This true story of streetwise racehorse Dream Alliance, who defied the odds to win the 2007 Welsh Grand National, is like Rocky meets Seabiscuit. It is a heartwarming underdog drama with enough engaging characters, plot twists and humour to give Hollywood a run for its money.
Dark Horse is the inspirational story of what people can achieve together when their dream is backed up by determination, resilience and love. After barmaid Jan Vokes overheard a conversation one night, she decided she was going to breed a racehorse. So she encouraged the good people of Cefn Fforest, a working-class ex-mining village in south Wales, to join a syndicate: 30 of them paid £10 a week for a stake in the fortunes of a horse who was yet to be born.
Director Louise Osmond’s documentary tells the story of Dream Alliance through the key players themselves: Jan and her husband ‘Daisy’, local tax adviser Howard Davies, syndicate member and ex-miner Tony Kerby and one of horse’s trainers. Talking heads are interspersed with old racing footage and reconstructions of a few scenes acted out by the villagers (and the horse) themselves.
Jan is the prime mover. After 23 years working in a factory, and then cleaning the checkouts at Asda, she burns with a quiet but steely ambition to make her mark: ‘all through my life I’ve never actually been me’. After breeding budgies and whippets, she is more than ready for the big time, well aware that she is up against the might of the privileged well-to-do, ‘who liked to keep horseracing to themselves and keep commoners out.’
Much of the humour in Dark Horse derives from the culture-clash between two very different worlds. When the syndicate arrive via minibus at Newbury racetrack, Tony has brought his own sandwiches and cans of lager in a plastic bag. The officials attempt to confiscate them, but are told ‘I’m an owner and I can do what I want’. Dream Alliance is repeatedly given no chance by commentators and experts on account of his lack of breeding. ‘He was a snotty-nosed Comp boy arriving for his first day at Eton’ says his trainer.
So it is hugely satisfying when he triumphs over the snobs, winning at Perth and the Welsh Grand National. We don’t go quite as far as Tony, who ‘went nuts’ in the pub and took his shirt off, before waving it round his head, but we cheer with him. As Jan puts it, ‘you can take that and shove it, love.’
The horse himself is beautiful, with white socks and a white stripe running down his head. There is lovely footage of him growing up on the village allotment, frolicking like a lamb. Jan gives him human characteristics – he is a charismatic and quirky Valley boy, a Jack the Lad, who could ‘read your mood’ and who, Howard swears, once gave a wink as he went past. Dream Alliance belongs to the village, not just the syndicate. He is ‘one of us’ and he enriches a lot of lives.
At the time of his greatest victory the newspapers lapped up the story, with headlines like ‘Slumnag Millionaires’ and ‘From Asda to Aintree’. But the documentary and its cast remain down-to-earth, not getting carried away with any schmaltz. If this had been a Hollywood film, the syndicate would now be millionaires (they’re not). But it is somehow reassuring that success hasn’t changed Jan Vokes and her friends.
What price Dark Horse II? Down in south Wales, Jan has another thoroughbred foal in her sights; a new syndicate has been formed. The dream is still alive.