Britain and Italy Through the Prism of Horse Racing

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Exploring a country’s heritage and history through its equine culture may seem like an odd angle for documentary films. Yet two recent films, Palio and Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance, have done just this and have managed to capture two very different societies through two equine cultures.


Palio is a documentary that follows one the oldest races in the world, the chaotic Palio di Siena. For those who may not be familiar with the race it was used as the backdrop to a chase in the second Daniel Craig James Bond film Quantum of Solace.

Palio deals with the ruthless culture that surrounds the historic race. Framed like a Hollywood sports drama, the documentary follows champion Luigi Bruschelli as he is challenged by young upstart, and former pupil, Giovanni Atzeni. The race is described by director Cosima Spender as “a medieval game of strategy, deals and machinations set in the beautiful city of Siena.”

The race holds a special place in Italy’s sporting heritage and is seen by many as one of the last traditions that the country still has intact. Yet the race has also encountered its fair share of criticism from animal rights groups. Tom Kington writing for The Guardian reported that the race was dropped as a candidate for Unesco’s list of intangible cultural heritage after complaints over animal welfare. The documentary doesn’t pull any punches and shows the corrupt nature of the race next to the glamour and excitement.


In contrast to the violent exuberance of Palio, Dark Horse follows the extraordinary story of a thoroughbred called Dream Alliance. Bred and raised by a barmaid from a small former mining village in the South of Wales Dream Alliance went on to stun the racing world in what the director Louise Osmond told The Telegraph is like “Rocky with a horse.” While the story of Dream Alliance’s rise as a successful racehorse is the meat of the narrative, the heart of the story is how a forgotten mining village challenged the racing establishment. The thoroughbred’s training was funded by the village who created a syndicate (£10-a week) going up against horses bred by millionaires.

Stunning naysayers and doubters, Dream Alliance won enough races to be considered for the most prized National Hunt race of the year, which according to the Betfair Grand National is “the biggest race in British jumps history.”

Unfortunately tragedy struck and Dream Alliance was injured in a preparation race. It is at this point that the documentary really takes off in both its narrative and heartstring pulling. Rather than put the horse down the village compiled enough money to pay for stem cell treatment and Dream Alliance returned to win the 2009 Welsh National.

Both films provide a fascinating insight into two societies that find themselves revolving around the country’s equine culture. The power of both the films lies not in informing the viewer of the racing events but examining the people behind the extraordinary stories.


DARK HORSE: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance

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