Every year since 1875, the first Saturday in May is the time for the Kentucky Derby, a race of three year old thoroughbred horses over a mile and a quarter track that has been called the most exciting two minutes in all of sports. 40,000 thoroughbreds are born each year. Of these 23,000 will race and of those, only 20 will make it to the Derby. For owners, trainers, grooms, and jockeys it is the World Series, The Indy 500, and the Super Bowl combined into one. For two years, brothers John and Brad Hennegan followed the daily activities of those horses and their trainers that they thought had a chance to make it to Churchill Downs, shooting over 500 hours of film on a minimal budget in diverse locations such as New York, Florida, California, Arkansas, Dubai, and Kentucky. The result is The First Saturday in May, a buoyant and energizing film experience that may just be the best documentary of the year.
First Saturday is primarily a film about horses but is also about families and especially children who provide some of the most entertaining moments of the film. The Hennegans show the ups and downs of the path to the "run for the roses" and the emotional investment of the trainers and their families preparing their horses for the ride of their life. Trainers include Dale Romans who grew up only a few miles from Churchill Downs, Dan Hendricks, trainer of Brother Derek, who is paralyzed from the waist down, Kiaran McLaughlin, who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, Michael Matz, trainer of Barbaro who won an Olympic medal as an equestrian, and others. Another human interest story is that of 61 year old groom Chuck Chambers who has worked tirelessly all of his life for this opportunity.
In order to qualify for the Derby, horses have to compete in stakes races scattered throughout the country and only the top twenty three-year olds in earnings will qualify. The film follows six horses: Barbaro, Achilles of Troy, Brother Derek, Lawyer Ron, Jazil, and Sharp Humor through their months of preparation and shows us races - lots of races in which survival in the Derby competition is at stake. These include the Wood Memorial, the Santa Anita Derby, The Gotham Stakes, and many others, one more heart pounding than the other. For some there is triumph and for others tragedy as one horse on the verge of qualifying, breaks down during a race and is pulled from further competition.
The most emotionally compelling moments in the film are those showing the rise and fall of the horse Barbaro from his astonishing 6 ½-length win in the 2006 Kentucky Derby to his breakdown in Pimlico and his subsequent fight for survival. The sequences are shown with admiration and respect for the suffering of the horse and the breakdown is hidden from the camera. The film does not touch issues such as gambling, and race fixing told in Hollywood films until they have become a cliché.
The Hennegan Brothers, whose father was a racing official at Belmont Park and who have had a lifelong interest in the sport, wanted to show the positive aspects of racing, the excitement it generates, and the lives of the real people involved. Of course all roads lead to Louisville and the thrilling 2006 Derby run is one of the highlights. The film ends on an upbeat note informing us of the subsequent successes of the individuals shown in the film and the birth of Barbaro's brother Nicanor, a potential Kentucky Derby participant in 2009. The First Saturday in May may not be the most publicized documentary of the year but, like Hoop Dreams did in 1994, once it finds its audience, it will be a swift ride to the winner's circle.
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