The First Saturday in May



Truly Indie

John and Brad Hennegan's documentary about the 2006 Kentucky Derby gets an unexpected, if sad, boost in its dramatic quotient because of the fact that one of the horses competing in the race was Barbaro, who suffered an injury a short while later during the Preakness Stakes and had to be put down. This tragic event elevates "The First Saturday in May" from what had been a mostly humdrum cinema-verite effort into something more emotionally resonant.

Still, even for horse racing fans, there's much ephemera to wade through before that dramatic coda. The film, a behind-the-scenes look at several trainers' efforts to get their horses into fighting shape for the brief contest, lacks the depth or context to make it compelling.

The filmmakers -- the sons of a New York Racing Assn. judge -- avoid delving into the nuts and bolts of the sport, nor do they provide any real historical background behind one of the most celebrated sporting events in America. (The latter omission seems surprising, considering that Churchill Downs is one of the film's distributors.)

Rather, they concentrate on the colorful personalities and interesting backstories of their subjects, including Frank Amonte, a tough-talking New Yorker training his first Derby horse; Michael Matz, a former Olympic equestrian handling the now-legendary Barbaro; Dan Hendricks, continuing to train despite his recent paralysis in a bike-riding accident; and Kiaran McLaughlin, a horse trainer working for Dubai's royal family who had recently been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Too much of the film's running time is consumed by fly-on-the wall eavesdropping of banal conversations and lengthy silent sequences designed to convey the general atmosphere. The subject deserved a more objective, journalistic approach than the sibling filmmakers (making their feature debut) were apparently interested in pursuing.

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