Dream Horse: a ticket to racing popularity?
In the confined world of horseracing, letting the cameras in is sometimes still seen as a new-fangled twentieth century aberration. Yet launched on to cinema screens in the UK this week is Hollywood's latest attempt to romanticize the sport, and the reviews tell us that it's struck a chord.
Dream Horse is the true story of Dream Alliance, a £300 purchase brought up in the back gardens of a hard-on-its-luck Welsh town, who shows enough talent to win a Welsh National. The Welsh version of Aintree's marathon, over orthodox steeplechase fences, is a Grade III handicap run immediately after Christmas, traditionally in heavy ground, but remains Wales' richest race, run this past year at £150,000.
Like all the best movies, it's a human interest story that follows the dream of small-time breeder Jan Vokes, and her husband Brian, who cajoled and persuaded 21 of their fellow villagers to pay £10 a week to have the horse trained by West Country maestro Philip Hobbs.
This is the sort of publicity that racing can only dream of; the story of a horse bought for £300 who takes his owners on the journey of a lifetime to win £137,000. The Welsh National may not be Europe's richest race, but the story beats that of any one of our billionaire owners, without whom the sport would disappear. Rags to riches never fails to appeal, whoever you are.
I'm sure the powers that be in the British Horseracing Authority are looking at how they can use it to popularize ownership, but the story is as relevant abroad as it is here. With a cast that includes Damien Lewis of 24 fame, Australian Toni Colette and Owen Teale, there are authentic Welsh accents and a horse that even looks like a thoroughbred!
Over the years, the popularity of horseracing has spawned lots of film and some television series in English-speaking territories. It would be interesting to know whether this has occurred in other European nations where racing is in the public eye. Chantilly or Longchamp would lend itself very well to Hollywood glitz, although the only racing connection I can recall at Chantilly was a hilarious chase over the schooling fences by James Bond in A View to a Kill, in which Patrick McNee plays a caricature of an unnamed Lambourn trainer.
There's a terrible tendency on the part of film directors not following a life story to err into the pages of Dick Francis where racing is concerned, rather than the reality of scrupulous regulation, which makes for rather duller viewing! Perhaps it's little wonder that newspaper headlines about racing always focus on its shadier side.
The most successful three films about horseracing do follow life stories. Phar Lapp follows the remarkable tale of the eponymous horse that lifted the spirits of thousands of Australians following the Great Depression of 1929, winning a Melbourne Cup, 2 Cox Plates, an Australian Derby and 19 other Conditions races. His career total of 37 wins from 51 starts made him one of the highest stakes-winning horses of all time.
The racing scenes are happily quite realistic, and the story takes some telling too.
Nearly 100 years later, another story of triumph over adversity hit the screens with Rides Like a Girl, the story of Michelle Payne, the first woman rider to win a Melbourne Cup in 2015, and still the only one of her gender to have broken the glass ceiling down under. What odds they'll be making films of Hollie Doyle or Rachael Blackmore in a few years' time?
Theresa Palmer plays Payne, whilst Sam Neil plays her father. It's a good film to enjoy views of several of the beautiful Aussie racecourses, as well as a stirring story of tenacity.
Undoubtedly the best film to portray British racing in recent years has been Champions, starring John Hurt as the cancer-ridden Bob Champion, who fought off the disease to return to the saddle on old-crock-made-good Aldaniti. You don't have to be a racing fan to enjoy a movie that stirs the soul; so much so that on his retirement from riding, Champion created the Bob Champion Cancer Trust, which under his guidance has generated over £15m and counting toward cures for the disease. I defy you not to weep into your handkerchief when watching it!
Meantime, Bob was awarded a CBE in the 2021 New Year's Honours list - a story of dedication throughout and richly deserved.
At its best, the big screen can convey so much of the energy and passion behind the sport, but it doesn't always work. TV series The Racing Game and Trainer, from 1979 and 1991 respectively, never quite pulled it off.
Perhaps, like ownership, it more often than not requires a big budget to win success.