Gambling. Race fixing. Doping scandals. Pop culture too often depicts horse racing’s dark side, says filmmaker John Hennegan (Col ’90). And so The First Saturday in May sheds light. A paean to the pastime, it’s Hennegan’s debut documentary, a collaboration with his brother, Brad. “We want to make the sport cool again,” he says of the insider’s view of the 2006 season, “like it was in the ’30s and ’40s. We tell everybody, ‘It’s the coolest sport you’re not paying attention to.’”
The siblings have been paying attention for a long time: they grew up around tracks and jockeys at Belmont, Saratoga and Aqueduct, their dad a New York Racing Association official for 37 years. A few years ago, Hennegan says, “We decided to quit our jobs and give something back to the sport.” Those jobs were in film and television, Brad a creative director and John working in development and production alongside such directors as Betty Thomas (28 Days) and fellow alumnus Mark Pellington (Col ’84) (The Mothman Prophecies). In July 2005, they pooled their savings for an equestrian odyssey that led them from Dubai—“Racing is huge there,” Hennegan says—to the Kentucky Derby and ended with the thrifty pair shooting 450 hours of footage for less than $100,000. Brad ran the camera in California and Arkansas; John covered the East Coast action in New York, Florida and Kentucky.
The First Saturday in May—the title refers to the Kentucky Derby’s time-honored date—gets close up on a clutch of trainers and their promising 2-year-old colts, Brother Derek, Lawyer Ron, Jazil, Sharp Humor, Achilles of Troy and eventual Derby victor Barbaro. Seabiscuit might have whetted the public’s appetite for a horse-racing flick, but Hennegan lists as a closer precedent the 1994 triumph-over-adversity basketball documentary Hoop Dreams: “Our movie is all real. It’s human drama. And there’s something for everyone.” The trainers become novelistic character studies: a former Olympic equestrian medalist; a stoic battling recent paralysis; a hardworking guy from Queens; a Kentuckian contender dealing with multiple sclerosis whose clients are sheiks. The story ends with Barbaro’s ascension and fall, when he suffered a tragic leg injury in the Preakness.
The film was shown at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival and Hennegan hopes it will become his calling card to a career making documentaries. Two other UVA alumni, producer Ellen Dux (Col ’89) and associate producer Mark Krewatch (Col ’90), teamed up with the duo, and John’s expectations are high for the ensemble effort: “Everyone we’ve screened it for just loves it.”