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April 23, 2008 |

By John Williams | Film | April 23, 2008 |

Last summer, I bought a used copy of Across the Board, a memoir by horse racing writer Toney Betts that was published in 1956. The promotional copy on the cover reads: “A colorful cavalcade of … personalities who have created America’s No. 1 sport.” Racing hasn’t been able to claim No. 1 status for quite a while. It continues to rake in money, but its broader appeal has been dormant for decades. A glaring exception is the Kentucky Derby, first run in 1875, which remains one of the most popular dates on the sports calendar.

Filmmaking brothers John and Brad Hennegan have said their documentary, The First Saturday in May, is an attempt to rejuvenate the casual public’s interest in the sport. They followed a dozen or so trainers in the months leading up to the 2006 Derby, through prep races in New York, Florida, and Arkansas, and ended up focusing on six aspirant horses and their connections: Brother Derek, Jazil, Sharp Humor, Achilles of Troy, Lawyer Ron, and Barbaro. As a follower of the sport, I knew that one of these horses was destined not to be in the starting gate at the Derby, but I’ll preserve the drama for you. (Of course, I also knew who would win it, but then so do the rest of you, I assume. Barbaro’s Derby victory was by the largest margin the race had seen in 60 years. He was pulled up with an injury soon after leaving the gate in the Preakness Stakes two weeks later, and euthanized more than eight months after that following many efforts to save his life.)

The structure of hopping between these six stories makes First Saturday an inevitably hit-or-miss affair. Some of the trainers are simply more entertaining than others. Dan Hendricks (Brother Derek), Kiaran McLaughlin (Jazil), and Bob Holthus (Lawyer Ron) are less than compelling. In fact, Holthus, 71 when the movie was filmed, is borderline catatonic. He’s honed his southern taciturnity into a nearly total silence, so it’s left to Lawyer Ron’s affable groom, Chuck Chambers, to convey enthusiasm for the horse. Hendricks, paralyzed from the chest down in 2004 after a motocross accident and devoid of self-pity, seems like a great guy, but great guys don’t necessarily hold your attention on the big screen.

Dale Romans, on the other hand, does. The trainer of Sharp Humor fits squarely into the current vogue for ridiculing real-life characters simply by observing them (see: Billy Mitchell in The King of Kong, Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man, and almost everyone in any Michael Moore movie, including Moore). Sleepy, rotund, and constantly accompanied by his even beefier and sillier cousin, Paul, Romans is a walking stereotype of the American male. If you just rotoscoped his scenes, you might mistake First Saturday for an episode of King of the Hill. He’s the guy Will Ferrell will play when he inevitably makes his horse racing spoof. (Romans’ young son, Jake, steals the show, including a moment in which he shows off a “brick” of hundred-dollar bills that he’s won playing the horses and poker.)

Romans comes across as harmless, but hardly a sensitive animal lover. (By contrast, McLaughlin, somewhat childlike in his demeanor to begin with, affectionately pets Jazil curled up in a pile of hay as if the horse were a house cat.) In fact, there’s an occasional divide between the drive for success and the fact that these fragile animals are being put in harm’s way every time the gate opens, which may put off viewers who already have an aversion to the sport. I normally don’t read other reviews of a movie before I’m done writing my own. But as a horse racing fan, curiosity got the better of me last Friday, and I read Manohla Dargis’ take in the New York Times. Dargis is a critic I admire, but her reaction was more a premeditated attack on the entire sport than an examination of the movie at hand. It’s not that Dargis’ qualms about racing — including use of drugs and, of course, the death of animals — aren’t fodder for a perfectly legitimate conversation. It’s just that to lay them out in a review of this particular movie is to revel in being a killjoy, like reviewing Bull Durham by writing about the history of collective bargaining agreements. Given that the Hennegans are also donating a portion of the film’s profits to equine research, their effort seems like an especially ill-chosen target.

On its own merits, which Dargis only occasionally deigned to address, The First Saturday in May is not an aesthetically interesting film but it has natural appeal. It looks the way it was made — like two guys who love racing turned on the cameras and captured some craziness, some beauty, and some drama. The events leading to the Derby are offered up without much burnishing of narrative, but luckily they’re events with built-in tension. Admirably, the Hennegans don’t allow the story of Barbaro and his trainer, Michael Matz, to hijack the movie, but unsurprisingly, that story still provides the most affecting moments. In a stable in the darkness of very early morning, we see Matz gently coaxing his young, nervous son to approach and pet Barbaro. It’s a quiet, beautiful scene far removed from the heated competition featured elsewhere in the movie. The First Saturday in May has its flaws, but its good heart is on display in that moment between father and son and doomed champion. The movie might not be one of the year’s very best, but that scene certainly is.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

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The First Saturday in May / John Williams

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