Grand Delusion at the Grand National

National Velvet was an incredibly well-received film. After its release in 1944, it received 5 nominations and 2 wins at the Academy Awards. It’s been in theaters, television, and on VHS and DVD in its 74 year lifespan, and these days it boasts a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes (a surer sign of commercial and artistic success there is not).

That said, the movie dabbles in falsehood more than most. From the lack of British accents (which luckily did not prevent Anne Revere from winning Best Actress in a Supporting Role) to the premise itself, National Velvet presents a picture that’s just too good to be true. As Velvet prepares The Pie (and herself) to run in the Grand National, plenty of protests are raised, but there is surprisingly little commentary on Velvet’s most disqualifying trait: her gender.

The Grand National race track.

What is the Grand National? It is the race in the world of National Hunt, a style of horse racing in Europe where horses are required to make jumps as they run the track. The Grand National is run in two laps that together are made up of over 4 miles and 30 fences. It is not for the faint hearted, but this particular horse racing challenge has been run since 1839. For most of its history, however, women were excluded from participating in the event. It wasn’t until 1975, with the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act that women were allowed to compete. Charlotte Brew, the first female jockey to run the Grand National, didn’t enter the competition until 1977.

Charlotte Brew racing the Grand National in 1977.

So, in 1944 when audiences saw Velvet Brown speeding along the track, clinging to The Pie as he leapt past Becher’s Brook and worked his way around the Canal Turn, those same audiences wouldn’t have been able to witness her analog racing at the next Grand National in 1945. This closest that the film comes to acknowledging this is when Velvet is not allowed to be acknowledged as the winner of the Grand National, despite having finished the race in first place. This doesn’t trouble any of the characters all that much. Velvet’s family, and the entire racing world, expresses admiration for her accomplishment without putting forward any protest to the official victory being handed off to the runner-up. Velvet herself is perfectly content to have proven that The Pie is a real champion. Though offered the chance to become a star after the race, Velvet doesn’t want the glory for herself, which the film frames as another of her virtues by contrasting her choice with the preference of her “greedy” father, who wants Velvet to make some money from what has happened.

The downplaying of the effect Velvet’s gender has on her winning the Grand National was probably a bit easier to pull off when the film was released than it would be today. From 1941 to 1945, the Aintree Racecourse (where the Grand National is held every year) had been commandeered for defense purposes by the British army. Audiences hadn’t seen the race in 3 years by the time they saw Velvet working her way down the track with The Pie. In 1944 people were likely ready to see anyone win the Grand National, and with the second World War still raging, a young girl winning the most intense horse race in the world would have been a welcome scene of underdog victory. But even then, Velvet couldn’t be allowed to really win (though she could be allowed to get damn close and not even bat an eye when victory was taken from her).


National Velvet is nearly silent on gender, but that silence doesn’t mean that film is unaffected by it. Gender is an issue that can’t be escaped through silence or through nearly allowing a girl to win the race of all races.