Saturday, April 19, 2008
First Saturday in May opens with some daunting stats: 40,000 thoroughbreds are foaled in the U.S. each year but only 20 can hope to make the two-minute run that is the Kentucky Derby. The Derby, we are told, is what everyone in the horse racing biz aspires to. It's a spectacular event with the best horses, lots of mint juleps, and crazy hats worn by men and women a like. First time filmmakers Brad and John Hennegan turn their cameras on six horse trainers trying to chalk up enough wins to make it to the 2006 Derby at the famed Churchill Downs. There's the feisty New York-based Frank Amonte whose daughter shares his passion for horses while his teenaged son hangs around the stables for occasional work since high school doesn't interest him. There are a pair of trainers who have to overcome their own personal handicaps -- Kiaran McLaughlin copes with recently diagnosed MS while Dan Hendricks became paralyzed after an equestrian accident. McLaughlin also happens to work for the Royal Family of Dubai, which places his horse owners physically the furthest from the race. Then there's Michael Matz who has the privilege of working with one of the most famous horses of all time, Barbaro. And rounding out the trainers are a trio of apparently talented but not terribly exciting on-screen personalities: Bob Holthus and Chuck Chambers working with horse Lawyer Ron; and Dale Romans training Sharp Humor.
In a statement, the directing brothers say that the goal of their film is "to make horse racing cool again by telling the stories of the hard-working, dedicated and resilient individuals who dedicate their lives to the horses they love. It's a great sport that has gotten progressively less attention over the last 30 years. If we could bring attention back to the sport that has played such a huge role in our lives, then we will have accomplished our mission."
First Saturday in May (Truly Indie)
But First Saturday in May is unlikely to make any new converts to the sport. The Hennegans' film is like a compilation of ESPN features strung together. By that I mean, the individual segments are professionally put together as they follow each trainer, gathering the same information on each - show him with the owners, then with his family, get him at the race track, etc. Each portrait follows the same formula so that everyone gets fair and equal treatment. The result is a film that plays out rather dryly and even predictably as it chronicles the process of qualifying for the Derby. Not even the races generate much excitement because they are not filmed nor cut in an effective manner.
The Hennegans try to interview everyone in their own environment but the filmmakers don't capture the feel and texture of these locations. They might as well be filming in someone's office because there's a plain, business like tone to the way the filmmakers gather their information. There's not enough footage of these men (and they are all men with no women save for a couple wives and daughters that we see anywhere) with the animals they train. I don't want to see horse racing footage that looks exactly like kind of the footage I can catch on TV, I want a more intimate look at how these men work with the animals, how early they have to get up, how difficult it is, and just the beauty of these animals in motion.
Only Amonte really conveys to us a passion for what he does, as if he lives, sleeps, and breathes horses. He gets his whole family involved as well, and we sense how he bonds with his horse. In the final minutes of the film, the Hennegans show us Amonte's 71-year-old father who wants to be the oldest working jockey, and Amonte is having his dad ride his horses. Now why wait until the closing moments to introduce this fascinating piece of information. Amonte may not have the best horse but he seems to have the best story, and it's too bad that the Hennegans don't realize that.
The filmmakers do benefit - although that may not be the best choice of words - from the fact that the year they happen to focus on is the year of Barbaro, a thoroughbred that captured the world's attention and then broke everyone's heart. The drama that Barbaro presents gives the directors a focal point and the film a strong emotional hook. But because Barbaro is one of the better-known horses of all time, most people, even those with little interest in the sport, probably already know the outcome of this documentary. The Hennegans have obviously spent a lot of time and traveled a lot of miles to accumulate all their footage. The press notes total their travel at more than 150,000 over a 16-month period to document every major horse race on the road to the 2006 Kentucky Derby. This makes it seem as though they have a passion for the sport, the only problem is that they don't do a great job of conveying that passion to the rest of us.
First Saturday in May (unrated but appropriate for all ages) is a competently made documentary that explores its horse racing subject with diligence but not much inspiration. My parents used to take me to the track once a year and allow me to gamble $20 on the races. I remember the excitement of looking over the horses' names and checking them out as them out as they were brought to the gate. But nothing in this documentary gave me the same & tingle of excitement as I felt when I was at the track. Frank Amonte is the only one in the film who reminds me of the thrill at being at the race track and watching these exquisite animals give their all for their jockeys and trainers.
Companion viewing: National Velvet, Seabiscuit, Derby in Black, Race for the Derby