Just in time for Saturday's Kentucky Derby, Creative Loafing's Allison C. Keene reviews The First Saturday in May, now playing at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema:
"Big hats, mint juleps and the chance of winning the betting lotto aren't the only great things about the Kentucky Derby. Horses are there, too.
For the documentary The First Saturday in May, about the path to winning the first race of the Triple Crown, directors Brad and John Hennegan do their part to paint an instantly engaging and beautiful portrayal of the drama, determination and heartache in the lives of those dreaming of the winner's circle at Churchill Downs in 2006. You donât need insider knowledge to understand the racing world that the Hennegans present, though viewers may already be familiar with this particular story. In 2006, a fiercely talented horse named Barbaro won the Derby only to be struck down later with an ultimately fatal fracture during the Preakness. Barbaro's role in the film doesn't become the main focus until his win, with a brief coda about his tragic aftermath (for more on Barbaro and the controversy of his surgeries, click here), though for those who know what's coming, even his first appearance brings a hint a sadness.
The First Saturday in May concentrates on the lives of six very different trainers from all across the United States, including their backgrounds, their families, and their dreams of winning the big race. From the start, the documentary feels a little like a reality show, and could easily spawn some kind of "Top Trainer" series. But First Saturday presents our hopeful "contestants" without picking favorites; everyone's collective blood pressure will rise with each Derby qualifier, and knowing the outcome of the big race doesn't at all diminish the drama. Not all of the trainers will make it to the Derby, and not all of the horses will perform well there. Those who do suddenly appear in a very different light.
Though the directors insist that the story is not just about Barbaro (and it really isn't), one leaves the film wondering what exactly it was about this horse that caught the passion and interest of America (as tweaked by The Onion). He had something special, and his presence (alone makes the film more compelling. First Saturday takes a lively and enjoyable look at those beautiful but fragile thoroughbreds and those who coax them to greatness. It's definitely worth a bet."