The First Saturday in May
2008, NR, 97 min. Directed by Brad Hennegan, John Hennegan.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 18, 2008
As we all know, the first Saturday in May marks a date with the "most exciting two minutes in sports": the Kentucky Derby. This documentary follows six horse trainers and their experiences on the 2006 Derby trail, as they compete in the various races that will make them eligible to run at Louisville's Churchill Downs. As the filmmakers tell us at the beginning, 40,000 Thoroughbreds are born every year, but only 20 make it to the Kentucky Derby. Thus starts the movie's confusion about whether it is a documentary about the horses or their human competitors. After informing us of the horses' odds, the focus shifts to the human beings' fortunes. Yet 2006 was the exceptional year in which the horse Barbaro, after winning the Kentucky Derby, was felled in his subsequent run at Preakness while on his path toward capturing the Triple Crown. A nation mourned when Barbaro eventually had to be put down, and that unexpected drama colors the movie, whose stated purpose is to focus on the trainers. Barbaro's tragedy provides the material for the film's awkward epitaph. The First Saturday in May jumps around various locations in the U.S. and Dubai to follow the trainers as they prepare for the season. The men (and they are all men) all have different personalities and life experiences, but they all want nothing more than the opportunity to go to the big dance. We watch as they stroke their Thoroughbreds, talk of their aspirations, encourage their kids' love of the sport, and give interviews to the press. Although different in style and detail, the men are more or less interchangeable. Many questions occur to the viewer along the way but are never addressed by the filmmakers: What was the reason one trainer switched jockeys shortly before the race; what is the thinking behind each man's strategic plan of when and where to race his horse; does this "sport of kings" have any downsides such as compulsive gambling or race-fixing (nary a bet is placed throughout the entire movie, except for one preteen who brags of the $1,000 "brick" in his pocket); and what of the color divide between the exclusively white owners and trainers and the groomers and other stable help, who are predominantly men of color? Still, what's not to love? As Derby passerby Carson Kressley explains it, "I love horses, hats, and bourbon." The film provides the first two, but the bourbon is BYOB.