The First Saturday in May

Bill Denver/Truly Indie
Brad Hennegan and John Hennegan/United States 2008

There could be no greater testament to the effectiveness of The First Saturday in May than to note that by the time it reaches its climactic race, it doesn’t matter that everyone knows the winner. First time directors Brad and John Hennegan – collaborating on a passion project if ever there was one – follow six horses and their trainers on the trail to the 2006 Kentucky Derby, including the eventual winner Barbaro. Made famous by his record victory, the period encapsulating the race and the champion’s stunning subsequent injury marked one of the few instances in recent history in which the sport remained in the public eye for an extended time.

So, anyone who paid attention to mainstream media in 2006 will be fully aware of the race’s outcome before the movie begins. Yet, the filmmakers transcend that major obstacle by developing the racing milieu with an unprecedented fullness and clarity, while delving deeply into the lives of some fascinatingly varied individuals. The Hennegans focus on the preparations for the race, for which each horse must defy astronomical odds, but they’re more concerned with the human stories at hand. The subjects profiled include New Yorker Frank Amonte, who desperately wants his son and daughter to join the family business; Kiaran McLaughlin, stricken with Multiple sclerosis but still committed to his work for the horses owned by Sheik Hamdan of Dubai. Memorably, there’s also veteran trainer Bob Holthus, a man of few words whose perpetually intense visage says much about what might be his last shot at glory.

Put simply, the film is about how some distinct personages experience the highs and lows of the training process. In selecting their subjects, it seems the Hennegans lucked out, or are simply blessed with an innate sense of dramatic interest. In their time spent with the trainers, they draw out unique perspectives on not only the road to the Kentucky Derby, but also the most fundamental facets of living a happy and productive life. Yet, as distinct as these voices prove to be, there’s an overarching commonality: Each inspires considerable empathy. By spinning six vivid individual narratives into a collective journey, the Hennegans have taken a largely neglected sport and lent it the power and pathos of grand drama.

© 2008 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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