Tucked away from view in a luscious green field at the foot of the Blackdown Hills in Somerset is a chestnut gelding who — if only he could talk — would have an extraordinary tale to tell indeed.
As it is, the 19-year-old retired racehorse will have to make do with Hollywood speaking for him: Dream Alliance is about to be immortalised on the big screen in a film charting the real-life events which saw him raised as a foal on a slag heap allotment in a Welsh mining village, funded by a £10-a-week syndicate headed up by a barmaid from the local working men’s club.
The film Dream Horse, starring Damian Lewis and Toni Collette, recounts the heart-warming ‘nags-to-riches’ story of how this group of unlikely racehorse owners overcame all the odds and — spoiler alert! — bred a champion racehorse who went on to win the Welsh Grand National.
A happy ending for all involved then? Dream Alliance certainly seemed to be living the life of Riley when the Mail tracked him down to his West Country hideaway this week. But what became of the other protagonists involved in one of the most gripping equine sagas in British racing history?
As I discovered this week, the true story is far more complicated than the rose-tinted Hollywood version might have us believe.
In the small former mining village of Cefn Fforest in South Wales, Jan Vokes is getting ready for her shift as a cleaner at Asda. It’s been more than a year since she met Australian actress Toni Collette, who plays her in Dream Horse.
‘She was lovely. She’s got my Welsh accent right,’ says Jan.
Brian and Jan Vokes are pictured with their horse Dream Alliance, star of the 2015 documentary Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story Of Dream Alliance
Despite her brush with Hollywood stardom, life is much the same today for 66-year-old Jan as it was 20 years ago when, as the ‘stewardess’ at the Top Club working men’s club, she came up with the idea of breeding her own race horse after hearing a couple of her customers discussing their own love of racing.
Dream Alliance ultimately may have been a dream come true for Jan and the other syndicate members who owned him, but his lifetime winnings — £138,646 — were mostly eaten up by vets’ bills, stabling costs and trainers’ fees.
In the end, she says, the 23 syndicate members walked away with £1,430 each.
Breeding a race horse, says Jan, was never about the money. It was about having a dream and seeing it through and, above all, injecting a dollop of self-belief into a tight-knit community decimated by the closure of the local coal mines.
‘He took us to places we could never have imagined,’ she says. ‘We did it all for a tenner a week.’
Jan, who left school at 15 and worked in a factory for 23 years, had never so much as sat on a horse — or even visited a betting shop — when she came up with her ambitious plan.
Her husband, Brian, 73, a former coal man and nightclub doorman who is played in the film by Welsh actor Owen Teale, initially laughed at the suggestion that they get involved in what is probably the world’s most exclusive, expensive sport.
Breeders such as the Al Maktoums, the ruling family of Dubai, have spent billions of pounds trying to breed a Derby winner. What on Earth made Jan think that she could do the same in a home-made shed on a slag heap?
While the couple had previously bred working dogs and raced pigeons, and Brian had worked with Welsh cob ponies, they knew nothing about the so-called ‘sport of kings’. But in the end, Jan says, it didn’t take much to persuade Brian that they could breed their own runner.
‘He loves horses and we thought we could keep it up at the stables on the allotment to keep the costs down.’
She embarked on her plan in 1998 by joining forces with tax advisor and racing enthusiast Howard Davies, a regular at the Top Club. He found a cheap and cheerful mare for sale at a small yard in nearby Llanelli, and Brian knocked the asking price down from £1,000 to £300 after noticing scars on her legs.
They took the mare, Rewbell, to the quarter-acre allotment a mile from their home and began looking for a stallion to breed with her.
Jan put up a notice in the club and 23 locals — ex-miners, a cafe owner, a bailiff and a girl who worked in a noodle factory — started paying £10 a week for shared ownership of the horse she planned to breed.
Among them was former miner Eddie Thomas, who lives less than a 100 yards from Jan and Brian’s three-bedroom home.
‘I remember they put a sign up in the Top Club looking for syndicate members and I thought to myself: ‘Let’s have a go,’ ‘ he says.
The syndicate was run by Howard, who is played in the film by Damian Lewis.
‘My first choice was Batman actor Christian Bale because he’s Welsh,’ says Howard, 66. ‘Damian was my second.’
Gavin And Stacey actress Joanna Page was cast as his wife, Angela.
After paying £2,000 plus vat for the services of an Oxfordshire stallion, a chestnut foal with a white blaze and four white socks was born on March 23, 2001.
‘He was gorgeous,’ says Jan. ‘It was love at first sight.’
She and Brian raised the colt in a stable at their allotment on top of an abandoned slag heap, and soon syndicate members were traipsing up the hill to visit him. His name, Dream Alliance, was suggested by Howard and unanimously agreed upon.
‘The syndicate members were brilliant,’ says Jan. ‘They were local — many of them friends. It was a bit of fun. Their idea was that they could go to one of the local race tracks, at Hereford or Ludlow, to see their horse run and have a good drink and a day out.’
Raising a race horse, of course, isn’t an overnight affair. ‘You’ve got to have patience,’ says Jan, ‘But I had belief, too. I always felt that one day we’d be in the winner’s enclosure.’
When he was ten months old, Dreamy — as the mother of two and grandmother has always called him — was sent to a trainer in Hereford who broke him in. Aged three, he was sent to Philip Hobbs, a highly respected National Hunt trainer based in Minehead, Somerset, at a cost to the syndicate of around £20,000 a year.
‘The horse didn’t have a fantastic pedigree,’ says Hobbs, who admits that he had reservations about how far Dream Alliance would go.
‘Anyone who has a horse in training hopes they are going to win races — but not at the level he achieved. We weren’t expecting him to do as well as he did.’
Dream Alliance made his racing debut at Newbury in November 2004, his jockey wearing the gun-metal grey and maroon colours that Jan had chosen. A mini-bus filled with almost every member of the syndicate travelled from Cefn Fforest to watch him.
Jan, who had never set foot on a race course before, admits they were ‘quivering’ in their boots. Pictured: Toni Collette as Jan Vokes in Dream Horse
Jan, who had never set foot on a race course before, admits they were ‘quivering’ in their boots. Newbury, she says, tends to attract a ‘better type’ of owner.
The people she refers to as ‘the toffs’ and ‘moneyed people’ were certainly in for a shock. Indeed, when one of the syndicate members tried to use the entrance for trainers and owners, a security guard barred his way.
Jan’s first impression of the owners’ enclosure was that ‘there was a rarefied, sanctified feel to the area’ but, she adds, the wonder was ‘we were part of it’.
What is more, while Philip Hobbs intended this to be an ‘experience run’, Dream defied all expectations by coming in fourth.
A year later, Dream Alliance came in second place at the Cheltenham Novice Jumpers’ flat race. A month after that, he came third in a novices’ race at Newbury. Then, in January 2006, he won his fourth race over two miles and three furlongs at his local course, Chepstow. Jan says: ‘Well, that day, you’d swear we’d won the Grand National.’
By now, the horse racing world was beginning to take note of this unknown village horse.
Jan recalls: ‘The people who knew the game and the betting side of it told us: ‘You’ve got a racehorse.’ It was good.’
Those years were perhaps the happiest for the syndicate behind Dream Alliance, a time when the village was full of hope and brimming over with pride that the working-class horse they’d raised together was turning into an unexpected winner.
But after raising their hopes, Dream began pulling up in his next few races, entering a slump that earned him the nickname ‘Sicknote’. Then he covered himself in glory once more by winning at the Perth Gold Cup in April 2007, with odds of 12/1, and bringing home a cheque for £25,000.
But disaster struck in 2008 during a preparatory race for the Grand National at Aintree, when his four legs concertinaed and his rear hoof severed a front leg tendon mid-race. Lying motionless on the track, he was concealed from view with screens.
‘I was crying. Brian was crying,’ says Jan. ‘We thought they were going to shoot him.’
He was taken to an equine veterinary centre in Liverpool, where Jan was warned that it was unlikely he would ever race again. Trainer Philip Hobbs, who describes the injury as ‘career-threatening’ says: ‘At the time, it seemed very unlikely that he would come back from it.’
The syndicate took the decision to use some of the horse’s previous winnings to pay for pioneering stem cell treatment. Healthy cells were taken from the horse’s sternum and placed into incubation for a month before being injected into the damaged tendon where, over time, it knitted together. In the end the ground-breaking procedure cost them £20,000.
‘The syndicate took the view that if it gave him a better quality of life it would be worth it, even if he never raced again,’ says Jan.
What happened next was, in true Hollywood style, nothing short of miraculous. After returning to racing 18 months later at Chepstow in November 2009, where he took second place in his race, Dream Alliance was put in for the Welsh Grand National, where bookies gave him 20/1 odds of winning the race on December 27.
Even before he ran it, his return to racing was being described by the BBC as a fairytale for a ‘loveable Welsh horse’ — that he went on to win it provided the perfect ending to the story and one which, not surprisingly, is the climax of the Dream Horse film.
‘It was magic,’ says Jan. ‘The whole racecourse erupted. It was unbelievable. A dream come true.’
When she returned to work at Asda in Cefn Fforest, shoppers cheered her in the aisles.
However, the film doesn’t show what happened afterwards. Dream Alliance never won another race — and after realising that his habit of pulling up before the finishing line was due to a medical condition that caused blood vessels in his lungs to burst, the syndicate agreed to retire him.
Jan always believed that, when the time came, Dreamy would return to the stable that she and Brian had lovingly prepared for him on their allotment.
But it was put to the vote and, she says, the syndicate went back on this verbal agreement. Dreamy was sent to a livery stable not far from the Somerset yard where he was trained. She hasn’t seen him since.
‘I can’t go and see him,’ she says. ‘There is a connection between me and Dreamy, a bond which has been broken.’
She and Brian have since bred and trained other horses for the syndicate at their quarter-acre allotment but, she says: ‘The sad thing is that now I can’t get close to the other horses we are training. It’s spoiled it for me.’
She confides that her next ambition is to raise a prize-winning bull in the annual Smithfield Show.
Only seven of the original 23 syndicate members now remain, including former miner Eddie Thomas. Jan and Brian make up a single member, as do Howard and his wife Angela.
‘When you think that he started life on Brian’s allotment, it’s marvellous,’ says Eddie. ‘I’m looking forward to seeing the film.’
New syndicate members have joined up from further afield — one from Dubai and one from the Outer Hebrides, now paying £60 each a month to pursue their dream of creating another champion.
Jan has high hopes for their latest protégé, a mare called Little Faith which, like Dream, was born on Jan and Brian’s allotment.
The release date of Dream Horse is yet to be confirmed, although in Cefn Fforest this week locals thought it was imminent.
Dream Alliance himself, of course, is oblivious to all the fuss going on around him. His new owner, 30-year-old former stable girl Clare Sandercock says: ‘He has the odd niggle with his injury, but he has been scanned and X-rayed regularly to make sure he is sound.’
With his racing days behind him, she says that he still behaves like a champion. She adds: ‘He can be quite stubborn. I think he felt he had proved himself and there was no need to do it all over again.’