The First Saturday in May – Documentary Review (2007)

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Directors John and Brad Hennegan follow six trainers as they put their amazing and beautiful thoroughbred horses–including the fabulous and tragic Barbaro–through the paces leading up to the Kentucky Derby, the annual race that takes place on the first Saturday of May. Think of this documentary as a cross between Seabiscuit and The Horse Whisperer, but it’s a true story told with actual footage.

Using actual footage from the 132nd Annual Kentucky Derby (2006), The First Saturday in May captures the rush of the horse race that’s been called “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” But the film’s biggest achievement is its revaluation of behind-the-scenes stories of trainers and their thoroughbreds.

Directors John and Brad Hennegan (they’re brothers, and this is their first film) follow six very different trainers who, for the first time in their careers, are in charge of horses that keep winning the stakes races that will qualify them for the Kentucky Derby. You witness their excitement mount as they strive for their chance to compete for the racing world’s holy grail.

The thoroughbreds are absolutely amazing creatures: beautiful and spirited, with decidedly different personalities. The trainers, too, are very different in circumstance and style. It’s fascinating to see how the men and beasts develop such personal relationships with each other. The trainers seem to treat the thoroughbreds almost like their children.

Of the 40,000 horses born each year, only 20 make it to the Kentucky Derby starting gate. The horses that run in the Kentucky Derby are three-year-olds, and this is their one chance to compete in this race. To decide which of them to feature, the Hennegans tracked track records leading up to the Derby, then chose horses being trained by a very interesting assortment of men. They’re all terrifically appealing. When it comes time for the race, you simply don’t know which trainer-horse pair to root for.

Then, there’s the heartbreaking story of Barbaro. Two weeks after winning the Derby, this champion had a tragic accident while running in the Preakness, the second race in America’s Triple Crown. Barbaro’s story is well-known, but the fall and the results still come as a shock, made even more moving by truly endearing close-ups of he magnificent steed looking right into the camera and snorting magnificently.

The First Saturday in May is a great behind-the-scenes look at throroughbred horse racing. It shows the real-life relationship between trainers and thoroughbreds. The horses have wonderfully different and engaging personalities. So do the trainers, including Dan Hendricks who trains the ornery Brother Derek from the confines of a wheelchair, feeding the horse carrots mouth to mouth, and ever hopeful Bob Holthus who is 73 years old and near retirement when he gets his first shot at the Derby with Lawyer Ron.

You’ll love this film.

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