Published May 20, 2016Louise Osmond's Dark Horse is a charming documentary about a small town that pools their funds together to breed and raise a champion racehorse. The film transcends its conventional rags-to-riches narrative with its sly class commentary and playful streak. By mapping out the deeply rooted economy of British horse racing, Osmond shows how a team of barflies broke down the social and economic barriers faced in the sport with some clever strategies and a bit of luck. Think of it as Moneyball meets Mike Leigh's slice-of-life social realism.
The film follows the story of Dream Alliance, a horse that started from the very bottom of Wales' working class but would go on to defeat some of Britain's top race horses. Jan Vokes worked as a barmaid in a small town, always dreaming of owning a prize horse. The film traces her journey over the years, as she, her husband and 23 of their friends pool together a bit of bar money each week in order to train and raise Dream Alliance.
Dark Horse works like any good sports drama (paging Seabiscuit), raising the stakes gradually and showing the difficulties the characters have to overcome. There's an easy charm to the group of barflies telling a story, each with their own spin on the events, and director Louise Osmond knows when to cut from one particular beat to build momentum.
Eventually, Dream Alliance makes his way to the Welsh Grand National, and half the fun is seeing all of Vokes' planning pay off. Osmond assembles plenty of archival footage and stages dramatic recreations, adeptly breezing along as the story makes its way through the social elite of British horse racing.
At times, Dark Horse feels like a very low-key heist film, as Osmond's interviews show how the team conspired to find the right horse and win local races before moving on to the big leagues. Like most capers, half the fun is in the planning, and while the film loses steam in its second half without much conflict in the way, the film's small stakes make for an enjoyable ride.
Osmond excels in her interviews with the eclectic horse owners in the Welsh town of Cefn Fforest. Unlike other docs about small-town subjects who are thrust into the spotlight, there's a charming naturalism and unaffected quality to their behaviour. Their goal wasn't exactly social upheaval, but they relish the opportunity to show off their rebellious side. Dark Horse comes highly recommended.