Intended as a behind-the-scenes look at six horse-racing professionals’ efforts to get their thoroughbreds to the starting gate of the 2006 Kentucky Derby, The First Saturday in May is handicapped by an unavoidable postscript that even nonfans are apt to recall: the eventually fatal injury in the Preakness Stakes to Derby winner Barbaro. Michael Matz, the ill-fated champion’s trainer, tells his young son, “You have to do it with confidence” when the boy skittishly pets Barbaro in the stable, and that’s the watchword for the driven, fixated lifers on display here.
The tall, sunny Matz, a former equestrian star, is too unflappable and cool to be the star of this doc. More memorable are Dale Romans, a deadpan, pear-shaped Kentuckian attempting to make his first Derby; Noo Yawker Frank Amonte, a newly promoted assistant who sweats and curses at every setback in the family business; and Dan Hendricks, trainer of the pre-race favorite, whose recent paralysis in a riding accident is described as a “six-week bump” in his career. Living with multiple sclerosis, another Kentucky native trains for his “father figure,” the ruling sheikh of Dubai. (The Sport of Kings, or at least of petroleum-enabled autocrats, indeed.)
Filmmakers John and Brad Hennegan get amusing scenes from how the pony-biz lifestyle is embraced by family and friends of the principals; Romans has both a Runyonesque preadolescent son who pulls a $1000 “brick” from his pocket (“Horses and poker, that’s his thing right now,” smiles Mom) and an omnipresent pal who throws back Jack Daniels with him on the golf course. But the strategies and daily grind of the season are too often kept at arm’s length. A new jockey is placed on a contender one race before the Derby for largely unexplained reasons, and there’s too little sense of the work behind a 60ish African-American groom’s pride in the horse for which he cares.
The pomp and rituals of the Derby Day sequence do have an emotional, festive pull, but then the Hennegans must follow the undercurrent of sadness in the celebration of Barbaro’s victory without letting the tragedy be their concluding note. The portraits of the competitors, and how the dramatic attrition built into the three-year-olds’ racing season breaks many of their hearts, may be deeper than those of an average network TV sports feature, but are not nearly as incisive as those of the contestants in Hands on a Hard Body—in which no nationally beloved animals die.