Movie review: ‘Dark Horse’ brings a ray of brightness to the screen
Move over, Seabiscuit. Take a back seat, Secretariat. Here’s a real down-home, rags to riches, shaggy horse story. It’s a documentary on the feisty runner named Dream Alliance who today enjoys a comfortable life in retirement, but about 15 years ago, was the source of hope and pride and great excitement for a group of down-on-their-luck Welsh villagers.
“Dark Horse” focuses on two main subjects: That horse and Jan Vokes, the part-time bar maid in the once prospering mining village of Cefn Fforest — which had gone bust when the mining dried up — who came up with the probably quite insane idea of breeding a horse and getting into the race game.
London-based documentarian Louise Osmond knew about as much about horse racing as Jan Vokes, and Jan’s knowledge consisted of helping her dad breed budgies, racing pigeons, and whippets (in other words, it was nil). But when Osmond stumbled upon some old newspaper coverage of what went down all those years ago in the Welsh countryside, she knew it would make strong documentary material.
Jan’s whim got the early support of her husband Brian as well as their local tax advisor pal Howard Davies and then, after posting a sign in the pub about offering shares in a horse, earned the support of about 30 other villagers, who formed a syndicate and pledged to throw in 10 pounds a week that would go toward bringing together a mare and a stallion, then raising and training their colt with hopes of breaking into the posh world of racing.
Because this happened so long ago and, due to the accidental destruction of video footage that followed the young foal from a gangly romper to full-of-steam racer, Vokes had to work with a few photos, some remnants of the video footage, archival tapes of races that were broadcast, and the willingness of the villagers to recreate what happened in current day talking heads interviews.
But the charm of the film is that those two central subjects are so fascinating. Jan tells of how she was a factory worker, then part-time barmaid, who married young and never took the time to do anything for herself. So the time was now, and she was going for the ride with Dream Alliance (who everyone eventually gets around to calling Dream). The horse, not very promising at the start of his career, is presented as an animal that had an uncanny sense of what was going on around him and how he affected people. His ups and downs and then more ups are what really carry the story.
As Brian Vokes mentions at one point, “He was a working class horse that was about to take on the likes of the best.” But the same could be said of the syndicate members. They knew that they weren’t cut from the same cloth as the blue-blooded members of the racing circuit.
Sometimes it was rubbed in their faces, as when one race commentator refused to refer to Dream as a thoroughbred because if his owners’ backgrounds.
But if that bothered them, it didn’t for long, and it certainly never came to the attention of Dream once he got on the track, started doing OK, moved on to doing better, then became a real contender. It’s a wonderful thing to see and hear these people reliving what happened, and watching it get played out on the screen, in moments that keep growing in excitement, but get pushed back dramatically when one race goes very badly, then start to build up again when medical advances (fans of stem cell surgery will celebrate) take center stage.
There may be a few instances where, because there was so little material to work with, it feels like Osmond is grasping at straws to fill out the feature length, but as the races get bigger, reaching up to the Welsh Grand National and then the British Grand National, the film never falls short of being completely uplifting.
— Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written and directed by Louise Osmond