A 'Dark Horse' In The Elite World Of British Racing

May 5, 2016

Inspiration in Hollywood movies is often a matter of one plucky individual taking on a "system" and winning. For the Brits, such triumphs come deeply embedded in class, region, and national pride, and winning is neither guaranteed nor especially prized. The wonderful 2014 drama Pride re-enacted a gratifyingly improbable, real-life alliance between gay Londoners and displaced Welsh miners during the bruising national strike of 1984. They lost to Margaret Thatcher, but the thrill lay in the fight and the fellow feeling that grew between two dispossessed communities taking control together.

Now comes Dark Horse, a true tale of a racehorse bred in the backyard of another Welsh mining community depleted by pit closures. Directed by Louise Osmond with heart and a generous dab of slick, the doc plays out as a kind of caper. That's in part because the the horse's triumph at the Welsh National goes joyfully against the grain of British horse racing, a rich man's sport where the poor are let in only to lose their shirts at the bookmakers.

Osmond, who also made a documentary about the discovery of King Richard III's bones beneath a Leicester parking lot, presses harder than needed on the heroic narrative pedal. But she's also wise enough to hand the storytelling over to the players, the exuberant, articulate leadership of a syndicate of 23 residents of the village of Cefn Fforest. Members of a working men's club, they include a tax consultant, a nightclub bouncer who once delivered coal, and Jan, a lively barmaid with enormous drive and prior working experience breeding pigeons and whippets. All have scrambled to make a living since the coal industry collapsed.

But they're a merry bunch of natural raconteurs with a musical Welsh lilt to the telling. Relaxed in front of a camera and thrilled to reminisce about their brief moment in the sun, they tell with pride and how each member of the syndicate paid 10 pounds a week so that a scrappy foal they named Dream Alliance could be bred from workaday parents with no racing genes to speak of. A top-flight trainer was hired to guide the horse to second place in the coveted Hennessy Gold Cup. After Dream suffered a near-fatal injury at Aintree, the group raised the money for experimental stem-cell surgery that allowed him to compete in the Welsh Grand National.

What happened there would likely end up as the climactic scene in most Hollywood versions of Dream Alliance's career. And it's true that Dark Horse relies a bit too heavily on commercial race footage. Yet the movie grows into uplift of a whole other kind. As the villagers tell it, this was about Welsh pride and the solidarity of a community that pulled together to "do something when no one gives you a chance." If any of the first investors saw Dream Alliance as a business opportunity — and why not, given their circumstances? — that didn't make it into the movie. In any case, nobody made much money out of the horse's moment in the sun. The villagers got a big kick out of poaching on elite terrain ("We're riffraff!" one man crows), basked in their media stardom for a brief moment, then let go with grace and got on with their lives.

As for Dream Alliance, a natural racer with a lustrous brown coat and a big white blaze streaking down his nose, he's rapturously photographed by cinematographer Benjamin Kracun at home in the green mists that envelop this village, and finally, in retirement, cantering around a green paddock. As one of the villagers says, they're happy that he's happy "doing what he loves — nothing very much."

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