As the sons of a New York racing judge, writer/directors Brad and John Hennegan made it their mission to return the sport of kings to the public spotlight. They follow six trainers, from New York to Dubai to Churchill Downs itself, as they jockey for one of the twenty slots in the 2006 Kentucky Derby held "The First Saturday in May."
The Hennegan brothers certainly picked their year and their trainers as one of their six is none other than former Olympic equestrian Michael Matz who worked with none other than Barbaro, the Derby's eventual winner by the longest stretch in sixty years who went on to tragedy in his quest for the triple crown at the Preakness.
But Barbaro aside, the filmmakers have picked a diverse and interesting group and instill a routing interest in each. There is Frank Amonte, a real New Yawker, looking for entrance into the big time with Achilles of Troy. He's a real family guy who allows his son to drop out of school to help prepare and who sacrifices so that his younger daughter can take riding lessons. Dan Hendricks from California was paralyzed from the waist down in an off road bike accident, but continues to plug along grooming Brother Derek for the race. Kiaran McLaughlin made the jump to Dubai where he became involved with Sheik Mohammed and Sheik Hamdan before moving back to the States with a diagnosis of M.S. He's working with the Dubai Royal Family's plucky Jazil and is the only trainer with Derby experience, having lost by a nose the previous year with a 74-1 odds horse. 72 year old Bob Holthus of Hot Springs, Arkansas has the best horse of his career, Lawyer Ron, in the golden years of a 53 year career. Sixty-one year old Chuck Chambers is the horse's devoted groom. Lastly there is hometown boy Dale Romans who started from nothing to become within reach of horse racing's golden ring with Sharp Humor. Like Amonte, Romans makes his job a family affair, with lookalike cousin Paul always at his side.
Besides getting to know these trainers and their families, we're treated to multiple stakes races, by which the horses earn their place (of the 40,000 racehorses born yearly, only the twenty highest earners make it to the Derby). There are all sorts of colorful characters in the racing world as well. Bob Holthus's wife Bonnie is always splendidly attired, resembling a Gabor sister. A win, she tells us, is an instant facelift. Romans's preteen son Jake ducks mom to skip school for a stakes race and pulls out his $1,034 betting wad! The kid even gets a shot as a television commentator. Celebrities and people in funny hats come out of the woodwork on Derby day itself.
With all their heady subject matter, though, the Hendricks often make it difficult to follow the action. The editing can be disorienting, making one work to connect the dots in early goings. Each team isn't introduced through its trainer, for example, proving there is something to be said for more classic structure. The oval track shaped identifying credits can be difficult to read. I did not realize that Frank Amonte was an assistant trainer until he is promoted to head in the film's second half.
But once the Hennegans begin their build to the final race, everything falls into place with a quickening intensity towards 'the most exciting two minutes in sports.' The nerves, the pageantry, the rituals, the mint juleps, all lead up to a truly amazing race. Then there is the aftermath. The brothers thankfully blacken the screen in the Barbaro follow-up at the Preakness, only letting us hear the announcer's dismayed call of the horse being 'pulled up' and out of the race. His fate is followed through, as are the lives of the other trainers, one of whom goes on to win the Belmont. Amonte, not content having his son by his side, recruits his 70+ dad as his jockey!
"The First Saturday in May" isn't as clearly structured as say, "Spellbound" or "Wordplay," in laying out its subject matter, but it is nonetheless an exhilarating insider's peak at a majestic sport.
Robin gives "The First Saturday in May" a B+.
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