Lata Brandisová: the woman who won Europe’s toughest steeplechase

Lata Brandisová, photo: archive of Czech Radio

The Czech Republic has a long tradition of horse racing and the most celebrated race of all is the Great Pardubice, or Velká pardubická. This is Europe’s most challenging steeplechase and is being run this weekend. There are many stories surrounding the race, but perhaps the most interesting – and certainly one of the least known – is that of the only woman to win the steeplechase. Her name was Lata Brandisová, and she won way back in 1937. Her remarkable story is the subject of a book, currently being written by the British journalist, Richard Askwith. David Vaughan looks at her story.

Richard Askwith,  photo: David Vaughan
We interviewed Richard Askwith for this programme not long ago to talk about his biography of the great Czech runner, Emil Zátopek. Now Richard has turned his pen to one of the greatest horsewomen in modern Czech history. At a time when women jockeys were virtually unknown, Lata Brandisová became a national hero overnight when she overturned a series of German victories to win the 1937 Velká pardubická. This was a huge achievement, a result of her single-minded determination and her brilliance as a jockey. But it came at a time when Europe was on the brink of war, and Lata Brandisová ’s life was turned upside down by the German occupation and then the years of communism that followed. To this day, Lata Brandisová is little known even in her home country, so I asked Richard Askwith how he became interested in her story.

“I stumbled across the story of Lata Brandisová who I’m sure most listeners have never heard of.”

And most Czechs haven’t heard of her either.

“She was the first woman to have won the Velká pardubická, the most extreme steeplechase in continental Europe. I think the Czechs have this strange capacity to produce amazing sporting heroes but also to disown and persecute them. In 1937 Lata Brandisová was the most famous living person in Czechoslovakia. She was the glory of the nation. But then, because of the Nazi occupation and because of communism afterwards, she very rapidly went from being hero to being non-person. She spent the last thirty years of her life living in great poverty. I picked up a little book this morning from one of those old second-hand bookshops you see in Prague, produced in the mid-1980s, called “Our Great National Sporting Heroes”. There were a hundred heroes from various sports and she wasn’t in it. It’s crazy, and it’s because she was politically the wrong sort of person.”

Her family background and everything about her just didn’t fit into the pattern of Czechoslovak twentieth century history.

“Absolutely. She was from a poor aristocratic family – they very rapidly lost their land and their wealth in the First Republic (1918-1938). They became Czech patriots as the shadow of Nazim was approaching. She had a very good war – very much in the aristocratic way, running the village estate, looking after the peasants, helping the partisans, always being the Countess.”

And she always remained loyal to the Czech nation.

“Yes, and she often took great risks in order to do so. I think she was a very good and very brave woman, of huge significance for women in sport at a time when women were starting to get footholds in sport – only to lose them again.”

Eliška Junková, the racing driver, is another example…

Lata Brandisová,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
“Yes, and there was the whole thing about the Women’s World Games and the struggle to be allowed to compete in the Olympic Games. The Women’s World Games were in Prague in 1930. Under Masaryk women were meant to be equal to men in all respects. It began to happen, but then it stopped and went backwards as fascism arose. When she first tried to ride at the Velká pardubická there were protests and the male jockeys tried to stop it happening. Just getting to the starting line was a battle. Like so many women in so many areas, they had to be twice as good as a man, at least, just to get to where they were.”

And is your research focusing on talking to people who knew her or researching in archives?

“Both those things. I’ve probably talked to every living person who knew her. It’s much harder than Emil Zátopek, because she was much less gregarious. For the last thirty years of her life she lived in great obscurity. Most of the people I’ve spoken to who knew her were very young at the time when they did meet her, because she was born in 1895 and died in 1981. So it’s a bit more of a detective story, but that is very fascinating and I’ve really enjoyed doing it.”

Presumably there are lots of good photos.

“There are some very good photos. Some of them are quite shocking as well. The old-fashioned Velká pardubická was very extreme.”

Right up until quite recently there was always quite a high casualty rate – particularly among the horses.

“It was pretty dangerous for the jockeys as well. The difference is that if the jockey is badly injured they don’t put a bullet through their head. But the races I’m writing about are races that took place in a different age. We can’t exactly compare values today. But interestingly, Lata Brandisová’s approach to horses was almost unique in its gentleness. She was unorthodox in thinking that you should never ever show anything but kindness to a horse and that was the way to get things out of the horse. So you could say it was the woman’s touch producing these amazing results.”

And when can we enjoy this book?

“I hope it will be out next year. The English version should be out in 2019 – and I very much hope there’ll be a Czech version as well, because I think the Czechs will find it interesting.”

Velká Pardubická,  photo: CzechTourism
As Richard Askwith mentioned, Lata Brandisová grew up in the world of the Czech aristocracy. After the Second World War, much of the former gentry of Bohemia and Moravia left the country, some because they were seen as collaborators, others because it was clear they would not be welcome in the emerging communist state. But Lata and her sisters Jana and Kristýna decided to remain. Their country estate at Řitka, south-west of Prague was confiscated and in 1953 they were made to move to a chalet nearby without running water or electricity. There they spent the next 26 years in almost complete isolation. By 1979 Lata was finding it increasingly difficult to keep going, and her nephew Ernst Haan was allowed to take her across the Iron Curtain to his estate in Austria for the winter. She still hoped to come home but her health declined and she died in Austria in May 1981 at the age of 85, almost completely forgotten.

When I interviewed Richard Askwith, he asked me if there were any surviving recordings of Lata Brandisová in the Czech Radio archives. It turns out that there is an interview, but that the sound is lost and it survives only as a transcript. It was recorded just after Lata’s historic victory in the Velká pardubická of 1937, and I think it shows rather well Lata’s sheer determination as a rider. Here is an extract.

Interviewer: With the victory of Miss Lata Brandisová this year… the little world of sport in our country achieved a truly great success. On Czechoslovak turf we’ve never seen anything quite like the great victory of this agreeable and modest rider on her brave mare Norma. All of us who followed the exciting race either with our own eyes or through our radio sets, take pride in the trophy which Miss Brandisová has brought back to us. But Miss Brandisová herself is the best person to tell us how she managed it. Was it difficult? Lata: Not for me. I have great faith in the horses from Chlumec and my cousin Count Kinský was a great trainer. He refused even to contemplate the idea that I might not manage the jumps. He encouraged me to take part in the Velká Pardubická and sorted out everything so that I would be allowed to start. To be quite honest I find it harder talking into the microphone. Interviewer: As a lady rider, did you require a special permit to ride? Lata: The rules for racing in Europe do not yet allow ladies to take part in steeplechases, but nor do they forbid them. The male riders and professional jockeys accepted me as a colleague, they were always polite to me. Interviewer: Didn’t they look on you with mistrust and feel that their male pride was under threat? Lata: Maybe at the start. Like every novice I had to prove what I could do, and so much more as a lady novice. Interviewer: The Velká Pardubická is known as the toughest steeplechase on the continent. What impression did it make on you? Lata: It didn’t bring any surprises at all… I was undaunted the first time I took part ten years ago, and it was the same this year. I felt a huge responsibility, partly because of my cousin Count Kinský… who intervened to make it possible for me to start, but also because of all the interest among the sport-loving public. It made me determined to complete the course with both myself and my horse in one piece, come what may. There was no question of giving up. It was my great ambition to win the Velká Pardubická ever since I first completed the course with the mare Nevěsta despite falling so many times. I tried it again on Norbert and once I’d got used to Norma, I really believed it was possible. Interviewer: With Norma, was it love at first sight? Lata: I didn’t have much faith in her to start with. She was rather small and weak. But she proved herself to be a fine cross-country horse with stamina… She jumped wisely and calmly over everything that came her way, and she was nice and fast on the course… Before long we were true friends. We got on better every day, my faith in the little mare grew more and more and in the end I believed that we two female spirits could one day win this great race. Interviewer: So did you have a feeling that you might win this year? Lata: I knew that Norma was in excellent form, but you can never count on victory – anyone doing that would be making a mistake… Given the strong competition our position wasn’t easy. Norma and I had to be really careful, we tried not to waste any energy, and I was determined not to fall. We both stretched our womanly resources to the limit, focused our minds and tried to avoid mistakes… We kept a good pace with the others and soon we were in the leading group. As we neared the end of the course and Norma was jumping cleanly, I became increasingly sure that… unless Norma fell, we would win. She didn’t fall and with her strength still fresh, she increased her pace for the final gallop as the finishing post approached. Interviewer: Crossing the finishing post as winner must have been a wonderful feeling. Lata: I was over the moon about our victory… I’ll never forget the moment when thousands and thousands of arms were waving to me, when everyone cried out “Norma” and when everyone was sharing the same joy, applauding and celebrating our victory. I had the feeling that people had never been as open and united in friendship as at the moment of my victory and that was the greatest and loveliest reward. Interviewer: Will we see you again on the course with Norma? Lata: This victory marked the end of Norma’s career. From now on she will be able to rest at home at the stables. But there’s another Chlumec mare that I like. She’s called “Nazdar” and has every chance of becoming another Norma, so I hope one day to defend the Kinský colours once again on the course in Pardubice. Interviewer: You’re not meant to wish sportsmen and women good luck, in case it brings the opposite. But we shall always be crossing our fingers for you. With all our hearts, we hope that this will not be the last occasion of a Czech sportswoman winning the Velká Pardubická.

There was no Velká pardubická for the next seven years, first because of the German annexation of the Sudetenland and then with the war, but Lata Brandisová did ride the race again in 1946 and 1947. She fell on both occasions, and in the end it was a further injury that brought an end to a career in 1949. Had she carried on, it is unlikely that the new regime in Czechoslovakia would have allowed her to compete for much longer. She just didn’t fit their idea of a sporting hero in a communist society. Her record as the only woman to win the Great Pardubice Steeplechase stands to this day.