Lawrence Toppman

Little ‘Dark Horse’ a big winner among summer films

Brian and Janet Vokes, leaders of a syndicate of 23 Welsh villagers, pose with Dream Alliance in “Dark Horse.”
Brian and Janet Vokes, leaders of a syndicate of 23 Welsh villagers, pose with Dream Alliance in “Dark Horse.” Courtesy of Sony Classics

“Dark Horse” has all the elements of a great sports movie biography: A rise from obscurity, achievement against all expectations, a comeback from a potentially fatal injury, an irresistible “little guy vs. big guys” vibe. And it has one quality most sports movies don’t: It doesn’t stop at the triumphant freeze-frame of an underdog who’s finally on top.

Like the endearing “50 to 1” and “Seabiscuit,” it’s the story of an unheralded horse that earned the racing world’s respect. Yet it goes beyond those films to make Dream Alliance a well-developed character with a mind and personality that determine his fate.

If you’re not from Great Britain, you may not know this horse, whose victories included the Perth Gold Cup and Welsh National. (You can read about him at his Wikipedia page, but be warned: It reveals the film’s surprises.) He was famous enough there that newspaper stories were headlined “Slumnag millionaire” and “Nags to riches.”

Welsh barmaid Janet Vokes, who had bred racing pigeons and whippets, had a remarkable idea 16 years ago: If 30 people in her economically depressed mining town of Blackwood spent 10 pounds a week (roughly $20), this syndicate could afford to breed and train a race horse. She, husband Brian and accountant Howard Davies led a group of 23 owners, which bought an undistinguished mare – she ran three races, none in the money – and bred her to a stallion with no major track success. Dream Alliance was born in 2001.

Well-known trainer Philip Hobbs took the group’s money with skepticism and amusement but conscientiously trained the young horse. Its rise to glory, the brightest moment in the dim recent history of the struggling village, forms the rest of the movie.

Veteran documentary-maker Louise Osmond directs with flair. She gives us just enough of the history of Blackwood to show what Dream Alliance means to the place, and she gets us inside the horse’s head as he alternately dashes to victory and balks at jumps in British hurdle races. (The film was nominated for Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize and won its Audience Award.)

Osmond respects these people and answers our questions about them, down to the mystery of Brian Vokes’ missing teeth. (The two we see make him look like a friendly pit bull.) She leans heavily on the villagers’ belief that wealthy owners sneer or laugh at their syndicate, which may have been true: The British remain more class-conscious than Americans.

Yet she doesn’t overstress any part of the story, which satisfies us in familiar ways and surprises us in unfamiliar ones. The last shot doesn’t land us in a winner’s circle, but that’s where “Dark Horse” belongs.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Dark Horse’

1/2

Director: Louise Osmond.

Length: 88 minutes.

Rating: PG (some mild thematic elements and language).

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