My old Kentucky racetrack
Abbey to screen documentary about the Derby

by Judith Reynolds

What’s a filmmaker to do? You want to pay tribute to the world of horse racing. You carefully select and follow six trainers through innumerable starting gates. You end up at The Big Dance, the Kentucky Derby. Then life intervenes.

In 2006, the brothers Hennegan, Brad and John, spent months crafting an homage to the sport of horse racing. Sons of trainers, the Hennegan boys clearly wanted to detail the life of the sport and its crowning moment, a 2-minute-plus race that is over before you blink. Titled “The First Saturday in May,” the documentary runs 100 minutes and almost achieves what the filmmakers intended.

What the Hennegans didn’t count on was the tragic demise of the winning horse. Barbaro won the 2006 Kentucky Derby in a spectacular finish – by seven lengths, the largest margin in 60 years. But eight months later, he was put down in a delayed act of mercy after an excruciating accident. Barbaro’s rise and fall was covered in detail by the national sports press. That sad account changed everything for the documentarians who wanted to paint a glowing picture of the Derby and its world.

How did the Hennegan brothers deal with the unexpected? In severely truncated news footage, the film integrates the race and its breathless commentary. Then a quick fade to black. In a short section that follows, the film picks up on a comment by one of the losing trainers: “Well, there’s always the Preakness.”

The Preakness, part two of the racing world’s triple crown, took place two weeks later. It was in that race that Barbaro suffered life threatening injuries. Mercifully, the filmmakers cut the painful footage of a stumbling and broken Barbaro. Then the Hennegans swiftly pass through the story of multiple surgeries, incalculable pain, and finally allow a veterinarian at a press conference to speak about the decision to euthanize. Most horses in a similar predicament would have been put down on the spot at the track. But Barbaro, worth millions, was kept alive, most likely for stud fees.

So what’s a filmmaker to do – shift focus and make a film about the wages of competition? The down side of racing? Turn to the economic incentives that drive the whole industry, pardon me, sport? Or go back to the original idea and concentrate on the six trainers? Salvage something of the original idea?

That’s what the Hennegans did, and they’ve paid an interesting price. After dispensing with the incredibly sad story of Barbaro’s short life – April 29, 2003 - Jan. 29, 2007 – the filmmakers return to the trainers in an extended epilogue. We learn how many and what races some of them later won and which ones started a stable of their own. In a patched-together ending, the Hennegans conclude with happy shots of Barbaro’s younger brother – mugging up to the camera.

You can’t criticize a film for being what it simply is or intended to be. The filmmakers clearly faced a dilemma. And with a co-sponsorship from Churchill Downs, the holding company that owns the race track in Louisville where the Derby is held, this is in some respects a company film. No doubt it will be shown at skybox parties to the rich and famous and have a life as a promotional flick for the industry, pardon me, sport.

That said, the film is no “Seabiscuit.” It follows the conventions of competition documentaries. A goal is clearly outlined, winning the Kentucky Derby. As many of the trainers blurt out in various interviews, the Derby is the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Olympics, or most commonly, The Big Dance. All the trainers apparently spend a life time sweating through months of rigorous training and compete in lower level races to earn points. Only a few end up with their horses in the Louisville starting gate.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers avoided the sweaty details, what trainers actually do day-in and day-out with their horses and their team of handlers. In the beginning, each trainer is introduced. We get a glimpse of the owners but little of the relationship between owner and trainer, trainer and jockey, etc. The trainers range from an unlikely smart-mouthed New Yorker to a paraplegic who suffered a freak accident on a dirt bike and returned to his chosen profession. We could have predicted good ol’ boys from Kentucky with broad Southern accents and matching beer bellies, and we got ’em. No one would have predicted an Irish-American working for a wealthy Dubai sheik. In some of the most exotic footage, Kiaran McLaughlin travels abroad to kiss the robe of his eminence and later race his horse for a purse of $1.5 million.

Barbaro’s trainer, Michael Matz , whose resumé includes membership on a U.S. Olympic equestrian team, gets the least screen time. That’s unfortunate, because it could have provided some much needed ballast to this conflicted film.

In an effort to humanize the trainers, the Hennegan brothers also spend time filming the men in their roles as fathers. It all feels like filler material and doesn’t make me like them any more or less.

Musically, you’re set up early to be nostalgic about the Derby with the first of many iterations of “My Old Kentucky Home.” Later, you’re hit with some hard rock when New Yorker Frank Amonte comes on screen with “You gotta deal with everything. Dis job ain’t easy.”

Putting a happy face on a documentary with an unexpected death in the middle wasn’t easy, either. Judge for yourself. •

"The First Saturday in May" shows at the Abbey Theatre, 128 E. College, starting Fri., May 2. 

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