In 2000, in the small Welsh ex-mining town (ring any bells?) of Cefn Forest, Jan Vokes—a barmaid and part-time ASDA worker—is looking for a fresh challenge and decides to breed a racehorse. Armed with a history of breeding animals and a dream of taking on horse racing’s elite, she teams up with Howard Davies, a tax advisor and horse racing obsessive who is struggling financially having lost thousands of pounds owning a previous racehorse. Their financial plan is shockingly simple: each member of the syndicate pays in £10 a week and earns a share of any potential winnings, even more shocking is that for a pie-in-the-sky idea dreamed up in a bar, it actually works.
What follows is a screenwriter’s dream, a sporting yarn with a perfect harmony between success and failure, and a tale of triumph over adversity that could only have been dreamed up by Disney. But keeping the film grounded is the cast of characters telling the story through interviews and reconstructions. It’s a joy to watch ASDA workers and elderly pub locals mingle with society’s elite and bask in the glory that comes with owning a racehorse. The plot and characters are so strong that there is little for Osmond to do other than let them tell their story. And luckily, she does just that, never embellishing, and never manipulating. Disappointingly, this lack of embellishment might also be the film’s downfall. Dark Horse never quite escapes its humble origins and feels better suited to the small screen.
The reconstructions feel a little tacky and despite being enjoyable, the film never really does enough to justify a trip to the cinema. At a brief 85 minutes, it should still make for entertaining home viewing however. Dark Horse is a deeply absorbing documentary that for its story alone is well worth a watch. Whether or not it will stand the test of time is another matter, chances are it will be surpassed by a big budget retelling in the near future (my money’s on Imelda Staunton for the lead). In the hands of a more adept director we might have ended up with a stronger documentary, but that shouldn’t get in the way of what is still a fantastic story and a very charismatic troupe of characters.