Grand ambition, small-town eccentricity, class snobbism and gorgeous horseflesh collide happily in “Dark Horse,” a documentary guaranteed to charm every animal lover or anyone who ever cheered for the little guy.
Louise Osmond’s film follows the life and career of Dream Alliance, a wildly personable horse who rose from the humblest of origins to win the 2009 Welsh Grand National.
Of course, it’s more than just the story of an equine champion. “Dark Horse” is also the story of a ragtag bunch of local folk who got it into their unsophisticated heads that they could pool their modest resources to break into a sport dominated by royalty and nobility.
It all began when Janet Vokes, a barmaid in an economically strapped Welsh mining town, overhead a pub patron talking about his frustrating and financially draining spell as part-owner of a Thoroughbred race horse. Janet — a hard-working gal who would often juggle several jobs — decided there was no reason why she shouldn’t realize her dream of owning a racehorse.
No reason except lack of money, access to horses and the knowhow to breed and train the noble creatures.
Apparently, she’s a hell of a saleswoman. She got her dubious husband Brian — round, bearded, toothless — to get on board and in short order had convinced a syndicate of townspeople to cough up ten pounds a week each toward the project.
They found a Thoroughbred mare idling away in a nearby pasture, bought her for a fraction of the asking price, had her bred with a promising stud and…and the result was a foal they named Dream Alliance in honor of their little syndicate. They found a professional trainer willing to take on their animal and damned if Dream Alliance didn’t start winning races.
Of course, in doing so the horse pretty much upended the hoity toity world of racing. A bunch of no-nothings from a crumbling mining burg produce a champion? Unheard of.
Yet Alliance — a horse with a personality as strong as that of the legendary Seabiscuit — became a sensation.
The heavy hitters who dominated the sport could hardly believe what they were seeing. Dream Alliance shared a farmyard with chickens, happily scarfed up table scraps form his owners and basically behaved like a loutish interloper who has crashed a posh gentleman’s club.
Osmond’s film is a pastiche of talking-head interviews (Alliance’s colorful owners), archival race footage and deftly staged re-enactments (starring Alliance, who is now happily retired). The results are simultaneously drolly amusing, inspiring and feverishly exciting.
Dramatically, the film comes to a head when Alliance snaps a tendon during a race. The usual protocols call for him to be put down after such a crippling injury.
But he’s more than an investment to his owners. He’s one of them and they go looking for experimental therapies that can get him back on his feet.
Turns out he does more than that…he returns to the track, though after some initial wins he finds himself running in the middle (or at the end) of the pack.
Dream Alliance retired in 2012. His owners each cleared 1,430 pounds during his racing career — about $2033.
You can’t buy much with that sort of money — but then you can’t put a price on memories.