The First Saturday in May – Coming Full Circle

The First Saturday in May – Coming Full Circle

Ilana Cramer

Life has a beginning and an end, but rarely do things come full circle in an industry where people and horses seem to endure more losses than wins. For me, writing this article is a chance to take a look at my life completing one of those full circles. Let’s first backtrack a little bit.

In 2006, the world watched as Barbaro marked his place in history, winning the 132nd Kentucky Derby. As a 12-year-old self-proclaimed ‘horse girl’, the story of Barbaro struck a chord with me; The pageantry, his beauty, the athleticism, passion, the tragedy; it’s hard to sum up all of the reasons why I was hooked, but I just was.

A year later, my dad, an avid race tracker, took me on a father-daughter date night to see the documentary, "The First Saturday in May," at a small theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was once again immersed in the stories that spoke to me a year prior, especially parts focusing on trainer Michael Matz and Barbaro's story. 

Filmmakers Brad and John Hennegan would eventually win an Eclipse Award in 2007 for their spectacular behind-the-scenes visual journey of the Kentucky Derby trail. Now, a decade later, the film will be celebrated at Equestricon - the first international racing convention, fan festival and trade show.

Among more than 60 scheduled panels, workshops, seminars and other events scheduled at Equestricon is a 10th Anniversary screening of The First Saturday in May at the Saratoga Bow Tie Cinemas on Monday, August 14, at 6:30 pm. The film will be followed by a Q & A moderated by Churchill Downs' Jill Byrne and Joe Kristufek, and will feature members of the cast and crew. 

The opportunity to see the film again - and preview it here - amounts to one of those aforementioned first-circle moments for me.

Reliving the film and interviewing the very stars that unknowingly turned me from a fan to a fanatic starts with trainer Dale Romans. The gregarious Kentucky-born conditioner has had eight starters in the Kentucky Derby since 2006. Back when the film introduced viewers to Romans, he was experiencing it all for the first time, with Sharp Humor.  

“You saw in the movie that to get to the Derby, for me at that time, was a dream I never thought me and my family would achieve,” Romans said. “In ten years, a lot has changed, but there is still nothing like your first Derby.  Looking back at the movie now it reminds me what it felt like to achieve one of the first real dreams of my life. I get emotional watching my family and my children - how we have matured and grown.”

The Hennegan brothers filmed over five-hundred hours of footage following the top 3-year-old horses around the United States as they prepped, ran and trained for the Kentucky Derby. Brad and John succeeded in making a movie that not only captured the raw emotions and heartbreak of the Kentucky Derby trail, but also painted a picture of a thriving industry based on different generations, heart and pure determination.

“A common denominator in any story is family, and as a family growing up around the racetrack these were the kinds of people we knew growing up,” John Hennegan said. “It’s known as a Kentucky Derby movie, but really it is a movie about people, that just happens to be set at a racetrack.”

Horse racing is a business of chance. Underdogs can beat million dollar favorites and a misstep could change an outcome of any well-handicapped race. Capturing the stories of six trainers couldn’t have played out any better for the brothers, who gave the audience a rare glimpse into everyday life on the backside.

“The movie portrayed many different characters, yet everyone had the same core goal and same love for the horse,” Romans said. “I really enjoyed watching the movie and seeing how the other camps operate and how they think. It gives you a real perspective of how important the Derby is to everybody. Sometimes we can get caught up in ourselves so much that we forget about the competition, but they are out there doing the same thing, trying to achieve the same goal.”

“The movie is a time capsule,” Hennegan reflected. “If we would have done this a hundred more times, we could not have picked a better year than we did. There is a statue of one of the horses we followed in front of Churchill Downs. Talk about odds in horse racing - and what are the odds of that?”  

That horse, of course, is Barbaro. Though tragic, the life and untimely death of Barbaro, was also undeniably inspirational. Following Barbaro’s win in the Kentucky Derby, he was pulled up by jockey Edgar Prado in the Preakness Stakes. Later the world learned that Barbaro had fractured his leg. After an eight-month fight for his life, Barbaro succumbed to complications stemming from his injuries. The story had to be told and no one could have portrayed the feelings of the owners, trainers and a country more clearly than the Hennegan brothers.

“That roller-coaster and national attention Barbaro got was just unpredictable, it was really this national obsession,” Hennegan said. “The country latched onto this horse. This character became bigger than any achievement, he became this athlete that everyone cared about.

“We were following horses early on that are now footnotes in horse racing history. I think the trainers are all aware of this, but to have a horse that can run in the Derby or a Triple Crown race is a blessing; you can never take for granted how special the whole thing is.”

Rewatching the film, a flood of memories rushed back; I was transported back to that theater in Cambridge with my dad. A lot has transpired in the years since but the film hasn't lost any of its emotional punch.

Attendees at this historic convention will have a unique opportunity to relive the film the same way I did, or to experience it for the first time. Either way, the setting, timing and opportunity to directly engage with those behind the film makes this one of many must-attend events at Equestricon.