Monday, May 02, 2016

Dark Horse: the Race Horse, not the Chess Player

Dream Alliance was like a Welsh Seabiscuit, but he hailed from humbler stables. Some might infer as much from his national identity, but even by Welsh standards, Cefn Fforest (with two f’s) is a persistently depressed community. Yet, somehow a barmaid with the help of her customers and neighbors managed to breed a seriously contending thoroughbred. Louise Osmond chronicles the career of Dream Alliance and the boosters that supported him in Dark Horse (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The first time tax accountant Howard Davies dabbled in “the sport of kings” it nearly bankrupted him. However, the experience had not cured him of the horse-racing itch, leaving him more than predisposed to say yes when approached by Jan Vokes. The former dog breeder was determined to try her hand at thoroughbreds as a sort of challenge, but the training and stud fees were nearly prohibitive. Instead of shouldering all the costs themselves, Vokes and Davies formed a consortium, through which members (primarily drawn from her pub clientele) contributed ten pounds a week to fund the horse they named Dream Alliance.

There was still no way they could buy their way into a prestigious bloodline, but they did find a mare with a reputation for being fiery, which would serve Dream Alliance well. Indeed, he turned out to be reasonably competitive in his early races, notching third or fourth place finishes, but he was still racing well off the establishment’s radar. Then he entered the Perth Gold Cup, one of Wales’ highest profile races—and everything changed.

It is not hard to see why Dream Alliance’s story grabbed Osmond. He has more career reversals than Rocky Balboa. Things go up, down, and sideways for the blue collar thoroughbred. Yet, at every step of the way, the Syndicate (as they called themselves) kept faith with Dream Alliance, identifying with him as a fellow underdog.

Dark Horse also has a working class-triumph over adversity angle, much like a fully clothed Full Monty. Osmond takes her time, introducing us round the Syndicate, which gives the film a real life Cheers vibe. (One patron looks like he could pass for Moe’s Tavern regular Barney Gumble on The Simpsons, but he still gives the film some genuine character.)

Osmond shrewdly maximizes the inherent drama with a tight, un-telegraphed narrative, while editor Joby Gee stitches all the disparate archival footage and nostalgia-drenched interview sequences quite dexterously. It is a lovely little doc that seems ripe for a narrative treatment. Recommended for fans of the sport and British slice-of-life television shows like Doc Martin, Dark Horse opens this Friday (5/6) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza.