Arts and Culture

“Dark Horse,” winner of the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, is a heartwarming real-life fairy-tale.

A Welsh barmaid, Jan Vokes, from a workingman’s pub in a poor coal-mining town decides to breed a racehorse with the help of her husband, Brian, and a group of locals — retirees, small businessmen, shopkeepers, barflies and the like — who each agree to pitch in 10 pounds a week.

They buy an aging thoroughbred brood mare and find the most inexpensive stud. They raise their foal on a hillside made of slag from the coal mine and nurture it to maturity, treating it not as a business opportunity but as a member of their family.

Reflecting their pride and flights of fancy, they name their horse Dream Alliance. And while the venture was initially considered a lark, all bets were off when the horse started winning.

The film, directed by documentarian Louise Osmond, had a special premiere earlier this week at the Speed Art Museum and will open at the Baxter Avenue Theaters in mid-May. I spoke with Osmond, as well as Jan and Brian Vokes, about the real-life story behind the documentary.

How did it feel seeing your story presented in the film?

Jan Vokes: It was wonderful because, actually living the events you don’t realize it’s a story, you just overcome each barrier as you reach it. Then, when Louise came and made the documentary, and you sit down to watch it, you realize, ‘Well, yeah–I guess it is a story!’ But you don’t realize it at the time, so it was lovely to look back at it.

Brian Vokes: [The documentary] also has taken us places that we never dreamed we would see. I recommend that everyone see the movie.

Louise, how did you find this story?

Louise Osmond: To be honest, I started out looking to make what, in retrospect, would have been a more shallow film. I had been to the racetrack and had seen these absolutely amazing animals. I had never really seen a racehorse up close and was just struck by how incredibly beautiful they are, and all these people were putting money on them. It struck me how all these people were believing in this one horse–kind of like a ‘Rocky’ story.

I was trying to find a way to bring that to life, and looked at various horses and trainers, but nothing came close to what I was looking for to capture that lovely essence that ‘Rocky’ has–that emotional connection between the animal and people. Then, this story was there, and it had all the bones of that. But what was truly amazing was meeting Jan and Brian and the people who were close to them, and it was immediately obvious that the emotional connection between them and this horse that they had bred was so powerful. So in that sense, the film isn’t really about horseracing; while it’s set in the horseracing world, it is this journey that a community takes along with this horse. He gives them something, and they give him something.

Let’s talk a bit about Dream Alliance. One of my favorite quotes about him from the film is “He doesn’t ask for anything and he’s giving everything.” What do you think made him special as a racehorse?

JV: He’s very calm and understanding. You connect with him. We’ve had animals for years, but he seemed to have that something special about him. And when you spoke to him, it was like he understood every word you said. A lot of racehorses are kind of flighty, but he’s not– he was something special, I think.

Was there ever a sense that he was more than a horse–that he was a member of your family or your community?

JV: Oh, yes. He grew up on an allotment on a slag heap where we actually played as children, so he grew up in the same environment that we had grown up in. He became part of the village because people would walk by and come to see him because it was quite exciting to think that maybe, just maybe, we could achieve a racehorse.

This has been described as a “nags to riches” or a “slumnag millionaire’ story,” so there is obviously a sense of overcoming class obstacles, which becomes a resounding theme in the film. To Louise, did you intend to make the social stratification in the world an overarching theme in “Dark Horse,” or was it something that simply happened through research and interviews?

LO: It was a really fun element of the surface element of the story. Racing in Britain, probably here as well, is the ‘sport of kings.’ It is the Queen’s hobby, and it is inhabited by a lot of very wealthy and very well-to-do people. And so, obviously it was a great and funny element of the story that this group of friends from this village were going to take on, as I said, the ‘sport of kings’ and move in those circles.

Actually, once you looked more into the story, that wasn’t really at the heart of this journey. It was actually just this extraordinary bond with the horse, and at that point everyone loved the horse so much, they just wanted to have the best journey possible. But I don’t deny that it was kind of a gift in filmmaking. It’s fun, it’s mischief–and I think they had a fair amount of mischief moving into these circles.

Jan and Brian, what was your view on that?

JV: Well, the way I look at it is, you don’t have to have money to be rich. In mining communities, we look out for each other. It’s a life full of love and laughter, and I mean, you’re rich if you’ve got that. So, going to the races and being part of that–well, we were on a different wavelength, you know what I mean? But I don’t think the divide was that great. Never having had a lot of money, you couldn’t tell what the difference was anyway.

BV: It was never about the money. It was about the horse, it was. Whenever Jan felt down–because she had lost her mother and her father was ill–she would say, ‘Alright, let’s go,’ and we would drive two and a half hours, see the horse and all would be right.

And finally, apparently there is a new foal, Impossible Dream, that you all have bred–is it possible that “Dark Horse” will have a sequel?

JV: Well, you never know. There’s always hoping. He is better bred–I shouldn’t say that because Dream [Alliance] was something special, there will never be another Dream–but Impossible Dream has a better pedigree, and we are hoping that in a few years time that we can have a crack at the Cheltenham Gold Cup. There are definite hopes for a gold cup in the cupboard.