Thursday, 10 April 2014

Inspired by The Pie

This week, following a vintage running of the Grand National, I’ve been reading tributes to the most inspiring national-winning trainer of all time. Mickey Rooney trained just one horse, but he was also the first and greatest advocate of female jockeys – giving Elizabeth Taylor the leg-up on The Pie for that famous Grand National victory, immortalised in the film National Velvet.

The Pie never features in conventional lists of previous Grand National winners because Elizabeth fell off after the finish and failed to weigh in – at which point it was discovered that the winning jockey was in fact a twelve year old girl. In a book about the race, The Pie was supposed to be a piebald (black and white coloured) non-Thoroughbred.
The film spawned generations of romantic racing imitations including Champions (the story of Bob Champion and Aldaniti), Seabiscuit (the story of a depression-busting gelding in 1930’s America) and Murphy’s Stroke (the story of unusual betting patterns at Cartmel Racecourse) - but none of them quite hit the same mark on account of their wild and unrealistic plot lines.
For seven decades, since 1944, National Velvet has been spurring enthusiastic children towards a life in racing; believing that, one day, they too might win the Grand National. Even I, as a 10-year-old boy, used to canter around my front lawn jumping mounds of grass clippings, pretending to be The Pie.
Sometimes I pretended to be Zongalero, who finished second to Rubstic in 1979. I am not quite sure why I didn’t favour Rubstic, who was expertly campaigned by his trainer John Leadbetter, but I think it might have been something to do with the fact that I’d had 25 pence each-way on Zongalero at 20/1. I hope John will forgive this confession.
Following his brief training career, Mickey Rooney became quite successful in the movie business. My favourite performance came in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, where he played a neighbouring Chinese man shouting "Miss Golightleeee!" at Audrey Hepburn as she hosted spontaneous parties on the shared stairwell of their flats.
When it came to marriages, the cast of National Velvet were pretty prolific. Both Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney married eight times, although Elizabeth Taylor cheated as she married Richard Burton twice. When asked in later years whether he would have married all those ladies again, Mickey Rooney responded: "Absolutely. I loved every one of them."
Who can tell whether the connections of Pineau De Re, the winner of last weekend’s National, will lead such interesting lives in the decades to come? The trainer, Dr Richard Newland, has an entry in Saturday’s Scottish Grand National at Ayr. However, at 46th on the list of runners, the odds are surely against Royale Knight getting a run. Preference is for the Lucinda Russell trained pair Green Flag and Lie Forrit.

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