Friday, November 2, 2007

The First Saturday in May

I had absolutely no idea what this movie was about going into it, which shows my complete ignorance of the sporting world. I attended the screening because it was coupled with a new short by Bill Plymton- Shut Eye Hotel. Though it was an enjoyable little animation, it was not quite up to par with his old work. He incorporated 3D for the first time (that I know of) with his trademark sketchy drawings. The mood was nice, and it was entertaining, but it lacked the twisted humor that has defined his work.

The First Saturday in May follows the efforts of 6 horses on the trail to the 2006 Kentucky Derby, widely considered one of the most exciting races of all time. This is a subject I have never had an interest in, but I found the movie utterly fascinating. Something is to be said about a documentary that can hold my interest on a topic I've never really cared about.

It traces the various teams through triumphs and heartbreaks as they prove themselves worthy of being in this prestigious race. Barbaro, Brother Derek, Achilles of Troy, Jazil, Lawyer Ron, and Sharp Humor, 6 horses that grew to become the major contenders for the derby are heavily covered. But the movie is more about the people. The trainers, the jockeys, and their families are all the true focus of this movie. Interestingly, except in two brief exceptions, the owners are never interviewed or mentioned. This results in giving the impression that these multi-million dollar horses are still firmly rooted in the working man. I think that's good, in that when thinking of horse racing, I usually thought of the high-stakes a glamor, not the hard work. This movie changed all that.

The of the more interesting characters included one of the trainer's sons, who bet on the races, hobnobbed with the rich, and become a part-time race analyst- all while he was no older than 10 or 11. In a staged scene where he pulls over a thousand dollars out of his pocket, you do still realize that these horses mean big money. On the opposite end of the spectrum was Chuck, a 61 year old groomer working every day in the trenches with the horses, never seeing a huge payday. He was just as excited, however, as any of the trainers.

The Hennegan brothers grew up around the racetrack, and were allowed unparalleled access to the track, and the horses. They were able to get cameras in the starting gates, and full unhampered access to the horses themselves. This resulted in footage from this pivotal year, that nobody else was able to get.

2006 was an important year for the racing community for several reasons. There was no clear favorite going into the Kentucky Derby. It was more a triumvirate of favorites. Perhaps an even bigger reason why detailed attention was paid that year was Barbaro. This horse from Florida was one of the rising stars in the sport, and went undefeated into the derby. This streak continued as he won the Kentucky Derby without so much as a challenger. Barbaro was promising to become a new legend in racing, but during the next race, he suffered an injury that eventually led to his death.

The movie could have easily turned into a movie about Barbaro, but they limited the tragedy to an epilogue. This was the right decision. The movie pays appropriate homage to the horse, but spends most of the time on the community itself. This was a fascinating movie, and kept me engaged the entire time. I really hope that The First Saturday in May, after it's done on the festival circuit, will get wide distribution.


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