‘Unbreakable’ by Richard Askwith is the biography of Lata Brandisová, a female jockey in pre-Second World War Czechoslovakia. It won the Biography of the Year in the Telegraph Sports Book Awards.
I received this book for Christmas and I thought it was absolutely wonderful. ‘Unbreakable’ is a riches to rags journey of incredible sporting achievements to complete obscurity and spans some of the most terrible and turbulent times in Czechoslovakian – and European – history. Lata Brandisová faced off against the Nazis to realise her ambition of winning arguably the most dangerous steeplechase of all time: the Velká Pardubická.
Recently, I was lucky enough to speak to Richard Askwith about ‘Unbreakable’ and he described the process of researching this book as “hard work, but it was really enjoyable”. On first look, a significant amount of Lata’s story was unknown, “Finding out the full story of Lata’s life wasn’t at all easy. It all took place a long time ago, most of the people who knew Lata in her racing days were dead, and the evidence in the archives was very incomplete. Also, of course, for forty years under Communism – and six years under the Nazis before that – it hadn’t been acceptable to talk or write about her. But I did eventually manage to track down a surprisingly large number of people with direct knowledge of particular aspects of Lata’s story, along with various documentary sources, and eventually I think I was able to re-assemble most of the jigsaw of her life.”
Initially, Askwith thought that he could write a “nice magazine article” about Lata but it eventually became something much more, “I felt that it needed a whole book to do it justice, partly because Lata was such a remarkable person who deserved to be properly remembered, but also because her story was intertwined in such a fascinating way with the story of Czechoslovak democracy and story of the early women’s liberation movement, and with the twin tragedies of Nazism and Communism. Whichever way you look at it, Lata Brandisová’s story certainly isn’t just a horse-racing story. It’s the story of a remarkable and courageous woman, living in dramatically difficult times.”
I truly recommend purchasing ‘Unbreakable’, which you can do so here, because it is an incredibly emotive and well-written book. It’s no spoiler to say that Lata wins the Velká Pardubická – it says so on the cover of the book– because the fence-by-fence account of her hard-won victory makes for thoroughly gripping reading.
This story begins on the 26th June 1895 when Countess Maria Immaculata (Lata) Brandisová was born. Lata lived in a chateau owned by her mother, Johanna von Schäffer, in Ritka, which was south-west of Prague. The book describes her being free to roam the land, riding and shooting with her father, Count Leopold Von Brandis, a horse breeder and a Lieutenant Colonel in the Austrian army. She loved horses and became an extremely skilled rider.
When the First World War began in 1914, Lata was nineteen and her father returned to active service. Her twenty-year-old brother, Mikulas, was enlisted to fight and, tragically, he was killed in action in Italy, leaving the family, and especially his mother, heartbroken. Lata was left to look after the estate, her sisters and her mother. Throughout her life, she was a pillar of strength for her family in the torrid times that they endured. After the war, Czechoslovakia became a republic and suddenly her title (not that she seemed to flaunt its benefits) was rendered worthless.
Lata was keen to ride horses in competitive races but was allowed to compete only in trotting races or unofficial display races. She was close with her cousin Zdenko Radslav Kinský – affectionately known as ‘Ra’ – who was described as having an “obviously sunny nature”. Around 1927, the pair decided Lata was such a skilled horsewoman that she should ride Ra’s horse in the Velká Pardubická.
To say this decision caused controversy would be an understatement. There were protests and petitions because the Velká Pardubická was considered to be the race that sorted the men from the boys. It is one of the greatest tests of equine stamina and a rider’s resolve. A four-mile course of imposing obstacles with banks, ditches and hedges, scarier than the infamous Grand National fences. The inside cover of the book shows sketches of the obstacles and they look intimidating – even on paper! The Czech Jockey Club wrote to the English Jockey Club for guidance and, based on their advice, allowed Lata to compete.
Her mount, Nevěsta, had been specifically bred for this type of race, like a Galileo foal for a Derby. Nevěsta was a Kinský horse. This breed of warmblood had a unique golden coat. Oktavian Kinský was Lata’s great-uncle and he founded the Velká Pardubická in 1874. He was a daredevil horseman and had designed the race for those with a similar mentality.
On Sunday 9th October 1927, Lata and Nevěsta did something that no one expected them to do – she completed the track! Back then, ‘completed the track’ meant that you didn’t leave the course in the Ambulance Coach or your horse didn’t decide they’d had enough. Lata and Nevěsta parted company three times but were the fifth combination to cross the finishing line.
Lata completed the race on a few more occasions over the next ten years. She created a beautiful bond with Norma, a Kinský mare with the trademark golden coat and a pale mane and tail, not dissimilar to that of her rider. Whilst the combination had competed in the race before, the 1937 Velká Pardubická was going to be the most crucial, both for them and the Czechoslovakian people.
Czechoslovakia was now vulnerable. In March 1936, Hitler sent German troops into the Ruhr, breaking the Treaty Of Versailles and creating tension with France. Across Europe, Nazi officers were keen to assert their Aryan dominance in sport and SS and SA officers set their sights on winning the Velká Pardubická.
Lata personified what the Nazi’s believed a woman shouldn’t be like – at forty-two, she had never married; she had no children; she used to be a countess and she was an independent sportswoman. All of this, and the fact that she was a Czech, made the country’s people love her even more. She became a figurehead for national pride and hope against the fear of impending Nazi invasion.
The chapter in ‘Unbreakable’ recounting the 1937 Velká Pardubická is quite brilliantly named ‘Battle of Parbudice’. The men in this race were tough, no stranger to the battlefield. A remarkable example of this was SS-Unterscharführer Lengnik. He was riding a grey Trakehner called Herold, who crashed out at one of the fences, throwing Lengnik who broke his collarbone. However, he was able to remount, recover lost ground and eventually finish third! This happened at ‘Taxis’, the most formidable obstacle on the course. At this time, it consisted of a two-meter deep and five-meter-wide ditch, shielded behind a one-and-a-half-meter hedge. Lata went clear – she knew how to ride this fence from her experience in the race and schooling over Ra’s replicas.
Shortly after five horses came to grief at the formidable ‘Snake Ditch’ (described as “the worst of several deceptively simple-looking water ditches, 4.5m wide, with a treacherous drop from take-off to landing – but with no visible obstacle”), it became a two-horse race between Norma and Quixie. Quixie was ridden by a man called Schlagbaum, who would join the German army at the first opportunity and lost his hard hat at some point in the race.
With two jumps to go, Quixie was in the lead but Norma still had a lot to give. Lata was holding her back, waiting. At the last, they saw their opportunity and soared into the lead. They crossed the line with a winning margin of seven lengths. Norma’s ears were pricked with joy and the crowd’s response was “volcanic”.
Lata Brandisová, a Czech woman, had won the Velká Pardubická.
On that day, the Czech people’s national pride was at a high. Lata took great pleasure in the success being shared by everyone, “I will never forget the moment when thousands and thousands of hands waved and everyone shouted “Norma!” And when everyone rejoiced, applauding and cheering for our victory, it seemed to me that never before were people so truly and amicably united.”
When I read of Lata’s historic victory, I was so invested in her life that this quote from Lata herself made me feel quite emotional, “Never had I known such happiness – the feeling that, far and wide, there was no one who did not like me.” Lata doesn’t come across as a woman who craved approval, but she was never what society wanted – an ex-countess, an independent woman, a sportswoman who united a country and inspired hope but was all but forgotten as she didn’t fit in with the ruling regime’s agenda.
On 15th March 1939, Czechoslovakia was invaded and, by 3rd September, Europe was at war – again. Over the next six years, Lata went through life quietly and modestly. She was part of the Czech resistance and gave food parcels to the fighters. During the liberation of Prague, she travelled in secret to care for the injured.
In 1949, Lata lined up at Pardubice again, twelve years after her victory. At the start, she gave her riding hat to a young jockey, who had not got his and was too scared to ride without it. Disaster struck for Lata at the ‘Snake Ditch’ where she fell and was left in a coma. Communist propaganda proclaimed that she had tried to kill herself because she was on the wrong side of history. After a while, Lata recovered from her injuries but her family lost the Ritka estate. Lata and her two sisters moved to a cottage and lived there throughout the Communist stranglehold. Lata spent her final two years being cared for in Austria and she passed away on 12th May 1981, at the age of eighty-five.
‘Unbreakable’ left me feeling a range of emotions and I was interested to know what Askwith wanted readers to take from it, “I’d like readers to finish the book feeling inspired by Lata’s example, not just in terms of riding but in the way she lived her life. I like the fact that she wasn’t a flamboyant, flashy, “look at me!” kind of hero. She just quietly kept going on her chosen path, did what she thought was right, picked herself up after every setback, never complained, never gave up, and repeatedly did things that other people insisted were impossible.”
In the eighties or nineties, a female jockey rode in the Velká Pardubická and she was unaware that a woman had ever won the race. In fact, it wasn’t until 2017, the eightieth anniversary of Lata’s victory that she found out. That upset me. This story has really made me think. It deserves to be told. It interlaces with some of the most horrible and, for me, most interesting, times in our history. You don’t have to be a racing fan to embrace this and the incredible life that this woman lived – it would make a powerful and gripping film!
During her horseracing heyday, Lata Brandisová was a hero to the Czech people and now she is a hero to me. She faced battle-hardened Nazi officers in one of the toughest horse races of all time – and won. She helped in the resistance, staying loyal to the country that had taken so much from her, even when fascism enveloped Europe. She selflessly donated her riding hat to a jockey who was scared to ride without one. She did all of this with poise, bravery and cared deeply for horses and her family.
Lata Brandisová inspires me.
Get your copy of Unbreakable
You can purchase Unbreakable through Amazon – Unbreakable: WINNER OF THE 2020 TELEGRAPH SPORTS BOOK AWARDS BIOGRAPHY OF THE YEAR: Amazon.co.uk: Askwith, Richard: 9781784708405: Books
Make sure to check out Richard Askwith’s website too – Unbreakable: the Countess, the Nazis and the World’s Most Dangerous Horse-race (2019) – Richard Askwith