‘Dark Horse’ is a bright spot in the Sundance Film Festival lineup | ParkRecord.com

‘Dark Horse’ is a bright spot in the Sundance Film Festival lineup

Nan Chalat Noaker, The Park Record

When Louise Osmond and Judith Dawson’s documentary "Dark Horse" premieres at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend, Osmond says she will be "the woman pacing outside at the back with her hand over her eyes. "

"I find it absolutely nerve racking. It’s quite frightening," she said in an interview before heading to Utah for the festival’s opening.

Her biggest concern, she said, was whether the story, about a struggling coal-mining town whose citizens chip in to raise a race horse, would resonate with American audiences, especially at Sundance in Park City.

She didn’t know that Park City, itself, was once a mining town that had seen its silver-mining boom go bust and had been written off, by some, as a ghost town, before staging its own unlikely comeback.

Osmond said the journey to make ‘Dark Horse’ began in 2008 with a trip to the horse races in London.

"I saw huge amounts of money being laid on horses by people who probably didn’t really have it I thought it would be amazing to do a sort of ‘Rocky’ film with a horse," said Osmond.

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After a quick search, she discovered a series of news stories about a horse called Dream Alliance, owned by a syndicate whose members, in the rarified world of wealthy racehorse breeders and owners, stood out as salt-of-the-earth commoners.

It had been in all of the newspapers, she said, but had fallen off the radar. Still, she worried that someone had already optioned the story. "I was just bowled over and thinking I would do anything to make this happen," she said.

"I loved the story to death, so I was scared to make the call," she remembers and when Dawson did make contact with Dream’s owners, those fears were realized. Dream’s owners had already been contacted by a movie studio.

But patience paid off. The first group backed away, leaving the door open for Osmond and Dawson.

"We waited more than a year and then we got our chance in 2012," she said.

Dawson and Osmond began making trips to Wales and soon realized that in addition to a great story, they also had some great characters.

"It was a dream, to be honest with you. If you are going to make a documentary that people will enjoy as cinema, you have to have characters that have the insight to understand their own journeys. It was remarkable to find people with the ability to talk so beautifully about their emotions," she said of meeting the indomitable woman who raised a successful racehorse on a shoestring budget and the whole cast involved her effort.

"It felt so special to make this film. It was really the happiest experience of my life," said Osmond.

The film opens in 2000 in a Welsh valley of rolling green hills dotted with tiny coal-mining villages. The recession has just flattened several of the communities and life is hard. But in one, Jan Vokes, who left school at age 15, worked in a factory for 23 years and then in a working-class pub, decides she wants to breed a racehorse, an expensive undertaking usually reserved for "lords, dukes and the landed gentry" according to one of Dream’s eventual supporters.

To finance the quest, Jan posts a sign in the bar: "Breed a horse, get on the course, 10 per week."

One by one, Jan’s syndicate grows and raises enough to buy a mare with dubious prospects and to bargain down a stud fee from a stallion that Jan believes has unexplored potential. The dues also go toward sending Dream to racing school, hiring a trainer and designing a crimson and gunmetal grey uniform for a jockey.

On the day of Dream’s first race, Jan’s ragtag team rents a minibus and arrives at the racecourse with sack lunches in hand. When they are nearly turned away at the gate, Dream’s syndicate members proudly display their owner’s badges and walk right in among the top-hatted, white-gloved gentry. "They were gobsmacked," said one.

Osmond and Dawson skillfully interweave archival footage from the syndicate’s home movies, television footage of Dream’s rise (and fall, and comeback) along with their own cinematic landscapes and intimate interviews with Jan, her supportive husband, the syndicate’s reluctant accountant, the skeptical trainer and members of the syndicate, all of whose lives become intertwined with their horse’s success in the face of daunting odds.

There is no doubt Sundance audiences, too, will be on the edge of their seats as Dream lines up at gate.

"Dark Horse" is screening in the Sundance Film Festival’s World Documentary Competition at the following times:

  • Saturday, Jan. 24, at 3:30 p.m. at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center
  • Sunday, Jan. 25, at 9 p.m. at the Yarrow Hotel Theatre
  • Wednesday, Jan. 28, at 3:30 p.m. at Redstone Cinema 1
  • Thursday, Jan. 29, at 6 p.m. at Sundance Resort
  • Friday, Jan. 30, at 8:30 a.m. at the Library Center Theater