The First Saturday in May
How do the horses feel about it saying “Yum” right behind them?

Theatrical Release Date: 04/18/2008
Directors: Brad & John Hennegan

Unfortunately, the 2006 horse racing season is probably best known for the misstep that befell the horse, Barbaro. However, as the title of the film clearly states, “The First Saturday in May” is about the Kentucky Derby. To no surprise, there is a quick segment about Barbaro at the end of the film and though it’s a bit of a downer, it does provide a good avenue to remind people about donating to Equine research, which isn’t a bad thing.

(If you’re interested in donating, here’s a link to the Grayson-Jockey Club, where the filmmakers will direct a portion of the opening weekend’s box office.)

However, tragedy isn’t the focus of the film and the documentary is more of a video journal-like perspective on what it’s like to earn a berth and run in the Derby. It isn’t a crusade about any particular aspect of the horse racing industry. There also isn’t some long, drawn out introduction. The film gives a few facts about the elements necessary to earn a place in the starting gates that first Saturday in May and jumps right into the trainers’ journeys to reach the most hallowed goal in horse racing.

Instead of using a voice-over to help the transitions between each trainer’s tale, directors Brad and John Hennegan went with on-screen text and graphics. While it looked classy, the absence of any narration for a documentary of this type really solidified that home movie feel. That provided a nice insight into what it’s like to be there with everyone but it also slows the pace way down. An hour into the film, I thought it had been at least another thirty minutes, if not a whole other hour.

And it’s not that the film is boring. I really enjoyed seeing the family-atmosphere that is created in the industry. The excitement that the trainers, jockeys and their families feel as they make it to the Derby is fun to see. It points out that it’s not just a trainer and a few other guys making a horse turn left a bunch. Their wives, siblings and kids are involved – much like a traveling circus.

However, in just editing together the hours of footage that they collected, the Hennegans didn’t really give the film the traditional beginning, middle and end. It was more like six different profile pieces that one might see on a network broadcast about the Derby, all smushed together. If you aren’t looking to glean new information about what it takes to train a horse to run in the Kentucky Derby, that would work fine. However, I was hoping for more inside information to give me better insight into the industry. Also, the downswing to reflect on Barbaro did create quite a mood shift, equally matched by the bi-polar swing back to a happy wrap-up of the trainers following their Derby results.

Factoring in the pacing, lack of focus and the herky-jerky emotional roller coaster at the end, I’m afraid I can’t do much more than give a middle of the road 3 out of 5 to “The First Saturday in May”. Horse racing fans will definitely find a lot to like here, especially if you have any inside knowledge of the industry or its players. If the idea of a documentary about horse racing doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, not much here will change your opinion. Sometimes, it really is as simple as that.