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It’s Showtime! review – this wild racehorse story is well worth backing
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It’s Showtime! review – this wild racehorse story is well worth backing

‘Basically we got pissed, got relentless and ended up buying a horse.” It might need a little light translation from the County Durhamese when they pitch it to Hollywood, but that is the essence of the hour-long documentary It’s Showtime! A group of mates from a Darlington council estate – Baz (“He’s got the dopiest facial expressions I’ve ever seen”), Anth, Jeff (“bright as a blackout”), Nick, Ste (Jeff’s nephew and group organiser), Mike and Dog (“Anth’s round the bend, but Dog’s another level”) and Kev (who does not appear in the film) – clubbed together in 2020 and bought a horse they called Showtime Mahomes for £8,000. When they started racing him the next year, he came second in his first two races, won his third and then in 2022 this darkest of dark horses won at York. “The Ascot of the north,” says Baz, dreamily. “It was up there with my children being born.”

The question that drives the film is whether scrappy little Showtime can repeat the feat in 2023. We follow him and the lads round a series of local races building up to the big event. In the meantime, we come to know the men, their backstories and what the syndicate means to them apart from all the opportunities it offers to get pissed and relentless.

For recently widowed Mike, it has more or less given him a reason to keep getting up in the mornings. His wife of 40 years, Barbara, got ill and died very quickly of cancer three years ago, just after he lost his mother. “My world ended,” he says simply. “To be honest, I didn’t think I’d be here.” He shows us the book of messages Barbara left him for after she’d gone. “It will get easier,” he reads aloud. “We’ve had a good life.” He turns the page. “Don’t cry when you think about me. Smile till we meet again. Kiss the grandkids every day.” It’s devastating. After Barbara died, his friend and former accountancy colleague Nick brought him into the group. “It makes the dark days more bearable,” says Mike.

For civil servant Anth, life as a winning racehorse owner provides some relief from caring, with his wife, Kate, for their autistic, non-verbal 14-year-old son Charlie. “He’s a different kind of human,” says Anth. “Beautiful.” Last year, however, maddened by the inexplicable (to him) pain of ulcers, Charlie became so violent that his younger brother eventually had to be sent to stay with his grandparents for his own safety until Charlie recovered. “Anth’s always up,” says Ste. But the tears come as Anth talks about his powerlessness in the face of the boys’ suffering. “As a man, how come I can’t help anyone here?”

Lighter moments – mostly from impressively dour trainer Grant, who looks on the gang with baffled wonder (“They’ve started drinking already. The race isn’t till 5pm. They’re going to be upside down by then”) – are dropped in, helped by the fact that none of the men seem too obsessed with winning. The closest the bonds of friendship come to cracking under pressure is when Anth arranges a camping trip in the Lakes for Baz’s surprise 40th birthday that turns out to include meditating with horses. “Load of nonsense, load of shit,” says Dog. Until now, he says, the most surreal moment of his life was when he was in jail serving a sentence for possession with intent to supply and found himself watching Elf at Christmas sitting between a hitman and a druglord. He had to move away from Darlington when he got out of prison so he could start anew. The syndicate and Showtime have given him a safe way back.

It’s Showtime! gets the job done but feels heavy-handed at times. The striving after emotional effect as a race scene is followed by another man “opening up” about their lives and problems and saying nice things – in a roundabout fashion, of course, as we are firmly in the north – about each other is by the end in danger of becoming so obvious as to be insulting. But it just about gets away with it, thanks to the men’s individual and collective charm and honesty that obscure the editorial manipulation and dogged adherence to formula.

Showtime himself has limited success in the local races and only just qualifies for York. To say more would, of course, spoil it so I shan’t. But it will be interesting to see how Hollywood treats the ending.

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Source: theguardian.com