Released undoubtedly to collide with the Cheltenham Festival and subsequent build-up to the Grand Nation, Louise Osmond’s superb documentary Dark Horse expertly chronicles the feel-good, underdog story of Welsh thoroughbred Dream Alliance.
The appropriately named Dream Alliance came to the public’s attention in 2009, when the Gelding unexpectedly won the Welsh National. Bred by barmaid Jan Vokes, Dream Alliance was trained in a tiny slagheap allotment in a small, disillusioned South Wales mining town. This was achieved by Vokes, along with her husband Brain, managing to convince twenty-three of their friends to put aside £10 pounds a week, for Dream Alliance’s food and training.
Although Dream Alliance did have some stellar racehorse DNA, his grandsire being American Hall of Fame Champion Manila, his amateur breeder and trainer – combined with his decrepit surroundings – meant that few were convinced that Vokes would be successful, in accomplishing her dream of breeding a Grand National runner.
Needless to say, Vokes fulfilled her dream. Dream Alliance ran the Grand National in 2010, rode by experienced Irish jockey Tom O’Brien, although he did not finish the race. Despite never quite reaching the heights of Auroras Encoure or Pineau De Re, Dream Alliance’s story was an inspiration one that resonated way beyond the insular circle of knowledgable horse-racing fans.
It is this universal theme of overcoming obstacles and exceeding expectations, that Dark Horse choses to focus on. The documentary is not overly concerned with technical details or intricate commentary on the sport itself, instead it tells a very human story and is all the better for it.
Funded by Picturehouse Entertainment, Film4, Channel 4 and the BFI Film Fund, Dark Horse’s journey to big screen is almost as epic as its subject-matter. Osmond failed to get funding for the picture on several occasions, and had to negotiate passionately with several companies just to get the project off the ground, as demonstrated by the staggering list of studios involved.
However, it is Osmond’s clear passion for the subject-matter and deep understanding of the emotional narrative at play, which makes Dark Horse so absorbing. Moreover, the prolonged and struggled-filled development time seems to have only intensified and honed Osmond’s vision.
The documentary is a muscular and toned beast without an inch of fat on its powerful physique. Every moment builds and amounts to something, giving amazing depth without ever feeling self-indulgent or overly sentimental. Even half way through Dark Horse’s trim running-time, you know this is a thoroughbred documentary, worthy of its winning of the Sundance Festival’s Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary.
Dark Horse seamlessly intercuts archive footage, retrospective interviews and fleeting reenactments. The interviews, in particular, are divinely edited and arranged. Featuring everybody from Vokes herself to the town’s people to racing commentators. Consequently, the documentary gives a fully-rounded account of what occurred without ever becoming unfocused or sprawling. In addition to this, each interview has clearly been lovingly sieved through for nuggets, as everything spoken is either insightful, touching or both.
Osmond is also careful to not let the sporadic tragedies of Dream Alliance’s quest – including a serious tendon injury that required risky stem cell treatment – to overwhelm the narrative, whilst still ensuring that their individual impact is felt. After all, this is a story not about winning at all costs. No, what makes Dark Horse so captivating is that each minor achievement is celebrated, each flicker of human spirit fanned and each setback absorbed and dealt with.
Vokes, in particular, proves an exceptional emotional centre to the documentary, her earthy humour and humble nature radiating warmth with an undercurrent of steely perseverance. Which is appropriate really, as Vokes is the beating heart of the story. Dream Alliance may have physically run the Grand Nation but it is Vokes’ determination and never-say-die attitude which spurred him along the track.
A fine piece of cinema, depicting an astounding feat of both animal and human nature, Dark Horse is unlikely to win big at the box-office but it might just gallop straight into audience’s hearts.