Film Review: Dark Horse

If you aren’t already a horseracing enthusiast, 'Dark Horse' offers very little that will interest you in its come-from-behind story.
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We’ve all heard the sports stories about underdog teams that come from behind and end up winning some top prize or championship. Filmmakers love these tales, especially when it comes to racehorses like Seabiscuit that mostly remain outside the public consciousness until the Kentucky Derby in early May, when one horse or another captures the public’s attention.

With the most obvious title possible, the documentary Dark Horse—not to be confused with the recent New Zealand drama The Dark Horse (which itself is based on a documentary)—tells the story of how a couple from a mining town in Wales assembles a group of pub locals to fund the breeding of a race horse they name “Dream Alliance.”

This was a big story across the pond in 2009, but maybe not so much here, so it’s easy to see how the story of Dream Alliance might be of interest to those who didn’t already know it. As pointed out by a rather pompous individual, horseracing was mostly reserved for the upper class—why it’s known as the “sport of kings”—and in the case of “The Syndicate,” as the group calls itself, they’re thought to be way out of their element for even getting involved in horse breeding.  

Dark Horse epitomizes what is often referred to as a “talking-heads” doc, mostly made up of the quaint Welsh folks speaking directly to the camera while explaining their decision to invest their money in Dream Alliance and the journey that followed. They all seem pleasant enough and their accents aren’t too hard to decipher, but this format quickly grows tiring.

Things only start to get interesting about 50 minutes into the film, when Dream Alliance is injured so badly during a race it doesn’t look likely that he’ll ever race again. The group learns of specialized stem-cell surgery that could be used to save their horse’s life, and they decide to reinvest $20,000 of Dream Alliance’s winnings into this procedure rather than putting their horse down. Eighteen months later, Dream Alliance makes a shocking comeback at the Welsh National and the group behind the winner earns national recognition.

Dark Horse is commendable for the number of women surrounding director Louise Osmond, and technically the film is well shot and edited, with gorgeous horseracing footage accompanied by an appropriate Celtic score, which is probably the best thing it has going for it.

Even so, the way the story is told doesn’t do much to keep one’s interest, especially because it’s easy to figure out where the movie is going, even if you don’t already know the facts. In other words, no one is going to make a documentary about a losing horse, and if Dream Alliance’s career had been cut short by its injury, that would probably be the end of the story and it wouldn’t have been worth making a movie about it. This always seems like a tale being told in the past tense, rather than feeling as if it’s happening as the viewer watches, which is often what separates a good documentary from bad.

Ultimately, Dark Horse tells a perfectly fine story about horseracing in a rather boring and predictable way that will have limited appeal, probably more to the elites that own race horses rather than the common people who don’t already have an interest in the sport.

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