"Dark Horse" Film from Wales Celebrates Owners Who Believe in Their Horses--and Dare to Try Stem Cell Therapy

Sundance "Audience Favorite" winner evokes parallel American "nags to riches" story of Ascot-bound California Chrome
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If you've read this blog for a while, you know I'm a sucker for these films. When Mine That Bird won the Kentucky Derby, I was sure he was channeling that great Walter Matthau racing film, Casey's Shadow; his owner/vet had even been the treating vet for the real Casey's Shadow.

Meanwhile, 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome is destined for Hollywood. Not only is he a Nags to Riches hall-of-famer with a Kentucky Derby win, he's from California! The horse who never should have made it to the Derby is in England right now, preparing to run at Royal Ascot. Will we see cowboy hats in the owners enclosure this year? Will the Queen declare herself a Chromie?

(Watch the trailer below for Dark Horse in British theaters.)

So it would be easy to pat Dark Horse on the head for its colorful characters and move on. Surely the horse wants to win for this less-than-affluent syndicate of owners in a down-and-out Welsh mining village. They pool their resources to breed a mare so rank that jockeys refused to ride her. The resulting foal was raised in an "allotment", a public-portioned space usually reserved for a vegetable garden or a chicken coop. Except this one was built on top of a coal mine's slag heap, and was far from what you'd call an ideal place to raise any horse, let alone a racehorse.

But this horse isn't running just for them. And each of them has a different reason for being involved with the horse. Most readers will identify with the ringleader, bartender Jan, who had previous success breeding racing pigeons and whippets. If her whippets made it best-of-show level at Crufts (the most prestigious dog show in Great Britain), how much harder could it be to raise a winning racehorse?

Jan is the epitome of the invisible horseowner. Like most of us, she doesn't drive a luxury car, she doesn't wear designer riding clothes, and she doesn't ride in a $2000 saddle. She works two jobs and takes car of her aging parents. Later, she would tell reporters that raising the foal and going to the allotment to care for it helped keep her sane. The foal took her mind off her problems. And helped her dream.

Yes, even the key word in the horse's name, "Dream" Alliance, was a perfect thread to weave between the owners. Each had a different dream and each was looking for something outside him- or herself to be expressed through a beautiful, fast, or winning racehorse.

And they found it.

The story could have been just that, but it was so much more when the horse was injured. The severed tendon could have--and should have--ended Dream's racing days but the jockey jumped from the saddle and grabbed the leg. Dream, having been handled like a puppy since he was born, was obedient and calm, and stood quietly on the racecourse as the screens were raised around him. Normally, this signals that a horse will be put to death.

But Dream went to the University of Liverpool for emergency surgery and then on to the Royal Veterinary College, where Professor Roger Smith performed what was experimental stem cell surgery, at that time. For the owners, it meant investing all that they had won to save their horse.

Dream Alliance went into the record books as one of the first racehorses to successfully return to racing after stem cell surgery. In addition, he won a prestigious race and went on to start in one of the most famous and richest races in the world.

Credit: Royal Vet College Professor Roger Smith, equine orthopedics, performed stem cell surgery on Dream Alliance before the horse won the Welsh National.

Credit: Royal Vet College Professor Roger Smith, equine orthopedics, performed stem cell surgery on Dream Alliance before the horse won the Welsh National.

If you'd looked closely, you would have seen Professor Smith on the red carpet at the movie's premiere last week. Yes, he's in the film.

Here's the part of Dream Alliance's story you won't get from the film:

As a result of experimental surgery with stem cells on equine soft tissue ten or more years ago, advances have been made in human surgery. A study published in 2014 in the British medical journal The Lancet credits Dream Alliance's surgery with paving the way for Achilles tendon surgery in humans. The Autologous Stem Cells in Achilles Tendinopathy study (ASCAT) should be applauding loudly from the balcony at every showing of Dark Horse.

So, in a way, it's as if we all owned a share in Dream Alliance, who is still very much alive and well and living in a field in England. We are all his beneficiaries, as are medical and veterinary science.

The next time you're at the racetrack or watching a race on television, and you see a big crowd of people in the winner's circle after a race, you will remember Dream Alliance and his owners, after you see this film. There are 101 reasons to own a horse, and some of them make absolutely no sense except to the person who knows or believes that it is the right thing to do at this time in that person's life.

Maybe all they have is "a tenner a week" to invest. And for some horses, that might be enough.

Dark Horse debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this winter, where it won the Audience Choice award. Director Louise Osmond admitted to relief when the film was received so enthusiastically by US viewers, in part because of the way the working-class owners held their own against the millionaires whose horses were beaten by their backyard-bred Dream.

Jan told CNN that, for her, the Dream experience was about not putting off your dreams. "It would be horrible to grow old with regrets," she told the network. "It's better to try and fail than never try at all."

I wonder if I'm the only one who wonders what she took on next. I wish I knew. But I do know that she--and all the Dream Alliance syndicate--deserves a seat in the box at Royal Ascot in June with the owners of California Chrome. They come from the same tribe. They dreamed the same dream. They beat the same odds. I think Jan Voke and Perry Martin would have a lot to talk about.

Please, someone get them together. And make sure they toast Professor Smith and the advances in veterinary medicine that quietly save horses like Dream Alliance every day.

To learn more:

Dark Horse web site

Dark Horse Facebook page

Article in The Telegraph about stem cell use in horse tendon surgery and human Achilles tendon surgery advances

Royal Vet College publicity about Professor Roger Smith attending film premiere for Dark Horse

Note: In the United States, Dark Horse will be distributed to theaters by Sony Classic Pictures.

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