Film Review: Dark Horse

on May 05, 2016, 3:59pm

Dark Horse tells a story ready-made for an inspiring Disney adaptation years from now, but mercifully avoids the kind of treacle that could easily accompany it. Louise Osmond’s documentary follows the story of Dream Alliance, a Welsh horse that became a national sensation overseas after its unlikely upbringing culminated in its ascent to a number of high-profile racing. It’s a feel-good story enlivened by the fact that there’s no overly sentimentalized hokum to be found. It’s just about a horse, and the people whose lives it touched in some more meaningful way, and what they would come to mean to one another.

Seriously, it’s a story you couldn’t write any better: in 2000, in a small town in South Wales, a bartender and a tax advisor ended up starting a horse racing “syndicate.” The bartender, Janet Vokes, was intrigued by the idea suggested by Howard Davies, that it would be relatively inexpensive to breed a racehorse. For just a few hundred pounds they were able to purchase a mare (with an ill temper) and breed it, hoping to run it in races. To afford the many hidden costs and general upkeep required of a racing horse, many of the village locals formed a “syndicate,” agreeing that just 10 pounds each per month was a reasonable, relatively small price to pay for the chance to do something utterly wild.

Osmond couldn’t have landed on a better cast of characters, and it’s the Welsh locals who form the heart of Dark Horse. Cefn Fforest is reputed as the smallest isolated territory in Wales, its residents working-class and largely devastated by the downturn in industry the area has seen in recent decades. The horse was raised on a government allotment, when not being trained, and so Dream Alliance became something of a rallying point for the locals, most of whom just wanted something new to do and figured that horse racing would be as good a way as any to achieve that goal.

There’s a genuine affection for the horse that extends beyond simple ownership. One local notes of Dream Alliance’s periodic fits of ill temper that “he was a Welsh boy, you see.” Early on, Janet expresses her conviction that “right from when we brought him home, he had a personality.” Frequently throughout Dark Horse, it seems as though the horse racing aspect of the Dream Alliance story was almost incidental to many of its participants. Dream Alliance quickly became a local, a friend and mascot for an area looking for inspiration of one kind or another. It was something that the residents could say was theirs, and nobody else’s. And everyone seems to have a story about how Dream touched them personally; Janet spent much of Dream’s competitive run doing custodial work at an Asda, and many have one account or another of having lost their jobs or been scaled back during the time as well.

Dark Horse’s primary function is to inspire, and Osmond does this capably; at a fleet 85 minutes, the film hardly overstays its welcome, even if it’d hardly be a struggle to spend more time with the boisterous, sometimes toothless members of the syndicate. And that’s the heart of the documentary, because most of the story (about Dream’s ascent to “story of the day” status and his unfortunate predilection for severe injury) comes and goes quickly. It’s a tight story, and given the many obstacles the team eventually encountered, there are long stretches of the real-life story in which little was happening. But the film’s innate charms are its strong suit, and it employs them well.

Dark Horse mercifully never turns mean-spirited in its chronicling of how well the syndicate’s locals were received at your average British racing event (spoiler: not all that well), but at times it’s also a sly commentary on the privileged nature of so many high-end sports, and how for a while a group of everyday folks were able to buck the system, game it to their advantage, and make some noise over the clambering hooves of so many thoroughbreds brought into the world by affluent horse owners who were born rich and will likely die rich. But for the syndicate’s members, Dream Alliance allowed them to not only enter that world, but remain every bit the same people they were inside of it. Dark Horse sees this not as melancholic, but as worthy of celebration, and its enthusiasm is infectious.