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Dark Horse

(2015) *** Pg
85 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Louise Osmond. Cast: Jan Vokes, Brian Vokes, Howard Davies, Andrew Grainger.


"NAGS TO RICHES," rang out the headline. The real-life tale sounds more like one of those optimistic British working-class comedies in the mold of The Full Monty: a group of optimistic folks in a South Wales mining village band together to sire and back a racehorse, despite having little to no precedent to believe they can succeed. As directed by Louise Osmond, the documentary Dark Horse engagingly recounts a story of community, partnership, and individual will.

The chief protagonist of Dark Horse, Jan Vokes was working as a barmaid at the local "working men's club" when she developed the notion to breed a racehorse, funding the enterprise with a syndicate of like-minded neighbors. The kernel of the idea came from the example of one of her patrons, Howard Davies, who'd run a syndicate before and lost a great deal of money doing it. The story unfolds mostly in the words of Vokes and Davies, separately recollecting the details and their thoughts and emotions, then and now, about what transpired.

Osmond doesn't belabor style in any way, opting to shape the story simply and directly through the new interviews, available archive materials, and efficient montage. The story is enough, covering the entire career of the horse that came to be named Dream Alliance and dramatically described by Davies (perhaps egged on by Osmond, who also has a writing credit) as “a working-class horse that was about to take on the likes of the best."

Vokes had only bred racing pigeons and whippets before Dream Alliance, but with some expert consultation, she orchestrated the finding of a broodmare and a stallion to breed, as well as the training and care of the resulting champion. It's no spoiler to say that the members of the syndicate, some struggling to put food on the table, achieve some success, though not without trials, including serious medical concerns for the horse.

In large part, Osmond frames Dark Horse as another story of foolishly underestimating the "underdog" and, specifically, doing so based on class discrimination. As Vokes puts it, "These well-to-do sort of people like to keep the sports to themselves. They like to keep us commoners out, I think." But with a glint in her eye, she also remembers the feeling of well-earned pride in inspiration and faith: “I wasn’t Janet the cleaner any more; I was Janet the racehorse owner.”

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