Over the years, the Kentucky Derby
has drawn comparisons to such high profile annual events as the Super
Bowl and Academy Awards. But in comparing these events, the celebrity
status of the participants in the Kentucky Derby seems to fall short
compared to the other two. In the 133 year history of the Derby, the
list of household names emerging from the Run for the Roses is very
short, with most of them being horses.
The First Saturday in
May tells the story of six
contenders for the 2006 Kentucky Derby. The most impressive part of
this documentary is the well-told personal stories of the relatively
anonymous trainers, jockeys and owners that toil in the stables and
racetracks of America, with the common goal of qualifying for the Kentucky
With the pomp and circumstance of
such a huge event, you would expect to hear about superstars and the
thrill of victory. But with 19 of 20 participants destined for disappointment,
most of the stories surrounding Kentucky Derby end in defeat. While
filmmakers John and Brad Hennegan were fortunate enough to document
the journey of 2006 Derby winner Barbaro and his trainers, for the most
part they exercised restraint from making this a Seabiscuit-esque biopic, and spread the story line
across all six featured teams.
What makes this documentary special
is the intimate peek of the annual journey made by thousands of trainers,
jockeys and horses along the Derby trail. The ups and downs of Frank
Amonte’s rise from Assistant to Head Trainer for Achilles of Troy are
particularly gripping. A blue collar guy working to make a better life
for his kids, Amonte’s passion for winning is obvious as he explains
in a thick New Jersey accent that, "The big one I want is the Derby."
There is an honesty in Amonte’s portion
of the story that keeps you glued to the screen as he inches closer
to his dream of training a horse in the Kentucky Derby. When his dreams
are dashed by a poor showing in the race that Achilles of Troy needed
win to qualify for the Derby, the disappointment is palpable.
As grippingly disappointing as Amonte’s
story is, the jubilation of trainer Kiaran McLaughlin’s horse Jazil
coming from way behind to finish second in the last race it needed win
or place in to qualify for the Derby, is just as captivating. A former
derby runner-up, McLaughlin has managed to keep his Multiple Sclerosis
in check for 10 years and become a very successful trainer. Jazil’s
qualification for the Derby would lead to a fourth place finish in the
big race, and eventually a Belmont Stakes win.
These stories may receive a short
sound byte during the Kentucky Derby broadcast, but most people never
get to see the dedication and sacrifice that trainers, jockeys and their
families put forth in pursuit of the dream of making it to the big race.
The Hennegan brothers deserve praise for bringing their stories to the
Unfortunately, this praise is somewhat
tainted by the decidedly disappointing left turn the filmmakers take
with the movie’s ending. After spending over an hour following the ups
and downs for these six unique individual stories of struggle to acheive
their dreams, the final scenes take us from their various states of
excitement and worry at Churchill Downs as their horses come down the
stretch, to the aftermath in which the winner Barbaro struggles to regain
his form after a devastating injury in the Preakness.
While Barbaro’s story is an emotional
one, it is not the story that had been laid out for viewers throughout
the rest of the movie. The Hennegan brothers would have served their
audience better by showing the disappointment on the faces of the four
losing horses’ team members and ask them how they felt after such a
tremendous struggle for their goals had been dashed. Instead, the last
10 minutes of The
First Saturday In May
turned into the ending of a Barbaro biopic.
The Hennegan brothers did a great
job of avoiding the temptation of following the small number of celebrity
trainers, like D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert, for 90 percent of The First Saturday in May. But in the end, they gave in to temptation
and focused on the glorious but tragic winner of the race and abandoned
the personal stories that truly make this documentary special.