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Thursday, 3 June 2021

Living the Dream: The Amazing Story of the Welsh Grand National Winner Bred By a Pigeon Fancier

It’s fair to say that Phillip Hobbs has enjoyed plenty of success as a horse racing trainer. The Somerset handler has 19 Cheltenham Festival winners to his name, as well as other major victories in the Clarence House Chase, the Tingle Creek and the Punchestown Gold Cup. 

But when he was approached by the Alliance Partnership syndicate to train their horse, Dream Alliance, he probably didn’t quite know what he had let himself in for. 

The horse has a backstory that would make for the perfect Hollywood rags-to-riches tale, and funnily enough movie execs agree – Dream Horse, starring Toni Collette and Damian Lewis, was released in June to much critical acclaim.


It focuses on the story of Janet Vokes, a barmaid, and cleaner who had a penchant for breeding whippets and racing pigeons in her spare time. Pulling pints one night in the Welsh town of Blackwood, she got chatting to a local businessman. The conversation turned to racehorse ownership, and Vokes was very interested in what she heard. 

So, together with husband Brian, they cobbled together £350 and acquired a mare, Rewbell, with whom they bred with a stallion named Bien Bien. 

The foal was born in 2001 and raised on the couple’s allotment in Cefn Forest, but as they struggled to pay for the costs of ownership they created their own syndicate – the Alliance Partnership – through which locals, including a painter and decorator and a taxi driver could invest £10 per week and enjoy a share in owning a racehorse. 

So far, so lovely. But the best was still to come for the unsuspecting syndicate… 

National Hero 

Once the Alliance Partnership had recruited 30 members, they sent their horse – now called Dream Alliance – off for training with Hobbs. 

Despite a slow start to his racing career, Dream Alliance won on his fourth outing at Chepstow and in 2007 finished second to the legendary Denman in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury.

A devastating injury followed in 2008 – the syndicate had to raise £20,000 to pay for a pioneering stem cell treatment, and so there was little expectation when Dream Alliance was entered into the Welsh Grand National some 18 months later. 

Tom O’Brien, the jockey who had enjoyed success on board the horse in the past, was in the saddle at Chepstow, and members of the syndicate watched on from the stands hoping that their investment, priced at a lowly 20/1 in the Welsh Grand National horse racing betting odds, got through the race unscathed.

 

Jumping errors at the early fences hardly helped to settle the nerves, but soon the eight-year-old started to work his way into the race. And as the field of horses closed in on the final furlong, Dream Alliance found himself in the clear. 

A poorly-timed jump at the last saw the chasing pack begin to close in, but Dream Alliance – powered on by O’Brien – somehow found an extra gear. 

Silver By Nature, the nearest horse, was closing in, but in classic Hollywood fairytale style Dream Alliance just clung on for victory to send syndicate members into raptures – the win secured them the most handsome of paydays. 

Hobbs remarked on how the horse was ‘aptly named’ given that the alliance’s dreams had come true, while Gwyn Davies – a warehouse worker and syndicate member – said with tears in his eyes: “A Hollywood scriptwriter could not make this up.” 

Well, they didn’t need to. Sometimes the truth is much more satisfying than fiction.