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Charming 'Dark Horse' shares the true story of a mining village that dreamed big

Posted June 20

“DARK HORSE” — 3 stars — Jan Vokes, Brian Vokes, Howard Davies, Angela Davies; PG (mild thematic elements and language)

“Dark Horse” is the equestrian equivalent of a D-League affiliate making it to the NBA Finals. The documentary shares the heartwarming true story of a working-class mining village in Wales that came together behind a determined barmaid to crash the world of high-stakes horse racing.

The barmaid in question is Jan Vokes, a working mother who, in a fit of inspiration, determined that she wanted to breed a racehorse. She was working in a Welsh men’s club when she met Howard Davies, a local accountant who had lost some money trying to get into the horse breeding business himself some years earlier. With the help of Howard, and eventually a syndicate of locals from their village, Jan was able to realize her dream, and then some.

“Dark Horse” details the amusing process of how Jan and company were able to break into a multimillion dollar business on the cheap. Where horse racing had always been a sport of the rich and famous, the group was able to breed their horse at a fee of 300 pounds for the mare and 3,000 pounds for the stud.

The result of this bargain-basement investment was a white-footed underdog Dream Alliance, named after the collaboration that helped bring him into the world.

After this brief origin story, “Dark Horse” gets into the details and depth of competitive horse racing, starting with a trainer who charged the syndicate 18,000 pounds a year to handle Dream Alliance. It was a steep price for the village people, but as we see Dream Alliance’s progress on the track, it’s easy to see how thrilled they are with their investment.

“Dark Horse” is pretty straightforward as a documentary, intercutting a combination of new and old material. Often the tone is set with gorgeous footage of the rolling green hills of the Welsh countryside and close-ups of serene horses. These shots blend well with the traditional interview shots and re-enactments. Best of all, since Dream Alliance’s heyday took place about a decade ago, we also benefit from some original footage, including some grainy video that shows the young racehorse staggering to get its footing in the days just after it was born.

As great as the visuals are, it’s the personalities of the owners that really give director Louise Osmond’s film its charm. Subjects such as Brian Vokes — Jan’s husband — laughing his way through a heavy accent and missing teeth drive home the underdog theme, and it’s easy to see Jan’s stubbornness hiding beneath her down-to-earth exterior.

“Dark Horse” could have easily been aimed as a bitter critique of the upper class in Britain, and there are moments where the group runs into resistance that feels more spiteful than anything else. But Osmond wisely keeps the focus on Jan and her team, which makes the same point in a more heartwarming way. In that sense, “Dark Horse” is not so much the story of a racehorse as it is a portrait of a loving community that came together to do something very special.

“Dark Horse” is rated PG for mild thematic elements and language; running time: 85 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.

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