08/24/2007 12:00AM

Filmmaking brothers get it right


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The best horse racing movie of this or many other years is not a big-bucks Hollywood fantasy or one of those lavish Ruffian or Barbaro tear-jerkers from ESPN or HBO. It's "The First Saturday in May," a $500,000 documentary shot in digital video by Brad and John Hennegan, sons of a longtime racetrack official who quit their video-production jobs two years ago to make their first film, a chronicle of the road to the 2006 Kentucky Derby.

You probably haven't seen it, and won't for a while, unless you're a film-festival buff. It made its debut last April at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, where it finished second of 180 films in the voting for audience favorite. It will be shown at upcoming festivals in Newark, Del., Vancouver, and Hot Springs as the Hennegans try to line up a deal for a theatrical release next spring before the Derby.

"We're going to the major studios and we've had a couple of offers, but we really want to wait for the right one," John Hennegan said Friday while en route to Saratoga for the Travers. "Getting an indie film released the right way is always a challenge. We also have the option of releasing it ourselves."

The brothers, now 38 (John) and 35 (Brad), grew up around the racetrack as the sons of John Hennegan Sr., a placing and patrol judge at New York tracks for 37 years. They both ended up working at the College Sports Television Network but left their jobs in 2005 to chase their own dream of making a movie about racetrackers chasing theirs.

"We were tired of working for The Man," John Hennegan said. "I had a camera and I'd shot wedding videos. We wanted to do something for racing. We just felt that most movies and marketing people didn't 'get it' about racing. We want to make this game relevant to our generation and show people why the racetrack is the coolest place on the planet."

Their experience around the backstretch growing up meant they knew how to act around horses and horsemen, and they were granted extraordinary access by the trainers and Derby colts they ended up tailing for months: Frank Amonte and Achilles of Troy; Dan Hendricks and Brother Derek; Bob Holthus and Lawyer Ron; Kiaran McLaughlin and Jazil; Dale Romans and Sharp Humor; and, of course, Michael Matz and Barbaro. To their credit, they dealt with the subsequent Barbaro saga as an afternote rather than rearranging the entire movie around what might have been its most commercial hook.

The Hennegans are not only born racetrackers but born storytellers. They masterfully weave together the stories of the six horses and make you like their handlers so much that you find yourself rooting for all five who made it to the race, even though you know how it's going to turn out. The pacing is flawless, picking up as the story moves through the prep season with footage from Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Keeneland, Oaklawn, Santa Anita, and Dubai. By the time Derby Day arrives, you're as keyed up as the participants.

This is not a film that peers into dark corners. Topics such as medication, the economics of breeding and racing, and any mention of handicapping and betting are not part of their scope, but you don't miss it because the human-interest stories are so compelling. What makes them that way is that they are absolutely genuine, with no Hollywood bending of the facts, no made-for-TV forced pathos, and not a single tinkling piano riff to alert you to scripted emotions. In lesser hands, Hendricks's paralysis or McLaughlin's battle with multiple sclerosis could have been mawkish wallows, but here they are presented as facts of life being overcome by people who are still overjoyed to wake up every morning and work with good horses. The movie's ultimate triumph is that it makes you feel good about racing without a single staged feel-good moment.

"We wanted to keep it simple because we want this to be a crossover movie," Hennegan said. "We want to do more and different things about racing in the future, but we wanted this to be straightforward: 40,000 horses born each year, 20 make it to the Derby, here's how they get there, here's why this is the coolest game in the world."

A DVD will be available sometime next year, and visitors to Saratoga will be able to see it for many summers thereafter: Showing an appreciation for the film as yet absent from the major studios, the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame here has already arranged with the Hennegan brothers to make regular screenings of the movie a permanent museum offering after its theatrical run.

It's the perfect venue: As racing movies go, this one's a Hall of Famer.