03/23/2011 4:51PM

National Velvet Gone With the Wind


The death of Elizabeth Taylor on Wednesday brings to mind what may be the most famous horse racing film of all time. Made in Hollywood in 1944 by director Clarence Brown, "National Velvet" propelled the 12-year-old Taylor into a stardom that never waned through the next 67 years.

The film was, of course, the purest balderdash. The idea that a 12-year-old girl who had never ridden in a competitive horse race could win the Grand National Steeplechase, at 4 1/2 miles the world's most difficult jump race, is improbable to say the least. This was Hollywood after all, however, and the Dream Machine must have been in high gear on the MGM set during the production. The film won two Oscars, one for supporting actress Anne Revere, who plays Taylor's mother, and one for best editing for Robert Kern. Director Brown was nominated for an Oscar but lost out to Billy Wilder, the director of "The Lost Weekend", and justifiably so.

Elements of the plot, based on a novel by the noted playwright Enid Bagnold ("The Chalk Garden"), ring true. The character portrayed by Mickey Rooney, a disenchanted ex-jumps jockey frightened of returning to the saddle after one fall too many, is one every jumps rider in history can identify with.

And MGM's set designers did a bank-up job in recreating Aintree's hallowed Grand National course, a golf course standing in for the real thing. Especially well done was the Canal Turn, a jump at the far end of the course after which the horses must make an immediate- and very sharp- left-hand turn. The big problem with the race is that it was filmed under the brightly shining southern Claifornia sun, casting a light that never appears in England, and certainly not at Aintree on Grand National Day.

Readers old enough to remember, or those with access to the Turner Classic Movie network, may recall the plot. Miss Taylor's beloved horse, The Pie, is slated to run in the big race, but her rider falls ill the morning of the race. Mickey Rooney won't ride him, so Velvet Brown, the character played by Elizabeth Taylor, steps up to the plate.

Of course, no such thing would ever be allowed to happen in England or anywhere else in the racing world. First of all, if a journeyman rider is assigned to ride and must take off his mount, he must be replaced by a journeyman. Velvet Brown didn't even qualify as an apprentice, or conditional rider as they are known in British jump racing, so in real life she never would have been allowed to ride The Pie.

Justice is done in the long run. Immediately after crossing the line in front, Velvet Brown falls off The Pie, necessitating the horse's disqualification, the rules of racing demanding that a rider remain mounted until returning to the winners' enclosure. Reeves, Bagnold and Brown did not know it at the time, but that little bit of plot presaged by 12 years a not dissimialr incident in which Devon Loch, ridden by future crack mystery writer Dick Francis, did a belly flop when well clear on the run-in, costing him the 1956 Grand National.

The horse playing Pie did not win an Academy Award but had an interesting pedigree. A Thoroughbred himself, he was a son of Man o' War named King Charles.

This year's Grand National is just around the corner on Saturday, April 9. A replay somewhere on television of "National Velvet" or the much more realistic "Champions" based on the 1981 Grand National victory of Bob Champion aboard Aldaniti, would be in order. Even with Taylor's passing we still have with us the 90-year-old Mickey Rooney, a man who fit his numerous roles as a jockey like a hand-in-glove. Our condolences to the big little man.