Love story between horse and villagers hits the big screen

CNN  — 

It’s an unlikely love story that took an unheralded horse from a stable on a Welsh slag heap to arguably the world’s most famous jump race – and his unconventional owners from the remote Welsh Valleys to the big screen of the Sundance Film Festival.

Not a bad return for a small-time syndicate whose interest was piqued by a poster pinned up in the bar of a working men’s club in a recession-hit mining village a decade ago – and an animal with Hollywood good looks who was almost put down after suffering a serious injury.

“It said on an A4 sheet of paper, ‘To breed a horse to get on a course. From there anything is a bonus,”” Howard Davies, part-owner of former Grand National entrant Dream Alliance, told CNN ahead of Saturday’s marquee event at Aintree.

“I had three pints in my hand and Jan Vokes (the bar tender) said, ‘You used to have a racehorse, I’m going to breed one.’ I said, ‘good luck,’ and sat down.

“She came over and said, ‘I’m serious. We need your knowledge of how to set up a syndicate and manage it.’”

Davies, a retired tax consultant and former racehorse owner, calculated that if 30 investors paid $15 a week they could finance the annual $22,000 required to raise a racehorse.

With 25 villagers persuaded to fund the scheme, Vokes paired mare Rewbell with stud Bien Bien to give birth to Dream Alliance in 2001.

The handsome chestnut was raised in a DIY stable built by Jan’s husband Brian on a slag heap allotment, the hilly remains of Cefn Fforest’s coal mining past.

From these humble beginnings he was sent to school with Phillip Hobbs, a respected trainer with 2,000 winners to his credit, and slowly the Alliance Partnership’s investment began to reap rewards.

“Dream surprised everyone by saying ‘ooh this is fun’ and finishing fourth of 17 in his first race,” said Davies. “Then he came fourth, second, third, first, first and that’s when everything took off.”

This year Dream’s tale has been turned into a film, titled “Dark Horse,” which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, but the story wouldn’t be movie material without a twist in the tale.

Jumping for home in the Handicap Hurdle at Aintree in 2008, he suffered a life-threatening injury, severing a tendon in his leg.

The syndicate agreed to use $30,000 from his prize pot to save his life and pay for pioneering stem-cell surgery.

Their second gamble paid off as less than two years later, Dream Alliance won the high-profile Welsh National in staggering style. He remains one of a handful of horses to triumph following stem-cell treatment.

“The ultimate dream was to see our horse win the Welsh National at Chepstow,” beamed Angela Davies.

“There was no feeling like it. We had so much fun. When I went back to work, it was all about the horse and then I suddenly thought, ‘Oh yes, I forgot to say my daughter got engaged too!’”

The syndicate’s saga raced on as Dream was entered in the 2010 Grand National, racing’s breathless four-mile plunge over Aintree’s high hurdles.

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“It made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up,” Brian Vokes, more used to working with horses as a rag and bone man than thoroughbreds, recalled of standing in the Aintree owner’s circle.

“You couldn’t believe all these people, those millionaires in there and us, who bred a horse on a slag heap, we were in there with them.”

Dream’s story was not quite the rags to riches tale it might have been. Entered as a decent 16-1 shot for the Grand National, he pulled up with blood pooling in his lungs.

“He had a minor problem in that he burst minor blood vessels,” explained Howard Davies. “We think the Welsh National was one trip too far for him.

“He put so much effort in to win it and then went to Aintree four months later and the problem reoccurred.”

Life changing

Dream retired in May 2012 with $203,000 in gross prize money in his bank account. When the final bills were paid, the remaining 22 syndicate members received $2,000 on their $15-a-week investment.

They found fame not fortune, but their gamble to breed and race Dream Alliance had never been about the money.

“It was not a life-changing amount,” Angela Davies reflected, with a smile.

“But it was a life-changing experience,” chipped in husband Howard with a grin as wide as Aintree’s notorious Becher’s Brook fence.

“It fulfilled everything I could have ever hoped for in racing. When I started getting involved in horse racing as a young bloke, I wanted to be inside the sweetshop looking out.

“On the day of the Welsh National after his injury we stood in the parade ring, the horse is coming round to win, there are 20,000 people at the course and I stood there watching and smiling.

“If you were fortunate to step into Dream’s space you were caught. He was handsome, he swaggered around and nothing ever fazed him.

“You could compare him to some of the iconic sports stars of our age, the likes of American sprinter Carl Lewis. He was magnetic.”

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The personal relationship with Dream Alliance has also been the biggest reward for Jan Vokes, whose passion brought the horse to life.

“He kept me sane,” Vokes, who still works six days a week as a cleaner, told CNN.

“It was at a time when my parents were elderly, housebound and ill. I was working two jobs to look after my mother and Brian had just had a new hip.

“All this was going on and Dream was a release. I could go down to (the stables) and forget about everything really. Dream was there.”

Throughout the film, Vokes talks about her pact with Dream that one day she would bring him home to Cefn Fforest.

Broken heart

It is a pact she hasn’t been able to keep. Dream Alliance is enjoying his retirement in Taunton, an English town in Somerset, rather than the Welsh Valleys.

“I could have brought him home but Brian was afraid … He thought I would be upset,” Vokes explained.

“I broke her heart,” added Brian. “We’ve been together 46 years and married for 43 and this is the closest she’s come to kicking me out.”

The story of Dream Alliance is all about heart.

It is a love story between the handsome horse and the unlikely alliance of villagers from the Welsh coal mining community who beat the elite horseracing establishment.

“I could tell very quickly that this story wasn’t about the racing,” “Dark Horse” director Louise Osmond told CNN.

“It was about the characters and their connection with this beautiful animal and what he meant to all of them in slightly different ways.

“There’s also something inspirational about Jan. This valley had hit hard times but she didn’t see the obstacles.

“She didn’t worry about how they could afford the racehorse, the snobbery of the elite (racing) world, she just did it. That’s amazing.”

The tale of Dream Alliance is also finding a surprising resonance beyond the Welsh Valleys and British horse racing.

“Dark Horse,” which has been optioned by Sony Pictures Classics in the U.S. and is released in the UK on April 17, won the World Cinema audience award at the Sundance Film Festival.

“Flying over, I thought – will this go in America?” said Osmond. “Is it universal enough?

“Sundance was really the film’s first outing in the world and it was really wonderful that is seemed to resonate with the audience.

“One man came over and said, ‘It’s great to see people who aren’t respected getting the respect they deserve.’

“There is something about their mischief and defiance in taking on the sport of kings that played out there.

“Thousands of miles away in the mountains of middle America you had this Welsh story that moved and uplifted people.”

Some viewers might take home the idea that a small investment could give you a place in the owners’ inner circle for one of the world’s most famous horse races.

But Jan Vokes hopes the story of Dream Alliance will send out a simpler message.

“It would be horrible to grow old with regrets,” she said, smiling. “It’s better to try and fail than never try at all.”