SPORTS FILM REVIEW – DARK HORSE: THE INCREDIBLE STORY OF DREAM ALLIANCE

If you’ve ever wanted to breed and race your own thoroughbred, but thought it was a privilege limited to the wealthy, this 2014 documentary is for you.

Through a mix of archival footage, interviews and recreations, Dark Horse recounts the amazing true life tale of a poorly-bred racehorse funded by a group of working-class Welsh amateurs and who were ultimately successful against all odds.

It all started with Janet Vokes and her unlikely dream.

She was a blue-collar wife and mother living in a depressed mining village in South Wales (UK) and worked as a grocery store cleaner during the day and barmaid nights & weekends.

While working in a pub on a Thursday night sometime in 2000, she overheard a patron (who she never met before) talking about a racehorse he had previously owned, but had failed miserably with.

The patron’s name was Howard Davies and he was a local tax adviser who bought into a racehorse through a client some 20 years prior.  After he lost £5,000 (about $6,200 US), he promised his wife that he would never attempt racing horses ever again.

Janet had successfully bred whippets and pigeons before, but never racehorses.  Still, the idea was sparked.  She told Davies and her husband (Brian “Daisy” Vokes) that she was going to do it.  They basically thought she was crazy.  But, Brian knew his wife: “when she says she’s going to do it, she does it.”

Janet was well aware at the time that the racehorse industry “liked to keep commoners out”.  It was also a very expensive pastime and the success rate low in comparison to the investment required.

Despite this, she went out and bought a mare to get the ball rolling. “Rewbell” was ordinary, winless, overweight, temperamental and had no breeding.  But, she was cheap: £300 (about $375 US).

Janet then went back to the pub and sought out Howard’s guidance and partnership.   He originally made fun of Janet’s purchase of Rewbell, but then thought better of the idea.  He was mostly attracted to the notion that “it couldn’t be done”.  So, he convinced his wife to let him move forward with the new business enterprise and he joined forces with Janet & her husband.

Howard determined that they needed to form a “syndicate” of investors in order to afford the venture.  He knew that they needed at least 30 people pitch in £10 a week to have about £15,000 a year to spend.

So, they put up posters in the local pub and asked around town if anyone was willing to take a chance.

Remarkably, while most knew nothing about the horse race industry and several were either unemployed or even struggling to put food on the table, 23 local townspeople ultimately came forward to invest.  They revealed that they were excited about the prospect of stepping outside of their common lives and like Janet, wanted to “prove” something and to “make their mark[s]” on the world.

Soon, they started to save and found a stud (“Bien Bien”) to breed Rewbell with.  The stallion was US bred and won 8 stakes races during his career, including four Grade I events.

Luckily, in March 2001, a colt was born to Rewbell.  He was healthy and was described as having legs that looked like 4 white socks were pulled up to his knees.  Despite being gangly early on, he was gregarious and came up to anyone who paid attention.  The name Janet came up with for the colt was: “Dream Alliance”.

Dream became popular around town as the word spread about him.  Locals came to feed him while he was housed at a DIY stable Brian made for him on a slag heap (a hill made from the waste materials of a former coal mine).

As Dream grew, the realization came that they needed a professional to train Dream for racing.   So, they “went to the top”.

The syndicate found Philip Hobbs and Sandhill Racing Stables in Somerset, a well-known trainer specializing in “National Hunt”, a style of racing very popular in England which requires horses to jump fences and ditches.

The 2 biggest events of the season are the Grand National which is held at Aintree Racecourse near Liverpool and the Cheltenham Festival meeting in Gloucestershire.  Both are considered very important races watched by a huge television audience worldwide and bring in a ton of money for betting facilities.

While prestigious, the downside of this type of racing is its dangerous nature.  In the Grand National race, for example, 40 horses compete over 4+ miles and are expected to jump over 16 fences, 14 of which are repeated in 2 laps.  Each fence is topped with spruce at least 14” high, several of the fences are 5’ tall and one is 5’2 preceded by a 6’ wide ditch.  In 2012, only 15 of the 40 horses that started finished.  Horse fatalities have been known to happen.

Hobbs’ trainers originally had their doubts when Dream was first brought in to them.  Although he was willing, he “wasn’t very fast”, seemed confused and was rough around the edges.  Still, the goal was to try and get the colt’s “manners down” and then find out if they had a real racehorse on their hands.

After some time of working with him, Brian said Dream grew into a “classy” horse and was ready for the next step: To enter into a real race.

November 10, 2004 was that big day.  As a 3-year-old, Dream was entered into a 1-mile turf Junior Flat Race with 22 other horses.

Janet, Brian, Howard and the investors were excited because none of them had even bet on a racehorse before.  So, they piled into their van with sandwiches and beer (because they didn’t want to overpay for refreshments at the course).  When they arrived at the racetrack, they were almost denied entry.  But, one of the investors balked and showed security their “owner’s badges”.   After they were let in, the investors said they liked that feeling of belonging with the upper crust for once in their lives.  As they “came from nothing”, this was a big moment for them.

Meanwhile, professional bookies like Andy Smith said Rewbell’s history and lineage suggested that she would “produce the slowest horse in the country”.  They also didn’t think she would “produce anything good”.  But, by the end of the race, Dream finished 4th and over the next couple years, he did exceptionally well on the racing circuit..

The excitement swirling around town became palpable. Dream was making a name for himself  and he was being taken seriously on the racing circuit.  Janet said his insurance value went from $7,000 to $180,000.

In early 2008, Sandhill suggested that Dream be entered in the biggest race of the year: The Grand National in April 2008.

Unfortunately, despite never missing one of Dream’s races in person before, Janet & Brian weren’t in Liverpool for this big race with him, because Rewbell died giving birth the night before.

During the race, Dream seemed to break well amongst the other 39 horses.  But, disaster struck when he pulled up at a fence and was taken off to the side of the track.  Something was wrong.  A screen was put up around him, which meant to everyone the worst of news.  They wondered if he was going to have to be put down.

They all agonized as they waited for any news.  Brian said they prayed that Dream wouldn’t be euthanized.  They didn’t care if he ever raced again.  They just wanted him to come home.

When the call finally came from the veterinarians, Janet and Brian learned that Dream’s life was saved but he was badly injured.  Apparently, the horse’s rear hoof severed an Achilles’ tendon in another leg when he attempted to jump a fence.  The trainers told them that he likely wouldn’t race again.

But, they suggested to Janet & Brian that Dream could benefit from a new, experimental stem cell surgery.  Essentially, they would take cells from the bone marrow of the horse, incubate it, grow it, and inject it into the wound and let it grow back.  There were no guarantees and it would cost £20,000 ($25,000 US).

The syndicate met to discuss.  Dream earned enough money to cover the cost.  But, they were very poor people, many of them struggling mightily and could use the cash.  In the end, they determined that Dream was “one of them” and that he deserved the chance to at least have a good quality of life.  He may never race again, but that didn’t matter to them.  They wanted to save the life of Dream and so, they agreed to go forward with the procedure.

Afterwards, the veterinarians said it was touch and go and they weren’t sure about Dream’s prognosis.  He didn’t look good and they weren’t sure he would ever recover.

But, he was well enough to go back to Sandhill and for the trainers to try and rehabilitate him.  They worked with him every day, very patiently.  The idea was to exercise him gradually, increasing minutes each day to ensure the rebuilding of muscle.

Luckily, over the next 16 months, Dream’s condition improved.  However, Janet, Brian and Howard had no idea what they were going to see when they were invited back to see him.

While waiting, they said they heard something coming.  It sounded like a horse working hard.  Then, they saw a rider on a horse galloping hard towards them.  They realized it was Dream… They couldn’t believe it.  Right past them he went, fast.  Not only had he recovered, but he was thriving.  Howard said he could swear Dream winked at him as he ran by.  It was like he said to them “I’m back!”

Within a couple of months, Sandhill told Janet that they wanted to enter Dream into a race and see if he could deal with the pressure again.  While they were nervous about it and not sure they should, he had come all this way.

So, in November 2009, Dream was entered into a 3-mile-long race with nine other 4 year olds.  Incredibly, he came in 2nd

Then, Sandhill told them that Dream was going to be entered into the biggest race in Wales:  The Coral Welsh of December 2009.   It was a major deal.  Everyone was nervous, including Howard who went to his parents’ grave and asked them “for a miracle at Christmas”.   Astonishingly… Dream won it!

The syndicate said they were like “lunatics” screaming, dancing, hugging. Johnson White at Sandhill never expected Dream would race again.  While getting choked up, he said that horse was like “a streetfighter”.  And, all the work they put into him and his success – it validated why they do what they do.

When the syndicate went back home, they brought the winning Cup with them around to the local pub.  Everyone celebrated.  When they left that night, they realized the story had gone viral.  Reporters and fans from all over the world found out about Dream. He was a superstar.

The investors said they also felt like movies stars. Janet was being clapped at down the aisles of the department store that she still worked at.  People were coming up to her everywhere and strangers were driving to the slag heap to see where Dream was raised.

Then, it was suggested that Dream return to The Grand National (April 2010), the place where he almost died.

Some of the syndicate didn’t want to do it.  He had won so much more than they ever thought he would and made a full recovery from his injuries.  But, they still went forward with it to see what more magic he could conjure.

In the paddock, a roar went up when Dream was walking around in the parade of horses.  But, it was followed by an immediate silence.  Everyone knew what was at stake.  It was a very dangerous place.

Unfortunately, 5 fences into the race, Dream just stopped and pulled up.  They found out shortly after that he suffered from a blood vessel disease that felt to him like he was choking.

It was Howard who mostly wanted to continue racing Dream.  He said that he had a hard time accepting that it was over.  But, in 2012, at the age of 11, the syndicate agreed to retire Dream to Somerset under the care of a “horse groom” who had formerly cared for him at Sandhill.  As a gelding, Dream will never reproduce.

After all was said and done, each syndicate member only made a profit of ₤1430 ($1800 US).  But, each said they cherished the journey and were proud that their little Welsh community that no one knew about was “recognized at last”.

For Janet, she finished by saying that Dream always made her feel “somebody else for the day” and that for once, “I wasn’t Janet the cleaner, I was Janet the race horse owner”.

After the Film

In May 2015, it was announced that Janet & Brian bred a new foal which was given the temporary stable name of “Rodney”.  She told the BBC that she will continue to look after the colt in between her two jobs, which she still has.  She is excited about his prospects, “The foal comes with a great pedigree; the father won the German Derby”.

If all goes well in the next several months, Janet hopes for Rodney to train with Dream’s former trainer (Hobbs).

Janet also said that they’ve got a new syndicate together that requires £15 a week for Rodney’s care.  But, there is a waiting list for people who wish to join… Darn.

I’ll be looking out for Rodney sometime in 2018…

My Thoughts

As a sports fan, my interest in watching thoroughbred horse racing has grown leaps and bounds over the years.

I’ve learned to appreciate not only the actual races themselves, but also the anticipation of the contest and the handicapping process.

I have also become fascinated by the relationships between the horses, jockeys, trainers, owners and crews who all work towards the goal of putting their team across the finish line first.

It’s as if the stars need to line up all perfectly for a winning horse to rise above the rest, especially ones with lesser resources.

In this aspect, Dark Horse is so appealing because there were so many odds stacked against Dream Alliance and his supporters yet, he still became a winner.  It’s a great sports story that Hollywood could have dreamt up.

What’s most interesting about this film, though, is that it reveals how a group of nobodies put all their hopes into a long-shot because they wanted an outlet from their blue-collar lives and to hopefully make some money in the process and have some fun.

Along the way, these folks fell in love with their quirky, feisty “streetfighter” and they ultimately sacrificed any real profits they made for his well-being, because he became “one of them”.

Similarly, Dream seemed to have developed a loving relationship with his humans.  He appears to have understood all the hopes and dreams that were at stake and he wanted to fight for them.  Whether that was true or not?  I’d like to believe it was.

Anyone want to start a syndicate? 

Highly Recommended.  PG rated.  Suitable for teenagers and adults.

WATCH THE TRAILER: https://youtu.be/p7IcOoCE_cA

 

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.theladylovessports.com/contact.