Hennegan Brothers’ First Saturday in May

I (and thousands of other people, likely) received this message from the Hennegan brothers this week, regarding their terrific film First Saturday in May, which follows the fortunes of six horses and trainers on the 2006 Derby trail:

“Our film needs your help to continue building an audience. Word of mouth can make or break an independent film. We have made tremendous strides in the last 5 months via our grassroots marketing campaign and successful runs at several summer film fests including Tribeca, AFI SilverDocs and Vancouver. We need to continue this momentum, however, by continuing to build our core audience. This will insure the distribution of the DVD this summer for we can prove we can directly connect with our audience.

‘What can I do to help?’ is a question everyones kindly asks. PLEASE HAVE YOUR FRIENDS/RACETRACKERS/HORSE AND ANIMAL LOVERS GO TO OUR WEBSITE AND REGISTER. If you are involved with a group or club that would connect with our subject matter or you are a member of the media, please pass it to the appropriate parties. Registering is extremely important for us and takes only 30 seconds.”

I saw the film at the Tribeca Film Festival last May and loved every minute of it. While clearly unable to ignore the Barbaro story, the film manages to give equal time to all of the horses, and the sad story of Barbaro doesn’t dominate. Below is a slightly edited review/report of the film that I wrote for Tim Woolley Racing; additional reviews from a summer screening at the Racing Museum in Saratoga appeared in the Daily Racing Form (by Steven Crist) and in the Saratoga Special by Sean Clancy.

Before I post my thoughts on the movie, I must post a non-racing related item: recently, a family of five homeless kittens and their mama cat has taken residence in a colleague’s backyard. If you live in the tri-state area and would consider adopting one (or more?), I deliver. If you know anyone who might be interested, please have them contact me at the e-mail address in the column to the left.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming…

Written/posted May 4th, 2007 (the Thursday before the Derby):

Tonight I was fortunate to attend a screening of First Saturday in May, the Hennegan Brothers’ documentary about the road to the 2006 Kentucky Derby. Part of the Tribeca Film Festival, the film was screened on the east side of Manhattan in Kips Bay; this was something of a disappointment to this Brooklynite, who had hoped to scoot across the river to Tribeca to see the film, but in a good news/bad news kind of way, the Tribeca Film Festival has in fact outgrown Tribeca and takes place at numerous venues in several New York City neighborhoods.

Though the location was disappointing, the film wasn’t. During the Q&A following the screening, one of the brothers (John, I think) said that one of the goals was to make horse racing cool again, and the brothers, whose father worked at New York racetracks, achieved a not-insignificant goal of appealing to both the racing fan and the racing novice. If you followed racing in the year before the ’06 Derby, there are no surprises here; those new to the sport, however, learned the compelling stores of Dan Hendricks, Bob Holthus, and the other trainers, and got to see for the first time some of the amazing races on that Derby prep trail.

For me, the joys of the film were many, lying in the pleasure of familiarity and the glow of re-living favorite moments. I loved the scenes in the morning, watching horses train and hearing the trainers talk about their plans and routines. Having been a big fan of Jazil, I experienced again the thrill of watching that unbelievable run in the ’06 Wood, as he appeared from out of the left side of the screen to nearly nip Bob and John at the wire; sitting in the darkened theater, I was almost as excited as I was that nasty, cold, wet day at Aqueduct—only this time, I didn’t get to cash the ticket.

When asked the inevitable question (“Who do you like on Saturday?”), John picked Curlin and Brad named Nobiz Like Showbiz, though they both each mentioned other names. In response to another question, they said that their goal was to make a film about people, and so while they initially followed other trainers and horses, they began to cut storylines as various stories emerged, paring down to the six in the film. It struck me as I made my way home that for the past few years, the Derby stories have been those of the “little guys”: Sackatoga Stable, Jeremy Rose, Tim Ritchey, Roy Chapman, John Servis, Michael Matz, Dan Hendricks. Not little guys in terms of talent or quality, but little guys in terms of the size of their stables and the extent of their PR machine. It’s different this year, with Pletcher having five horses in and Asmussen two, so even though the big three of Zito, Baffert, and Lukas don’t have any horses in the Derby this year, the feel of the Derby this year is a little different from the last few.

As I waited for the 23rd Street bus to take me across town, I listened to a woman on her cell phone raving about the film to her friend on the other end. The combination of humanity and beauty with which the Hennegan brothers have infused their film clearly appeals to those already involved in the game and those who know little about it. Here’s hoping that they meet their goal of making racing cool again, and bringing a new audience to the races this summer. Here’s also hoping that a distributor picks up the film so that it can get to a wider audience. There’s more information about the film at the Hennegan brothers’ website, including a list of upcoming screenings–perhaps it’s coming soon to a city near you?

3 thoughts on “Hennegan Brothers’ First Saturday in May

  1. I saw their film at the Tribeca Film Festival too, but the Tuesday screening a little futher downtown (but not Tribeca). I actually skipped out of work to see it!Not only was it incredible, but I really think it has the capacity to draw in new fans who are interested enough watch the derby but don’t know about the entire prep season. I swear all this sports needs is a little well targeted marketing to get more fans. It’s a good thing we have Hennegan brothers because clearly noone in the industry has figured out how to do it.

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