The Story of Dream Alliance

by Gillian Cheeseman friend member of the Society

A racehorse called Dream Alliance won my heart.

On the cover page of The Telegraph magazine in April 2015 was a colour photograph of a horse who was born on an allotment but who made it to Aintree and Cannes.

This was the first time I had heard of Dream Alliance, aka Dream, as I read the article inside The Telegraph – ‘Against all odds’ by Louise Carpenter about an amazing lady called Janet Vokes, aka Jan, who lives in Wales.

Jan’s story was so remarkable that a documentary film was being released that month called Dark Horse telling how in 2000 she decided to breed a racehorse. She had a vision to make this happen and with the help of her husband Brian and their friend Howard Davies it became a reality.

The film had a world premiere in the Sundance film festival in 2020 before going to America and then back here where I saw it in our local cinema. It told a true story about a group of friends forming a syndicate of 23 villagers from Cefn Forest working men’s club who together, saved up money paying in £10 each a week which added up to £15,000 a year, in order to buy a breeding thoroughbred mare called Rewbell for just £350. These payments continued to help rear the young horse and then later funded his racing training.

 

Rewbell sired by Bien Bien’s foal was born on the 23 March 2001 in a makeshift stable on their allotment patch in Cefn Fforest. He was a beautifully formed chestnut colt with a blaze (and four white socks pulled up to his knees, Jan’s words).

This incredible horse who from such humble beginnings, went on to run to victory and win the most prestigious race in the Welsh calendar at Chepstow in 2009 becoming a famous racehorse in the racing world and beyond.

I was enthralled as this adventure unfolded and I admired this woman, Jan. She was so inspiring and a thought came to me that I really wanted to paint an oil portrait of Dream for her as a gift.

The next day my first step was for Jan’s permission to paint him and if so would she have some good photographs for reference. l also wanted to have another go at entering in the Society of Equestrian Artists the SEA ‘Horse in Art’ annual exhibition held at Sally Mitchell’s Gallery, The Museum of the Horse. My intention was to gift the painting to her, but should it be sold I would paint her another one.

However, how to find her? Amazingly, it didn’t take long on Facebook! I sent a message and waited, she responded almost straight away which delighted me saying she would love me to paint and exhibit a portrait of Dream and would ask if her daughter could email me some photos. Then, as an afterthought suggested it might be a better to forward my details to Louise Osmond, the director of ‘Dark Horse’ for some photos taken during the filming.

Unfortunately, Louise couldn’t help me but suggested I contacted the film producer Judith Dawson. No luck there either because all the images of Dream were as a foal and the racing were stand-ins for Dream Alliance.

Judith’s suggested that I tried contacting the Daily Telegraph and ask if they had a contact for the photographer who supplied the photos they used for the article. I found him but he only had the one that was used for the paper and that one wasn’t suitable. I had no more leads left.

Then, almost five years later in 2019 and during our first lockdown I came across the perfect photograph of Dream Alliance on Facebook taken in his prime by Liz Elmont Photography. Could this be another chance to paint him after all?

I contacted Liz Elmont the same way as Jan by messenger, asking this time for her copyright permission for me to use her beautiful photograph as reference and explaining the reason why.

She responded shyly offering me permission, more than happy for me to use her photo asking only if she could see it before I entered it into the SEA Exhibition 2020. She had taken the photograph on an open day at Phillip Hobb’s yard in Sandhill Racing Stables and Dream (who she didn’t know) was walking towards her, she just happened to catch that moment in time.

I forwarded the photo to Jan and she agreed it was him all right a great shot and so I was, at last, all set to go. I was alone during the Lockdown isolation and this was just what I needed to give me focus and my full attention.

As I worked, I photographed my progress until I was finally happy it was finished. Then sent the images to Jan and Liz for their approval. Jan loved it and Liz wrote the loveliest compliment I could wish for by saying he looks like he could walk off the page, and was honoured that I had chosen her photograph.

The Horse in Art Exhibition was cancelled that year because of the pandemic but I filled in the application a year later for 4th-11th September 2021. My work was titled ‘Dream Alliance’ painted in oils.

Great joy came by email from the SEA confirming my painting was accepted! This was a triumphant moment! Now to get it to the gallery, a courier proved too expensive to cover both ways.

Sally Mitchell was advertising the opening of the exhibition featuring several artists and Jan Vokes was the second person to see Dream’s portrait online! Then out of the blue someone who recognised Dream contacted a friend of hers called Clare Sandercock telling her that someone had painted a beautiful painting of her boy!!

I found and messaged Clare. She had been Dream’s groom at Philip Hobbs and she continued to look after him throughout his racing career. When he came up for retirement in 2015 the syndicate gave him to her to cherish for the rest of his life. I was delighted she loved my painting so much she would like a print, but I didn’t have any to send her.

Fortunately, I was going on a two-day workshop in Suffolk run by a lovely tutor friend called Jim Power HSEA, a full member of the Society of Equine Artists. This event was being held at Sue Scott’s charming old farm in Kettleburgh. Sue kindly invited me to stay. I had my painting with me as Jim was taking his own paintings to the same exhibition and he had kindly offered to take mine for me to the gallery. He also told me how to get some prints done by Sally Mitchell’s son who worked as a professional printer at her gallery; they could be done while my painting was there, such perfect timing too.

To have my painting exhibited at the gallery made me feel very proud, I was ok with it not selling as getting it in was reward enough. I saw it as meant to be, that it was going to Jan after all.

Luckily too, my painting and prints arrived by Malcolm Coward also a tutor of the SEA, to Porlock in Somerset while we were attending our annual summer equine workshop held at the lovely Porlock Vale Stud Farm.

I had told Clare I was getting prints and having them bought to me there and would be posting her one soon. Then came further wonderful news by way of an invitation, why not call in a meet Dream on route home!

I was so happy to be given this privilege. Dream’s home was in a secret location with other horses enjoying his retirement in the beautiful green fields of Somerset. Clare gave me a wonderful welcome and said Dream was waiting for me in his stable before going out in the field. There he was in real life and in the next-door stable to his best friend who looked very like him, called Red. Two stunning chestnuts with almost identical white blazes and socks.

I honestly felt I knew him and suddenly felt quite emotional when Clare allowed me into his box and I was able to actually touch him. He was so gentle standing there. I had a little word and thanked him, he stood very still turning his head towards me with pricked ears and listened, such a beautiful soul.

Then all that was left to do was where it began. Taking my painting of Dream Alliance to give to dear Jan Vokes. I was so looking forward to driving to Blackwood in Wales last August 2023. Meeting her at last with her husband and daughter at their home in Cefn fForest. She was very welcoming coming out to meet us, and having prepared us some delicious sandwiches for lunch and was so delighted and excited it warmed my heart.

Jim hung the painting up for her where she called ‘pride of place’ in her home. I also took some prints she wanted; one was to give to Howard Davies who had helped her to set up the syndicate to pay for the adventure to begin.

This was my adventure and dream that became true for me. I find getting good reference for horses very difficult and so it was an interesting experience for what started as an idea after watching a film in my local cinema, taking me on this long but wonderful path.

If you haven’t yet heard of Dream Alliance or seen the films please do, and you will be transported into a moving funny and beautiful place.

Janet Vokes and Howard Davies have both written books about their part in rearing this amazing horse. Very interesting and enjoyable.

‘Dream Horse’ The incredible true story of Dream Alliance bred on an allotment. Born to win. By Janet Vokes.

‘Dream Alliance Miracle Racehorse’ By Howard Davies.

First film called ‘Dark Horse’ The incredible true story of Dream Alliance. Blackwood Premier in 2020.

Second film called’ Dream Horse’ based the documentary had its premiere at the Sundance film festival in January 2020 and in May 2021 Warner Bros uk.

A sad footnote:
Dream Alliance sadly passed away on 29 April 2023 at the age of 22 years.
In his career, Dream ran 30 races and won £138,646 in prize money. The sum was sufficient to cover all training and all his veterinary expenses. The 23 syndicate owners even obtained a small profit of £1,430 each – it was never about the money.

Gillian Cheeseman

Friend Member of the Society of Equine Artists.
August 2023

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