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Wales Online
Ben Summer

The remarkable Welsh couple finding new hope after a fire nearly destroyed a dream they spent years building

Five years ago, a fire destroyed a stable in Cefn Fforest. In the fire, a horse - Rodney - was killed, and an unlikely syndicate's hopes of replicating an incredible success took a serious knock.

You might not know Jan and Brian Vokes by name, but you probably know the story of their horse Dream Alliance, the Welsh Grand National champion raised on an allotment and funded by a syndicate of friends paying just £10 a week to make a pipe dream a reality. After successfully breeding pigeons, Jan (now 69) and Brian (now 75) turned their hand to training race horses and took home some of the top accolades.

It's a story since adapted for the big screen, with Toni Collette and Owen Teale playing the couple, and Dream Alliance's sensational journey has become the stuff of folklore. But in 2017, a stable fire killed their "star in the making" Rodney, who was due to start training in the spring in the hopes of following in Dream Alliance's footsteps.

READ MORE: 'You're off your effing head!' The cleaner and the road worker who bought a horse and kept it on their allotment, won the Grand National and were turned into a Hollywood film

The fire also badly injured Rodney's mother Hettie, who raced as Juwireya. Hettie had to go into 24/7 care with a vet, and Jan and Brian were back to square one when it came to finding a new race horse.

Half a decade on from the fire, however, they have new hope in the form of Hettie's daughter - a horse aptly named Phoenix Dream, born after the terrible blaze, who is away preparing to start racing. "We were all upset [after the fire]," Jan told WalesOnline, "but my husband Brian was totally devastated.

After Hettie's (left) amazing recovery, she had Phoenix (right) (Janet Vokes)

"He almost lost the will to live, and I'm not joking. Our vet advised us to have another foal; he said it would be good for Brian and the mare [Hettie] to have something else to focus on."

Jan said she didn't want to give up after the fire because she didn't think it was fair to Hettie to give up after so much effort. But Brian wasn't so sure, and didn't want to rebuild the stable.

After everything that's happened, Jan still works as a cleaner in a school. Brian, though, lost a valuable part of his routine when Hettie went to stay with the vet.

Jan explained: "Brian wanted to give up, he was adamant that was it. Because he didn’t have to go up and feed the horse, he didn’t see anybody for the whole time… it was harder for him to go and face people because the first thing people would say was: 'Sorry about the horses,' and it just brings it all back."

Hettie just after the fire in 2017 (Janet Vokes)

But Hettie made a miraculous recovery under the watchful eye of Llantrisant vet Ron Williams. Janet thinks if another vet had come on site, Hettie would've been put down - so she refused and asked for Ron, and despite early worries with Hettie bringing up blood after swallowing smoke, he wouldn't give up on her.

"He brought our Dream [Alliance] into the world," said Jan, "we have never been to another vet with our horses. He had Hettie in for three months, and the first two weeks he worked 24/7 through the night with his daughter. He said we could come in every day, and he phoned us every day... at the time he was oblivious as to whether Hettie would survive because of what she'd inhaled, not so much the injuries and the burns. He did a wonderful job."

The other "wonderful" thing was the support they received, whether from friends and members of the original syndicate who helped raise £10,000 towards the rebuilding project, people who helped put together the new stable free of charge, or people who provided their services for free to help get Hettie back in good shape.

Jan didn't want to give up on Hettie (WalesOnline)

Hettie is now "virtually 100% right in herself," but won't travel anymore due to problems with her balance. Nearly two years after the fire, she had another foal - and later this year, all being well, that foal will be racing.

All eyes are on Phoenix Dream (also known as Elsie), currently training at Martin Jones' stables in Gloucester with the aim of racing by October. "If there's any justice in the world," Jan said, "I think the syndicate deserve a win."

As to whether Phoenix Dream can replicate Dream Alliance's incredible success, Jan said: "I don't think anybody can tell until they hit the race course. You have an idea, they’re showing all the gallops and you think: ‘Oh yeah,’ but the race course is a whole different ball game - I don’t think until you have that first run you have any idea."

Brian Vokes with Elsie, aka Pheonix Dream, in 2021 (WalesOnline)

Jan isn't sure whether Hettie, now 17, will have another foal - it all depends on whether vet Ron, now in his 70s, is still working when the time comes. The syndicate has changed over the years too, although around seven of its members were the "originals" there for Dream Alliance's unlikely rise.

Dream, meanwhile, is in retirement in Somerset. He's got a "fabulous home", where he's spoilt, massaged and washed down by his attendants, but Jan previously told WalesOnline that she couldn't bear to visit her "baby".

All eyes are on the future with Phoenix Dream, and Jan thinks people have learned to expect success from the syndicate: "People are of the assumption that if you’ve done it once you can keep doing it, but it’s not like that. We’ve done everything right, foals need time to mature and we’ve given them all that time.

Phoenix Dream in training at Moat Stables (Janet Vokes)

"Phoenix is well bred and there’s no reason on paper why she shouldn’t win. Dream shouldn’t have done what he did - he wasn’t bred so well as her, he didn’t have the pedigree of what she's got. But it’s how big her heart is when she gets on the racecourse."


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