On Dec. 28, 2009, at Chepstow Racecourse in Wales, the 8-year-old gelding Dream Alliance won the Welsh Grand National for a 23-owner syndicate hailing from the little town of Cefn Fforest. The winner's purse was about $82,000.
Three months later, on the night of March 27, 2010, at the sparkling new Meydan racing complex in Dubai, Kinsale King won the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen for owner Frank Sheehy and trainer Carl O'Callaghan, both sons of Ireland.
That these two events -- both fully qualifying as fairy tales -- took place in such calendar proximity is pure coincidence. Horse fairy tales happen all the time, and these were two of the best.
But now, to further press the legends, entertaining documentaries starring Dream Alliance and Kinsale King are making the rounds, and if there is anyone left who wonders why people are enchanted by horses and horse racing, he will wave a white flag of surrender after viewing one of these.
"Dark Horse" is written and directed by veteran documentarian Louise Osmond. The title refers to the odds of a horse like Dream Alliance falling into the laps of the people of a poor former mining town in South Wales, courtesy of a determined woman named Jan Vokes and her husband, Brian "Daisy" Vokes.
Between the two of them, with the help of the jaded onetime horse owner Howard Davies, they cobbled together a syndicate of neighbors in the purchase of a mare, the breeding to a stallion, and the backyard raising of a Thoroughbred who went on to defy the blue-blooded clichés surrounding racehorse ownership.
Osmond deploys an impressive arsenal of film making touches, including cagey recreations of narrative events that are never as off-putting as they should be. The contrast of the sumptuous Welsh and English horse country with the stubborn survival of Cefn Fforest gives the story a solid physical presence. And the horse, played by Dream Alliance himself, is nothing short of Tom Hiddleston gorgeous.
As a viewer, I was hooked from the moment I was reminded that Dream Alliance, a light chestnut with four stockings and a notched blaze, was a son of Bien Bien. If there was ever a more handsome creature roaming the stables of Southern California, I missed it. And Bien Bien ran to his looks. After a series of blood battles against Horse of the Year Kotashaan in 1993, including their 1-2 finish in the Breeders' Cup Turf, Bien Bien reigned supreme on California grass through the first half of 1994, racing for the partnership of John Toffan and Trudy McCaffery. It was Toffan who gave him his name, "bien bien" referring to his favorite cocktail, Benedictine and brandy.
Jan Vokes, who tended bar in the evenings, would have liked that touch. It is her voice heard most often through "Dark Horse," in thick or thin, but it is her earthy husband who steals the show with his "DIY" stables (do it yourself), his search for a mare ("Just need something cheap and cheerful."), and his dismissal of any thought that Dream Alliance should be sold at the height of his form.
"Keep all your money," Daisy Vokes says. "I got my horse."
In a similar spirit, Laura Sheehy's "Chasing the Win," about Kinsale King, is an unabashed valentine to her father, Dr. Patrick Francis Sheehy. However, as valentines go, it is sharp and just sophisticated enough to balance the emotional investment in horse racing with the serious financial concerns of a business that usually chews up and spits out folks like the Dream Alliance bunch.
Kinsale King was a bargain purchase who turned out to be a bad-footed athlete whose career seemed headed nowhere until Patrick Sheehy rolled the dice and sent him to O'Callaghan, a fledgling trainer whose primary qualification was being an exercise rider for Todd Pletcher.
"Chasing the Win" meanders sometimes among story lines, but the through plot always returns to the journey of Kinsale King, the colorful O'Callaghan, and the stoic support of Patrick Sheehy, whose welcome voice is heard most often in narration. To her credit, the director does not resort to recreations but instead smoothly weaves her tale around a bounty of interviews, archival video clips -- including O'Callaghan's epic victory dance in Dubai -- and contemporary footage as background to her tale.
Like most documentaries from unproven pedigrees, "Chasing the Win" is making the festival rounds in hopes of prizes and possible distribution. After showings in California events, the film played at the Nice International Film Festival this week and is slated for Madrid in July. Meanwhile, "Dark Horse" won an audience award at the Sundance Film Festival and is currently enjoying a limited theatrical release.
As for the real thing, Dream Alliance is now 15 and can be found grazing in a pasture in Somerset, across the Severn Estuary from South Wales, although he did make an appearance at Chepstow in April to mark the opening of "Dark Horse."
Kinsale King, who retired in August 2013 at the age of 8, went to work as O'Callaghan's stable pony and weekend show horse, racking up ribbons to go along with his $1.6 million in racetrack earnings. As this is written, he is on his way to eastern Pennsylvania, where he will spend the summer helping O'Callaghan around his Penn National barn, loll around his private paddock, and turn up for the occasional show event, just to give the locals a look.