‘First Saturday’ takes you along for the ride

Dana Barbuto

Brothers Brad and John Hennegan know a big part of the Kentucky Derby is the road to get there. And that’s what they chronicle in the documentary “The First Saturday in May.”

Essentially, the film is a story of hope, perseverance and hard work set against a platform of thoroughbred horse racing. Beginning in July 2005, the Hennegans started following 2006 Derby hopefuls and their trainers on their journey to the Kentucky Derby – the Holy Grail of thoroughbred horse racing that is held on the first Saturday in May.

The film features a behind-the-scenes look at horses Brother Derek, Lawyer Ron, Jazil, Sharp Humor, Achilles of Troy and the late Barbaro. Included in the documentary is early footage of Barbaro before he became famous. Barbaro went on to win the Derby and 14 days later his undefeated career was tragically cut short when the colt suffered a life-threatening leg injury. He was eventually put down seven months later.

Even though we already know the outcome, the film is still chilling and jam-packed with emotion and tension as the Hennegans unravel the human side of horse racing. The documentary tells the stories of trainers like Dan Hendricks, who crushed his vertebrae after falling off a horse and is paralyzed from the chest down, as he readies Brother Derek for the Derby. A particularly telling scene shows the massive horse as he gently nibbles a carrot dangling from Hendricks’ mouth.

And there’s the New York-based Frank Amonte, the gritty working-class trainer of Achilles of Troy, who is just “happy to have his name in program.” And Bob Holthus, who at age 72 is training his first Derby horse. The film also features Kentucky native Dale Romans and Kiaran McLaughlin, a multiple sclerosis sufferer who trains horses for the royal family of Dubai. Rounding out the trainers is Michael Matz, who trains Barbaro.

Instead of a narrator, the Hennegans rely on their subjects to tell their stories in words and actions. The story advances with concise text blocks that relay scene-setting information. The choice of music is an equally effective device, like “Latin Thugs,” by Cypress Hill, set to a gritty scene in the barn with these tough animals.

Life on the Derby trail is a yearlong quest to win a two-minute race. The film does well in capturing the tension and the blood, sweat and tears that go into preparing for the race. It’s knowledge that was previously reserved for only horse folks that the Hennegans package nicely into a story appealing to all.

And, because at its core “The First Saturday in May” is a documentary of hope, it ends promising for the Matz stable. They are awaiting the arrival of Barbaro’s brother, Nicanor.

The Patriot Ledger