After former First Lady Dolley Madison sold the Madison family estate Montpelier in 1844, the property changed hands six more times over the next half-century. In 1901 the estate finally settled into the possession of another family who would care for it and make it the center of the national greatness it had once been. William duPont was a wealthy member of the hard-working Huguenot family of the same name who had migrated to Delaware about the same time James Madison and his new bride began life together at Montpelier at the turn of the nineteenth century. One hundred years later his family had made their fortune through gunpowder manufacturing and other business ventures, and William and his wife Annie acquired Montpelier as a place to raise their two children, Marion and William, Jr., as well as an excellent location for pursuing the family love: horses.
Horses had been a part of Montpelier history, of course, for nearly 200 years already, as the clearing, tilling, and plowing workhorses for three generations of Madison family members, as their primary means of transportation, and as noble partners in the wars they had fought, first for Britain and then for America’s independence. Montpelier horses were especially prized by President James Madison, who loved and cared for his own with close attention and affection. When the duPont family expanded Montpelier into a center for great thoroughbred breeding and training, they were following an already well-established tradition not only in their own family but in the history of the property they now called home.
The duPonts sought to preserve the historic nature of Montpelier, simultaneously adapting it and expanding it for their own family’s use. Annie personally took on the restoration of the Madisons’ beautiful two-acre formal gardens, adding walkways and her own distinct touches, such as marble lions and massive urns. Over the early years of the twentieth century, William duPont oversaw the construction of numerous barns and stables and other buildings for equine use, as well as staff quarters and even a train station to expedite transportation to his offices in Maryland. The house itself underwent extensive expansion and change in appearance: the duPont family added two wings and numerous rooms, bringing the total to fifty-five (the Madisons had left it at twenty-two). Marion duPont later added a stucco finish to brighten the exterior.
Marion and William, Jr., took on the primary character of the family as horse enthusiasts. Marion, having grown up in Virginia’s hunt country, became an accomplished horsewoman and was especially devoted to steeplechase racing. When her father died in 1928, Marion, age thirty-four, inherited Montpelier, and her own childhood home and that of James Madison became the home of Montpelier Stables, producer of world-class racing thoroughbreds. Under her care, Montpelier became one of the most distinguished centers for equine training in the United States.
In 1934 Marion and her brother William founded the Montpelier Steeplechase Hunt Races, which are still held the first weekend of each November on Montpelier grounds. Steeplechase racing, also called hunt racing, is named for the church steeples used as landmarks in the earliest races in England and is distinguished by the ditches and hedges or other obstacles distributed throughout the racecourse, imitating the natural barriers horses face when used for hunting. It is a difficult and challenging form of racing, often resulting in injury to both horse and rider.
Marion bred and trained horses at Montpelier Stables for both flat and steeplechase racing, among them several internationally acclaimed champions. Perhaps none of the Montpelier horses are so famous as the little thoroughbred Battleship, whom Marion acquired in 1931 after he had suffered an injury flat racing. Marion recognized in Battleship the marks of an unusually talented horse—his sire had been the great Man o’ War of horse racing fame—and she carefully redeveloped his strength and trained him for the steeplechase. After winning several races and finally the prestigious American Grand Nationals in 1934, Battleship began training in 1936 for competition in the Grand Nationals held in England, the most celebrated steeplechase event in the world.
After overcoming another injury, Battleship finally entered the Grand Nationals in 1938. In the century-long history of the race no American horse had ever won the Grand Nationals. Additionally, Battleship was a stallion, and the last stallion to win had done so almost forty years prior (there have been none since). Battleship was also the smallest horse, standing at only fifteen hands, but was being ridden by a seventeen-year-old jockey (youngest ever on a winning horse) over six feet tall. Overcoming all obstacles, Battleship won by a nose in a photo finish (see actual film footage) and sailed back to America an national hero, greeted as a celebrity in New York City by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and movie actor Randolph Scott, Marion duPont’s husband at the time. Having achieved the highest honor a horse with his training could achieve, Battleship received from his mistress the reward of lifelong retirement as stud at Montpelier, where he sired his own future champions and stakes winners until his death in 1958. He is buried beside the mansion at Montpelier and at the time of this writing is still the only horse ever to have won both American Grand National and Grand National races.
Marion duPont lived her entire life of eighty-seven years devoted to the horses she loved and the sport of horse racing. At her death in 1983, in addition to bequeathing the Madisons’ Montpelier to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, she left a number of gifts to fund horse interests, including a full-service equine hospital at nearby Leesburg, Virginia, named in her honor. In addition to hosting the annual Montpelier Hunt Races begun by Marion and William duPont, Montpelier functions today as a horse farm and showcase for retired race horses, continuing the long tradition of being one of America’s premier equine centers as well as an American landmark for national greatness and freedom.