A Seat in the Bleachers: Derby film worth seeing

"The First Saturday in May" is a well-done film that appeals to non-racing fans, as well.

If you’ve ever been involved in newswriting, you’ve probably heard the tenet “Show, don’t tell.”

Don’t just tell someone a rose petal is “beautiful,” describe its gentle, velvety curvature and deep ruby red, how it flutters to the ground.

The readers will get it.

Two parallel images that I can’t shake from John and Brad Hennegan’s horse racing documentary, “The First Saturday in May,” are that of trainer Michael Matz

quietly coaxing his young son to pet Barbaro on the shoulder for the first time in the dark early morning hours at their shedrow, and later, a simple shot of white pickets whipping from right to left.

Although a steady procession of horse silhouettes cross slowly in the foreground to temporarily block your view, your eyes are riveted to the rite of passage between Matz’s anxious little boy and the equally anxious gigantic horse. It’s priceless.

There’s nothing visually extraordinary about the blur of pickets, but out in the glare of sunlight at Churchill Downs, they signal that the months of patient preparation are over, and it’s finally time for the 2006 Kentucky Derby horses — and your heart — to start racing.

The Hennegans shine a light on all this good stuff.

Unabashed champions of racing at a time when there are signs

everywhere — except maybe our little Shangri-La at Saratoga Race Course — that the sport is withering, the Hennegans are attempting to show non-racing fans another side of it, and they pull it off spectacularly.

Go see it. The 95-minute movie is showing once more tonight at 7 at the Saratoga Film Forum and will likely be showing somewhere in Saratoga Springs during the meet this summer, or you can reserve a copy of the DVD starting on Thursday. Check their Web site, www.-thefirstsaturdayinmay.com.

The film traces the paths of six trainers as they attempt to get their horses to the Run for the Roses, and anyone who has seen a “reality” TV show will be familiar with the format.

The difference is the Hennegans don’t wallow in cliches, sentimentality or sensationalism. It’s just good storytelling, whether you know a fetlock from a pastern or not.

The Hennegans, who grew up on the backstretch and whose father worked in racing for decades, went out of their way to make the mysterious cocktail of racing life comprehensible to their target audience by picking the Kentucky Derby as a venue and by keeping the jargon and exposition to a minimum. They provide just enough context and let their characters, who span the entire spectrum of social standing, speak for themselves.

“Our goal all along was to try to contribute to making the sport cool again,” John Hennegan said. “Everyone knows the Kentucky Derby, so we took the lowest-hanging fruit and put the spotlight on that trail.”

Hennegan is proud to point out that “The First Saturday in May,” a genuine example of DIY independent filmmaking, is enjoying twice the per-screen average number of viewers as Morgan Spurlock’s “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?” and is being held over at arthouses in some of the biggest markets.

What you see are the threads that join such seemingly disparate souls as the gaunt, hyperkinetic motormouth Frank Amonte Jr., buzzing around the cold cement of Aqueduct in New York, and the doughy, amiably taciturn Bob Holthus at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark.

A rose, by any other name . . .

Categories: Sports

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