Inspirational sports docu “The First Saturday in May” follows six trainers, as demographically disparate as possible, as they nurse their thoroughbreds down the path to the 2006 Kentucky Derby. Granted sweep and stature by the triumph of the legendary Derby winner Barbaro and the big shadow cast by his tragic destiny, pic successfully elaborates on the sorts of color pieces that traditionally precede the race on television. Picked up by Truly Indie, fittingly partnered by Churchill Downs, pic bowed on April 18 in limited release, prior to a likely annual smallscreen pre-Derby slot.
Helmers Brad and John Hennegan, brothers who themselves are the sons of trainers, fill their docu with down-to-the-wire races as horses must pile up points to qualify for the Derby. But there’s also off-track human drama galore, as trainers overcome personal ordeals while tending to their equine charges’ illnesses and quirks.
First out of the gate is the colorful Frank Amonte, a genuine “dese, dem and dose” New Yorker, propelled from lowly assistant to full-fledged trainer in mid-film by the success of his star pupil, Achilles of Troy. At the other end of the class spectrum, Michael Matz, trainer of the magnificent if ill-fated Barbaro and himself an Olympic champion equestrian, seamlessly blends in with his patrician surroundings.
Second-generation Kentucky trainer Dale Romans flaunts his redneck good-ol’-boy roots; he and his beefy entourage of buddies, brothers and offspring pin their collective hopes on Sharp Humor. Ranging further afield in his quest for horseflesh, Kiaran McLaughlin went to Dubai in 1998 to work for the sheikhs of the ruling Mattoon family, and still returns occasionally (thus permitting the Hennegans to include some exotic Middle Eastern locales). Back in the States, McLaughlin struggles with MS but remains in charge of long-shot Saudi hopeful Jail.
The improbably dubbed Derby contender Lawyer Ron is repped by two contrasting figures: 73-year-old Bob Holthus, whose name figures beside Bill Clinton’s and Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s on the Arkansas Walk of Fame, and black groom Chuck Chambers, whose daughters show up dressed to the nines to cheer the horse home.
Rounding out the vignettes, Dan Hendricks has not allowed his recent paralysis-inducing bike accident to interfere with his training of the highly promising favorite, Brother Derek.
Journeyman docu breaks no new ground in format or execution, but the Hennegans’ rapport with their subjects and close filial ties lend them particular insight into the dynastic nature of the sport, as trainers are seen horsing around with their track-savvy offspring.