Film Review (VIFF 2015) | Dark Horse

For horse lovers, or those just looking for a heartwarming human adventure, "Dark Horse" is a captivating, touching ride.

Dark Horse

Rating 8.4/10

Running time: 85 mins.

Classification: PG

Release Date: TBD


IMDB/Rotten Tomatoes

A charming rags to riches story, from veteran documentary film maker Louise Osmond, “Dark Horse” follows the improbable racing career of ‘Dream Alliance’, a thoroughbred racehorse bred in a tiny Welsh village.  With an unlikely start, and an even more remarkable journey, the film is a joyful celebration of the spirit, and character, of a group of hard working Welsh locals, and their determination to prove themselves on a stage usually reserved for Lords, and foreign royalty.  A plucky story of hope and perseverance, it’s as much about the working class lives of its human characters, as it is about the pageantry, and spectacle, of thoroughbred horse racing.

Brian and Jan Voke, the duo that starts the syndicate out of a small local bar.
Brian and Jan Vokes, the duo that started a horse racing syndicate out of a small, local Welsh bar.

Opening in the tiny town of Cefn Fforest, Wales, once a prosperous coal and mining region, its mines have long since been shuttered, now known as one of the poorest areas of the country.  With a playful tone, and colorful charts and graphics, director Osmond introduces us to the area, and it’s eccentric cast of characters.  Chief among them are a chatty, nearly toothless, bear of a man, 67-year-old Brian Vokes, and his wife Jan.  Jan, a tireless, jovial, optimist, works a variety of odd jobs, from cleaning at the local ASDA supermarket during the day, to barkeeping at a local pub in the evenings.  It’s at this bar one night, chatting with regular patron, tax adviser Howard Davies, that she rekindles her lifelong love of breeding animals, and an unlikely dream is born.

Assistant trainer Johnson White didn't think much at first "Let's just say they don't look like your usual racehorse owner."
Assistant Trainer Johnson White didn’t think much of the group at first. “Let’s just say they don’t look like your usual racehorse owners,” he admits, with more than a hint of snobbery.

Bar patron Davies, once involved in a racing syndicate (a group of owners that band together to pay for the astronomical costs of maintaining a racehorse), lost a tidy sum of money in his previous venture, a fact that his wife gleefully reminds the camera numerous times. Nonetheless, the unlikely trio rallies together, and purchases a £300 mare named ‘Rewbell.’  “The worst racehorse in Wales” according to Brian, “so mental that the jockeys eventually refused to get on her.”  From here they invite other patrons at the pub to join them, with 23 of their fellow Welshmen eventually hopping on board at a cost of £10/week, funneling their own aspirations of racing glory into the endeavor.  They are a motley crew of hard-drinking, hard-living locals, who channel their hopes and dreams into the communal effort with great gusto.  During one thrilling race, patron Tony peels off his shirt, revealing an ample belly, twirling his discarded clothing over his head with unbridled glee.

‘Dream Alliance’, with Jan, Brian, and other members of the syndicate. Upon arriving at the track, gate keepers told the group they couldn’t bring in their lager, until Brian explained they were owners, and not patrons, at the track.

At this point, the documentary could have simply chronicled the underdog effort these hard-working Welsh villagers put forth raising the horse, and it would have made for compelling viewing.  Without giving away major spoilers, the fact that their horse, “Dream Alliance”, goes on to not only race, but make an impact in a sport typically reserved for nobility, transforms the story from a simple observational record into something magical.   Equal parts class struggle, Welsh history lesson, and horse racing thrill ride, the tale has all of the customary peaks, and valleys, found in the best Hollywood fiction.  For horse lovers, or those just looking for a heartwarming human adventure, “Dark Horse” is a captivating, touching ride.