There are always backstories in horse racing and movies

by Trey Nosrac

Imagine, if you will, the final of the Pennsylvania Sires Stake 3YO Colt Trot. You purchase a program, wager, and wait for the race. It was a fine race. You watched the race and turned the page. Ordinary people, ordinary harness racing fans, will follow this sequence of events.

However, not all people are ordinary. Some members of our harness racing tribe go deeper. They want the complete backstory. They burn to know who originally bought that champion horse, who trained the horse, the deep pedigree, the quirks in the story of this champion horse, the bidding at auction, who prepared the horse, where this winning horse trained, and what obstacles were in its path to the winner’s circle. These people also want to know the details of every other trotter in the race. They are insatiable in their search for the backstory. You may be one of these harness fanatics.

A movie is much the same story. Most people view a film, give it a quick thumbs up or down, and move on. Avid cinephiles are not most people. They want to know — and understand — the whole story. When and where was this movie shot? Who were the writers, producers, screenwriters, sound editors, directors, and cinematographers? What was the funding, the budget, the profitability, the process; and so on.

People who crave backstories may never get to the bottom, but the dive is fascinating.

So it was when I viewed an obscure harness horse racing movie – Eden Valley.

After watching the docudrama, my questions were: How in the hell did this film happen? Who was responsible? What were the creators thinking? Who paid the bills? Who had the original concept? Where was it filmed? How long did the project take? Did anyone pay to see the movie? Often, the backstory of a film is more compelling than the finished product. Every movie, even movies that never are completed, has a backstory. Often, the backstories of film projects are riveting dramas.

The backstory of Eden Valley began in 1968 when a group of film and photography students at London’s Regent Street PolytechnicSchool moved to Tyneside to document cultural, political, and economic life in North East England.

The creators were sometimes known as the Amber Film & Photography Collective but, more often, they were known simply as the Amber Collective. Collective is the keyword. The filmmakers, usually eight members, worked on projects as a group and shared tasks like writing, camera work, editing, pre-and post-production, performing, script doctoring, building sets, and making decisions by committee.

The group of filmmakers attempted to capture working-class life in England using a combination of professional and non-professional actors and crews. Few would have conceived this small band of pioneering filmmakers would evolve into possibly the most successful ‘studio’ — in terms of sheer longevity — in British film history.

It appears the collective made movies under challenging conditions with an arresting display of determination and passion. North East England has hardscrabble sections and rough characters. Although my mother was born and lived in this area, I have never visited. Eden Valley was my first window into what life was like there. Discovering that this area had a tradition of harness horse racing and that someone took the time and effort to document the sport in a film was astonishing.

But again, who, how, why, and when did a film on harness racing happen?

Seventeen years after their humble beginnings, Amber Films, still alive and kicking, released Seacoal, a full-length docudrama film about the harsh industrialized beach of Lynemouth, Northumberland, the coal collectors, and the residents of the Lynemouth traveler’s camp. Seacoal was the product of two years of working and living alongside the locals. For a short sample of this film, click here.

The Amber Collective became very immersive with its subjects in each film. They bought a fishing boat for Fading Light, a movie about fishing in this area. While working on Seacoal, the members of the Amber team lived on the site to embed themselves with the people they wanted to film. During the making of Seacoal, the Amber collective met the Laidler family, a traveling dynasty with a passion for horses and the sport of harness racing.

The Amber crew caught the harness racing bug from the Laidlers. Amber collaborator Brian Hogg was especially afflicted with the passion for harness racing. The harness racing seed took root as the subject of a possible film project for the collective and demonstrates that one never knows where a potential harness racing fan lurks.

Over time, the basic plot of Eden Valley emerged, with Hogg taking the central role of Hoggy. The Laidler family showed the Amber team the basics of harness racing and appeared in the film. Almost a decade later, Eden Valley was a finished film that gives a realistic slice of life and an era in time for a segment of our sport. The film will stand for time without end.