get to the 1930s and the rise of fascism, that was partly going back to extreme social conservatism.

So women went forward and Lata Brandisová might have been inspired by that in insisting on her right to ride in horse racing in Czechoslovakia.

But then in the 1930s, the whole cause went back again, and certainly, at least one of the Nazis against whom she rode strongly disapproved of a woman riding at all. And so the cause of feminism and the cause of democracy became intertwined together.

She got plenty of blowback and caused controversy owing to her decision to race initially, but won respect when she showed how accomplished she was at the activity?

That’s fair. The thing about the Grand Pardubice Steeplechase is it’s a ridiculously difficult and extreme race. Especially back then, it was tougher than it is today. It was basically conceived as preparation for war. A lot of people who rode in it were Czechoslovak cavalry officers and before that, Habsburg cavalry officers. The idea was if you were ‘tough enough to ride in the Grand Pardubice Steeplechase, you were man enough to die for your country’.

So lots of the people that Lata was first riding against were cavalry officers and from their point of view, the idea of racing against a woman, it was a huge affront to their honour. They thought: ‘How can a delicate woman be allowed to put her life at risk? Our duty is to protect women from the pressures of society’ etc.

Secondly, if they were seen to have cooperated in a woman taking part, that was dishonourable.

And thirdly, if one of them lost to a woman, what would that do to their military prestige? You’re meant to be this super tough cavalry officer and you’ve been beaten by ‘a mere woman’.

So they were really hostile to the idea. In the weeks leading up to the race, they were protesting to the jockey club and on the day of the race itself. Initially, they wouldn’t even talk to her. But the thing about Lata, the first time she rode the race in 1927, it’s a really tough race so there were a lot of injuries. Lata herself fell five times. The first one at least was a pretty bad fall. But back in those days, if you were a soldier, you carried on getting up and remounting until you didn’t anymore.

So she didn’t ride a particularly good race, but she did finish. Of the 13 starters, only five finished. So that immediately put her among the best and the toughest who had taken part. Immediately when she came in, there was vast applause for her, because this woman who everyone said was too delicate and feeble to take part had shown that she was tough enough. And even if she was having problems with riding, in terms of mental and moral courage, she was right up there with the soldiers. And soon afterwards, she came back, rode again and again, and got better.

The cavalry officers began to accept her as well and very quickly, she became a national treasure.

horse-racing-cheltenham-festival-2009-day-one-cheltenham-racecourse Ireland's Ken Whelan is among those to have taken part in the Grand Pardubice. PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

Jockeys are just wired differently to the rest of us and Lata had that depressive, slightly masochistic element to her personality that made her willing to repeatedly put her body on the line, right?

It’s hard to say exactly what it is, but to the rest of us, it seems crazy that someone voluntarily exposes themselves to that sort of risk.

Maybe they’re adrenaline junkies, maybe it’s something more depressive than that.

Shortly before her big victory, a fellow jockey, who didn’t ride in the Grand Pardubice, said to Lata: ‘How can you bring yourself to ride in this? You have to go over these enormous jumps. Aren’t you afraid you’re going to kill yourself?’ She said: ‘The truth is I’m not that attached to life.’

My speculation is around that time she had some sort of romantic heartbreak. She probably was feeling fairly depressed, because of the things that were going on in her life. So for her, that was an element of it.

There were other jockeys who took part in the Grand Pardubice — Ken Whelan or Charlie Mann, who won it in 1995. You just think: ‘I don’t know what makes these guys tick.’ It’s sort of crazy and bizarre — they see something dangerous and and think: ‘Let’s see if I can do it.’ It’s a sort of joie de vivre in a way and almost as if it’s an appetite for happiness as much as an indifference to well-being.

But whatever it is, what’s nice about these races is that the people who take part develop this great camaraderie. These days, it’s irrespective of gender, irrespective of nation, irrespective of anything. If you take part in the Grand Pardubice Steeplechase, you’re one of them, and they’re very friendly and supportive to one another.

werner-march It was clear by 1937 that Hitler wanted to take over Czechoslovakia. DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

She had her famous victory in the event in 1937. What did it mean both to her and ordinary Czech people? It was a huge moment, wasn’t it?

The thing was all through the 1930s, the Nazi threat had been building up and it was quite clear that by 1937, Hitler wanted to take over Czechoslovakia and they were agitating already to take over the Sudetenland. In the middle of September 1937, Tomáš Masaryk died. It was one of these strange moments of huge national trauma. A bit like the death of Nelson Mandela. An entire nation came out in mourning. Something like two million people took part in a total standstill for his funeral.

There was this great sense of bereavement and, on the one hand, a sense of national unity, but at the same time, a sense of shock of: ‘What’s going to happen to us now? If he dies, anything can happen. Maybe it’s the end of Czechoslovakia, the end of our democracy and maybe Nazi victory is inevitable.’ So four weeks later, you have this great national steeplechase — a big Czech sporting event. Not only that, but the Nazis, the very people who were threatening the future of Czechoslovakia, just as in 1936, they used the Berlin Olympics, they’re using other sporting events as a really important political propaganda vehicle.

Not just their best riders, but their best paramilitary riders. The SS officers and the brownshirt officers coming there with the very best horses determined to crush the ‘sub-Human Slavs,’ and determined to improve their invincible superiority. So there was vast public interest.

Lata was 42 by now, so you’d expect her to be past her best. The previous year she hadn’t ridden at all and there was a suggestion that maybe she’d retired. So the fact that she was coming back and very symbolically riding this little golden-coloured Kinsky mare — a Czech breed — called Norma, who was like a sort of close personal friend. It was this female partnership up against these super tough, manly, invincible Aryan warrior horsemen. And for Czechs and Slovaks, a Czech victory was almost too much to hope for. It was just a vast boost for national morale and the celebrations afterwards, they couldn’t get rid of the crowds from the racecourse, because people were so delighted. That’s why it’s so extraordinary.

And then, within a decade or so, she had been forgotten. And when I went to the races to research the story, the vast majority of people I spoke to had never heard of her.

memorial-for-anniversary-of-beer-hall-putsch Lata Brandisová competed against Nazi officers. DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

How did she deal with the initial fame, given that she was quite a shy person?

She was quite awkward. She felt much more comfortable in the company of horses than people. She had this amazing rapport with horses. Her horses really responded to her and loved her. But she was a celebrity for a year or so. And then the Nazis took over.

The Nazis hated her, because she had humiliated their finest paramilitary officers. Also she and her family, the Kinsky family, were associated with various declarations to defy the Nazis.

So when the Nazis took over the country, hers was one of the first estates to be confiscated. And the Nazis took over racing under the occupation, and she stopped racing. So she was sort of unmentionable.

Then they had the liberation and she rode again for a couple of years, but very quickly, the Communists took over and as far as they were concerned, she had been a countess. Although the title had been abolished, she was from an aristocratic background. So she was a class enemy and was totally to be discouraged. She had a bad fall in 1949 riding in Pardubice and she was in a coma for a week. In my book I talk about her injuries and it goes on for a page, just listing them, and she never quite recovers from that.

After that, she just lived in obscurity. In the early 1950s, the Communists took her home and that became an agricultural hostel and estate, and she was sent off to live in this tiny cottage in the woods, where she lived with two sisters without electricity or running water, very little income. So for almost 30 years, she just lived in poverty. And a new generation of racegoers, who had never heard of her, grew up.

In those final years of her life, she was unable to ride and even found it difficult to move around the place due to injuries from racing. How did she cope?

It was a fairly tragic end. She couldn’t ride. She really missed horses. I don’t think she missed the fame or even living in the big house. She missed her village and the countryside around there. They actually were quite poor. Visitors were worried that they weren’t eating properly and they were cold.

Two things [helped]. She was very religious and what she would always do was go to church and pray, and that sustained her. The other thing everyone says is she never complained. It was almost a point of pride. They left their house. They never looked back and never really talked about what they had lost.

She’s the sort of person where it’s quite hard to know for certain what was going on inside her. But I’ve spoken to lots of her younger relatives, and they didn’t think it used to bother her.

She did have a slightly crazy quality. She didn’t observe the same rules of caution as other people.

There was one young nephew who used to bring her presents of cigarettes. Then they would both sneak into the woods and smoke them together, even though he wasn’t supposed to. She was that sort of person.

Also, she would give him a loaded gun and he’d go off and be able to play with it in the woods.

So she was sort of reckless and crazy, but whether she was happy or not is very hard to know. She did suffer a lot and felt that she had been badly treated, but just made up her mind that she was never going to complain and never did, because of her great willpower.

horse-racing-1977-grand-national-aintree Barony Fort ridden by Charlotte Brew takes the water jump during the 1977 Grand National. S&G and Barratts / EMPICS Sport S&G and Barratts / EMPICS Sport / EMPICS Sport

I’m interested particularly in her legacy. To what extent has she influenced Czech athletes, or other female athletes, if at all?

I’ve spoken to quite a lot of Czech athletes for various reasons and they haven’t heard of her. But at the same time she did have this influence that perhaps they weren’t aware of, because she broke this taboo against women riding in Pardubice and even though she herself was forgotten, the taboo itself remained broken. Other women came after her and rode in the race as well.

And Czechoslovakia was decades ahead of other countries in terms of female participation.

One of the people I interviewed was Charlotte Brew, who was the first woman to ride in the Grand National in 1977 — 50 years after Lata first rode in Pardubice.

When Charlotte rode in the Grand National, she encountered terrible abuse and caused a scandal as well. It was probably worse than for Lata in 1937. People were slagging her off in the media and sending her nasty comments. But she did it anyway.

Then she became the first Englishwoman to ride in the Grand Pardubice. She talked about the contrast there, women were welcomed, no one really raised an eyebrow.

There was nothing strange about a woman taking part, she wasn’t the first, second or third. She was really welcomed and always had this soft spot for Pardubice afterwards. And she came back when I was there one year recently.

She told me that when she raced there in 1977, no one told her that a woman had previously won the race and she’d never heard of Lata. So her story was forgotten, but this invisible legacy was still there. And of course, now, female jockeys are regularly riding in the Grand National and the Irish Grand National, and [other] big races.

There’s still a lot of prejudice, there are still people who say ‘women aren’t tough enough,’ which is obviously absurd when you look at what Lata did. And there’s objective academic evidence to show that, in terms of outcome, once you take into account the horses that the jockeys are given, the gender of the jockey has no effect whatsoever on the outcome of races. But men still get the vast majority of riders in races. I’m sure any jockey would tell you this, the problem for female jockeys is just getting good horses to ride.

But as far as the general public are concerned, they expect to see women riding and we hope to see women winning these big races in the very near future.

This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

‘Unbreakable: The Woman Who Defied the Nazis in the World’s Most Dangerous Horse Race’ by Richard Askwith is published by Yellow Jersey. More info here.

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