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WGUC Reviews

The First Saturday in May

The First Saturday in May
Truly Indie
Rated PG-13
Now Showing at: The Florence Mall Road Cinemas
Review by: Larry Thomas


Since sporting events of mythic proportions are generally not associated with our area, Cincinnatians must look to neighboring areas to fill that need. The Indianapolis 500 is the one for auto racing fans. But for those who prefer the older, more genteel sport of kings, the event of any year has to be The Kentucky Derby at Louisville’s Churchill Downs. Even those who know nothing about horse racing can be counted on to watch the race on television, or perhaps even throw a Derby Party.

The new documentary The First Saturday in May takes an inside look at the 2006 Kentucky Derby, which one sportswriter said had the strongest lineup of horses in over fifty years. Produced, edited, photographed and directed by The Hennagan Brothers, John and Brad, this film is an obvious labor of love for the filmmakers.

The film concentrates on the human aspect of the Derby: the trainers. Those guys who have finally made it to the big time of racing by having a horse in the Kentucky Derby. Each year there are 40,000 thoroughbred colts born. In three years, only twenty of them will make it to “the big show.” It’s a long, hard, expensive road to get to the finish line, when only one out of 40,000 ends up the champion of the biggest race of the year. Each horse in the field of twenty has to earn enough winnings in prior races to nab a spot at Churchill Downs. And that means the pressure in on the trainers from day one.

The film follows six trainers, and the friends, groomers, and relatives as they attempt to make their way along the path to the Derby with what they think will be the winning horse.

And the trainers have their own stories, too. Dan Hendricks has always been a top trainer, but suffered a motorbike accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. After six weeks recovery, he went back to work, directing every facet of his job from a motorized wheelchair. This affable, dedicated gentleman is worth a documentary of his own.

Frank Amonte from New York is what you would definitely call a “character”…someone that might be imagined from a Damon Runyon story, or who could even play a supporting role in a Scorsese film.

All of the trainers have stories to tell, as would the horses if they could talk. The overshadowing element of sadness is the tragic fate of the 2006 winner Barbaro, which turned out to be more of a human-interest story than most stories about humans. Because of what happened to Barbaro, much progress has been made in advancing equine medicine. The Hennegan Brothers have taken it upon themselves to donate 25% of the first week’s box office take to the worldwide leader in equine research: The Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation. That’s not something a filmmaker would do lightly.

If you love horses and racing, then the PG-13 rated The First Saturday in May is a must-see film. It’s only playing one theatre in the area: The Florence Mall Road Cinemas, and will only be there through Thursday with limited show times. As Derby Day approaches, there’s no better time to see this backstage look at what goes in to the making of a champion.


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