When interviewed more than 40 years ago, WA bookmaker Eric Wilson was asked if he got a thrill from owning racehorses. His reply hit a chord:
“There is only one thing in the world that I have done which is more exciting than seeing your own colours cross the finishing line first. That’s running with the bulls at Pamplona.” Caesar magazine 1978.
This from a man who wagered and laid bets in the tens of thousands during the 1970s, a time when a house in Cottesloe could be bought for well less than $100,000. You would think his life was one thrill after another during his working day?
However, that is what racing can do to a person. The sheer enjoyment of owning a racehorse, watching it nurtured into becoming an athlete, choosing the design of the silks which your jockey will wear on race day, going to the races with fellow owners and friends to watch it race; these are all part-and-parcel of the experience. Bet or no bet, watching it first past the post in competition is exhilarating.
So it was for Jan Vokes, living in the Welsh village of Caerphilly and breeder of Dream Alliance, a foal raised in the allotment near her modest home. For Jan the experience had all the above but she had added being responsible for the mating of sire and dam which produced her foal. It was an extraordinary achievement which makes into a very good racing movie.
Dream Horse (2020) is directed by Euros Lyn and written by Neil McKay and the two have fashioned a pretty close to the truth story of one woman’s determination to rise above what her life has become.
Jan (Toni Collette) is married to out-of-work Brian (“You can call me Daisy”; Owen Teale) and works two jobs to keep the household going. A successful breeder and trainer of pigeons and whippets in her youth, she decides, after overhearing a conversation in the club where she works, to buy a thoroughbred mare and breed from her.
Having Brian’s expertise in veterinary work as a backstop, the two buy Rewbell and have her mated to the handsome stallion Bien Bien. The result, a chestnut colt with a four white socks and a prominent blaze, is Dream Alliance.
Howard Davies (Damian Lewis), the man who was having the conversation in the club, is approached to help her form a syndicate but is reluctant because a previous foray into racehorse ownership nearly bankrupted his family.
When Howard does come on board the syndicate is put together with a ragtag group of the village community putting in the estimated 10 pounds a week it will cost to raise Dream Alliance to racing age and pay his training fees.
Under the care of respected trainer Philip Hobbs (Nicholas Farrell), the horse develops into a handy jumper before being badly injured. The comeback story then follows en route to the Welsh National at Chepstow.
Crucially, the horse’s even minor successes (running a place warrants a front-page banner headline) unite the village and the valley. Dream Alliance becomes a beacon of hope for the whole community.
Dream Horse has sincerity and a respect for horse racing and Lyn and McKay have honoured the sport by not adding too much “Hollywood” to the film. After seeing Phar Lap (1983), it was heartbreaking for this reviewer to see how cavalier the producers and director were with the truth.
One part that infuriated was the horse’s trainer Harry Telford being too nervous to watch the 1929 AJC Derby because Phar Lap, still without a win, was 50 to 1 and Telford had wagered money on it which he could not afford. The horse won, hooray!
The truth was Phar Lap had won his previous two starts and started a long odds-on favourite in the Derby. To my mind you just cannot mess around with facts like that.
There were a few small incidents in Dream Horse which whispered inaccuracy.
The “foal,” which looked remarkably like the older Dream Alliance in later scenes was a lot older colt than a newborn; Dream Alliance’s jockey silks were a lot more white-grey with a splash of red than those in the film; jockeys don’t go to the horse stalls on race day and apply boots to protect previously damaged tendons; and in the Welsh National, the horse settled near the leaders before leading clearly into the home straight. He didn’t come from last.
Of course, these are easily explained. Most foals are born at night and no one can predict what markings they will have on them when they emerge. To find a young horse with such similar markings as the one which graced the racetrack was a good effort. Anyway, how many times have we seen newborn babies in movies look like they are ready to be weaned yet they are being presented to the mother as though just born?
Novices in the movie audience would not have been as easily able to follow Dream Alliance in the race scenes without the more distinctive red silks and having him come from last is better theatre, despite being untrue. As for the jockey in the horse stall, again a feint to novices.
Director and writer, you’re forgiven because the rest of the film seemed very accurate.
Races – falls and all – were shown with honesty and, in a later interview, Jan Vokes summed up the view of how the turf, though awash with class and style, welcomes all comers.
Has your opinion on the racing industry changed since Dream Alliance?
“It has changed, I definitely think that it’s a sport of two halves! You’ve got your millionaires who are paying all this money, millions sometimes for horses but we’ve found when we’ve gone, I always thought of it as the sport of kings and it’s not like that, once you’re there and you’re in the ring it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a penny in the bank or a million a the bank you get treated just the same.”Jan Vokes, Past the Wire website 20 February 2020
However, in the same interview she said the film paid little or no reference to the Welsh cob ponies she and Daisy had been breeding for some time or their vet Ron, who deserved more of a reference as he was vital to the horse’s development and all the paperwork necessary to ensure Dream Alliance was correctly registered.
Collette was her usual versatile self, playing her role with honesty and verve. I particularly liked the emergence of ‘Daisy’ from rumpled failure to a man with something to look forward to and Lewis, a fine actor, seemed a tad miscast as the accountant-syndicate organiser but still fulfilled his role with ease.