John & Brad Hennegan Directors, Producers and Writers,
"The First Saturday in May"
Thursday, April 3, 2008
After working for others for too many years, Long Island, New York natives and brothers John and Brad Hennegan quit their jobs and started working for themselves on a project that they believed in. Their goal was to make horse racing cool again by telling the stories of the hard-working, dedicated and resilient individuals who dedicate their lives to the horses they love.
The result is their movie, "The First Saturday in May." The documentary follows six diverse trainers ' as well as the mighty Barbaro - as they jockey for position along the 2006 Kentucky Derby trail. During the making of the movie, the Hennegan's spent thousands of hours with trainers Michael Matz, Dan Hendricks, Bob Holthus, Dale Romans, Kiaran McLaughlin, and Frank Amonte and their horses. From Hot Springs in Arkansas to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, the movie tells the story of the dedicated men and women that make the "Sport of Kings" tick.
The movie opens with a nationwide release on April 18. The movie's official website, http://www.thefirstsaturdayinmay.com/, has a video trailer, theater release schedule, and more.
If you need more of an incentive to see this movie, the Hennegan Brothers have pledged 25 percent of the box office revenues from the opening week to the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation - the worldwide leader in equine research. Please visit http://www.grayson-jockeyclub.org/default.asp for more information.
Good luck with the movie guys, any plans to release it in south Florida?
Thanks. We're dying to screen in Florida but - as we are distributing the film in conjunction with Churchill Downs through Mark Cuban's Landmark Theatre chain - we're mostly in places where Landmark has a theatre. It's an awesome list of America's finest cities (http://www.thefirstsaturdayinmay.com/2008/03/11/opening-in-a-city-near-you/) but, unfortunately, they don't own any cinemas in Florida. We've been able to add a few non Landmark theaters - Lexington, Louisville and Florence, KY to name a few - but we don't have the time nor the lobbyists to get it in everywhere.
What we've asking our fans to do is go to their local art house theatre and tell them they'd be stupid not to have this film in the two weeks leading up to the Derby. When alerted to this, most agree and have added it. So go out in West Palm or Lauderdale and South Beach, plead our case and have them contact us thru our website. You can make a difference south Florida racing fan man or woman! Also, have the theater owner and your friends to check out the trailer http://www.thefirstsaturdayinmay.com/view-the-trailer/. It's the most effective way to get them excited about it.
Any chance you know Kirk Kerkorian? He owns a theater chain in So Cal (http://www.kptmovies.com/locations/ ) and we want to play in his theatres but we don't really hang in his crowd. Kirk, are you reading this? Hook us up! We'll put butts in the seats.
First of all I want to commend you guys for not only following your dreams but for documenting the side of racing that most average fans don't get to see. My question is, have you both been lifelong horse racing fans and when did you first get the idea of creating this film? Thanks and I look forward to your future projects.
Thanks. Our father was a racing official for the NYRA for 37 years and his father was also involved in racing in Maryland...so yes we have always been big fans of the game. We had written a script about horse racing that was too hard to get off the ground, so we decided we wanted to make a documentary following the road to the Kentucky Derby. We are big fans of 'Hoop Dreams' and wanted to make a horse racing version of that film, which we consider to be the 'Citizen Kane' of sports documentaries. After watching the amazing stories surrounding Funny Cide and Smarty Jones, we decided to test the feasibility of making a film like this by following the trail (on paper) to the 2005 Derby and one of the horses we followed was Afleet Alex.
I really hope this movie comes to North Carolina! It looks fantastic! What was the hardest part about making this film and what was most rewarding? Will it be shown in North Carolina?
The movie will come to Carolina if you go bug your local art house theater guy (or girl).
Believe you me, we want it in Raleigh and Wilmington and Charlotte and Nags Head and Kannapolis (Earnhardt territory) and Roanoke Rapids (where are Mom is from) and Winston Salem and Gastonia and Asheville . . . alright enough. We want it to be in all those places. But it's up to you. You can make a difference. Build it and they will come.
We thought the hard part would be shooting and editing the film. We shot over 500 hundred hours of footage and traveled over 150,000 miles. Editing those hours into 98 minutes was an herculean task, but it didn't even come close to what it takes to get a truly independent film into the marketplace. If you're not the 'Warner Brothers', or the Farrely Brothers, it's impossible even to get someone to return your phone call. We had a lot of support from friends and family, but it has really been the horse racing media that has fueled our grassroots effort. We salute you. As for everything else, though - all the heavy lifting - the majority of the workload fell upon the two of us.
The most rewarding part of all of this is that the film itself turned out better than we could have possibly imagined. We are humbled by the response from the audience at the film festivals and the critics that have taken the time to watch our film. We believe horse racing is the greatest sport in the world and we wanted to make an entertaining movie that could possibly help grow the sport by appealing to more than just racing fans.
I can't wait to see the movie; before you made the movie did you own horses or just fans of racing? And what surprised you about the horse racing industry?
As we said above, our father was a racing official and all of our summer jobs growing up were at the track scooping ice cream, manure, wiping off seats, etc. And everything we saw in Hollywood about horse racing was so lame - stereotypes of elitism, race fixing and glue factories. So we wanted to paint a more accurate picture.
The most surprising thing was how helpful and accessible all the trainers were in working with us on this film. Dan Hendricks, Michael Matz, Dale Romans, Bob Holthus, Frank Amonte, Kiaran McLaughlin, Pat Byrne, the late Frank Gomez, Doug O'Neill and many others opened their barns to us and allowed us to mic them up at 4AM every morning. We can't begin to say how much we appreciate their trust in us and we're happy to say that they all love the film.
The racetrack careers of all the horses featured in your film have ended. However, your original film was completed prior to the end of Lawyer Ron's career. Do you plan to amend your film to include Lawyer Ron's brilliant 2007 campaign?
Actually Brother Derek's back. He took a year off to "find himself" and backpacked around Europe. His parents told us he was just trying to avoid getting a real job at his dad's law firm. Seriously though, Brad spoke with his trainer, Dan Hendricks, the other day and he's been working great.
At the end of the day, we could have extended the chapters on a few of the storylines but the movie would have been too long and we would have lost the new fans we were trying to attract. Also would have been expensive to re-cut!
Don't think we're going back to amend the film, but maybe they'll be a TFSIM sequel and we'll visit Lawyer Ron and spotlight his new "career".
Hi guys, I met you both at the Belmont Stakes 2006 (Barbaro shirts). With as well as this movie is being received I am sure you are not going back to the jobs you quit, so what's next?
Hi again. We have a couple of other horse racing projects in development with a few non racing projects, as well. Wanna finance them? Hopefully, people will go out and see the film and we won't have to go back and try to get our old jobs back. Right now, we are just out tirelessly promoting "The First Saturday in May."
Los Angeles, CA:
Hey guys, the only race from the Triple Crown that Del Mar, Santa Anita and Breeders' Cup race announcer Trevor Denman announced was the Preakness Stakes when he was the race announcer from Pimlico in 1989 and 1990. Who are your favorite announcers and did you deal with the Triple Crown announcers during filming?
We like the fact that at each track, you have that different voice and style like announcers of your favorite sports team - like Harry Caray or Vin Scully. You've got your Tom Durkin in NY, your Trevor D out West, your Terry Wallace at Oaklawn. We grew up listening to Marshall Cassidy and Dave Johnson - two all-time great voices.
I can't wait to see the film. Can you give us some insight into Barbaro's personality?
He loved watching SURVIVOR, pounding Mr. Pibb and listening to Twisted Sister in his stall .... just kidding! The one thing that struck us about Barbaro was that he was always raring to go once he approached the track in the a.m. and seemed mad he was leaving after the workout. That really sticks out in our minds. He seemed to love the camera too. Really inquisitive about the microphone. It was interesting that when we first started shooting Barbaro there was absolutely no one around, besides Michael Matz, Peter Brette and the rest of the Matz stable.
To see the press army grow and grow as the Derby approached was fun to watch.
Congratulations on your film; everything I've read indicates it's a truly a great achievement for you two. I can think of only several million people who are waiting to see it! While I'm aware it will be in nationwide release just before the Derby, I somehow know it will not be in one of our local theaters. So, when will it be made available for purchase on DVD? Thanks for making the film, for doing it so well, and for being so lucky as to be with Barbaro before his Derby.
Thank you for the kind words Vesuvius denizen. You're located smack dab in the middle between our alma maters (UVA and Roanoke). We hope you're right about the several million. We'll take several hundred thousand! The DVD can be pre-bought (is that a word?) a few days before the Derby at our website (www.thefirstsaturdayinmay.com) and will be shipped soon after our theatrical run ends. I'd love to give you the exact day, but we're still working on it. Please go to our website and register for updates. And tell your friends. Did we mention that you should tell your friends?
I have seen previews of your movie and I am so excited to see it. What was your favorite part about filming the movie?
Making a lot of new, cool friends in racing. We will feel fortunate to call all of the people in our film good friends now. Traveling to Dubai was pretty cool, too. We were also pleasantly surprised by Oaklawn Park where we met Bob Holthus and Chuck Chambers. The folks at Oaklawn love their horse racing.
It was also cool riding the wave. We didn't know what the hell was going to happen from one race to the next. It's easy to look back now and look at Barbaro as a legend but at that time - in the moment - he was just another promising three-year-old.
Did you do the famous "walk-over" from the barn area to the paddock for the Derby? I've always heard that's as thrilling as actually winning the race.
We didn't do the walk-over. We gave cameras to Michelle Matz (Michael's daughter), Bruce Romans (Dale's brother), and Chris Hendricks (Dan's son) and the footage was amazing. It turned out to have a much more intimate, home movie feel that really works well in the film. However, we would love to do that walkover at some point. Let's by a horse and make it happen friend from Crestwood!
Major films were made about the careers of Seabiscuit and Phar Lap. In a fantasy match race over 9 furlongs, which horse would prevail?
think 'The Black' from the Black stallion would win. Hmmm'I'll have to watch Phar Lap again, it's been awhile. It would also depend on whether Seabiscuit had Tobey Maguire up or Gary Stevens. If Gary's riding I got my $$ on him.
What was your reaction to the news of Barbaro's death?
It was really sad. We really felt bad for the entire staff at the New Bolton Center and Michael Matz, Peter Brette, The Jacksons and especially Barbaro's groom Eduardo. They all spent so many hours with him and loved him.
How did you get into the movie-making business? If you weren't doing this, what else would you see yourselves doing?
My first job in the industry was working as a production assistant working for Martha Stewart on her weekly show back in 1996. It was very glamorous; I drove members of the crew up to CT at 3:30 a.m. most mornings, and spent my day picking up garbage around the set. I even put some drinks on ice for the crew. Every kid's dream.
To answer your second question, I coached lacrosse for a year after college'maybe I would go back to doing that. Hopefully I can make more films after this one.
Stamping Ground, KY:
With the price of high-end cameras dropping all the time, and so many people now carrying cameras around and capturing seemingly every moment in time, are the days of the professional movie-maker numbered? Has making movies become a commodity?
There will always be the big budget films'.we just hope there is room for the little guys. It's really hard for a tiny film like ours to go into theaters against Cloverfield, Ironman or Indiana Jones 17 (or whatever number they are up to) and hope to make a little noise. A big film's advertising budget is usually around $50 million where ours was around $5 thousand.
If you could travel back in time and change anything that happened during your making of the movie, what would it be?
I would have liked a 6 horse dead head to win the Kentucky Derby.
How difficult or easy was it to get access to the tracks, trainers, owners, etc? And what, if any, restrictions did they place on what and when you could shoot?
All the trainers were amazing. We were around so often they kind of forget that we were shooting. We tried to stay out of their way as much as possible and just try to capture the moment.
Los Angeles, CA:
What were some of the more difficult obstacles that you faced while in production?
Trying to get coverage. We were usually at two different tracks at the same time with one camera, so it was very difficult to capture all that was going on especially on big race days.
You both grew up spending time near Saratoga, what were your favorite memories of the track and the most awesome performances you remember of any particular horse race?
We grew up in Huntington, Long Island and spent a lot of time at Belmont Park. Our father was a racing official for the NYRA and every August our family moved to Saratoga for the month. One race that sticks in my head for some reason is the 1982 Travers Stakes when Conquistador Cielo was upset by Runaway Groom with Jeff Fell up.
You could not make up characters like the Romans family. Did you choose the horse the horse because of the people?
In all cases, we looked at not only the horse, but the horse's connections. Dale and his family are a great family and they've been very good to us. But, a bit of warning' never play poker with their son Jake. He'll take your money.
Knowing as much as I do about indie film making and distribution as I do horse racing (that is to say, nothing), both strike me as endeavors of passion-- you have to almost suspend belief to have any hope of realizing your dream. Do you think you can now even more closely identify with the six trainers you followed in the ramp-up to the 2006 Derby? BTW-- thanks for working with our local indie hero in Baltimore, the Senator Theatre's Tom Kiefaber, to bring your remarkable "The First Saturday in May" to the home of the second jewel in the Triple Crown.
Absolutely. They say in horseracing that 40,000 babies are born each year and only 20 make it to the gate at the Kentucky Derby. The odds feel pretty much the same for independent film makers. Tom is great guy and we can't wait to play in the Senator Theatre before the Preakness. Please support your local independent cinema.
Farmington Hills, MI:
Congrats on the great reviews. How difficult was it to film on so many different geographic fronts in such a short amount of time and still be able to adequately convey the stories from each of the six camps? Are there any human connections of the six horses you wish you could've spent more time around?
As I said we shot over 500 hours of footage and we could probably still make another pretty good film with the tape left on the cutting room floor. We probably have 30-40 hours of Barbaro footage that we'd like to be able to use at some point. And, we also followed Doug and Dennis O'Neill and West Point Thoroughbred's Flashy Bull. Terry Finley from West Point was great and does make a small cameo in the film.
There are some real characters in your film -- do you have a favorite you followed?
Honestly, they are all favorites for different reasons, otherwise they wouldn't be in the film. It's interesting to hear people talk after screenings, it seems that everyone has a favorite character.
I can't wait to see the movie guys. A fashion question, how many 'wardrobe changes' does Bonnie Holthus go through in your production?
Bonnie is not only extremely well-dressed, but a hell of a handicapper ' not kidding. She's rumored to have an entire horse trailer full of hats.
Daytona Beach, FL:
With all the interesting stories in horse racing, from the backstretch to the winners circle, why are there not more movies/documentaries being made?
Great question. If people come out to support this film, there will be more made. When a film of a certain genre makes money it's easier for the next one to get made. A good example of this is the way that a good TV show gets its spinoffs. How many crime scene investigator shows are there?
Hot Springs, AR:
If you two had to pick a horse in the Arkansas Derby right now, who would it be(from the known starters)?And who do you two like for the Kentucky Derby?
John: Since Sierra Sunset is out and Denis of Cork skipped town, I don't even know who's in it.
Brad: In terms of the Derby, it's still way to early but I'll be even more obvious by throwing Big Brown in with Pyro and for our triple chalk special why not throw War Pass in too? We would love to see our guys get their horses in the Derby. Matz has Visionaire. Dan Hendricks has Indian Sun and Dale Romans has Halo Najib 'hey why not?
John: I am a master handicapper. I picked Cowtown Cat last year and he finished last. So this year I go with . . . the Larry Jones filly!
Great movie guys! If this film is a success, will you do this for future Derbys? I would love to see this every year!
Thanks. We would love to do it every year and we are working on making that happen. Are you listening ESPN? NBC? Anyone? Hopefully, if 'The First Saturday in May' does well the networks will show some interest.
I recall reading that you continued to follow Barbaro during his struggle to recover from his injury in the Preakness. Will that footage be included in this movie? Are you planning a DVD release as well?
We do touch on Barbaro's struggle at the end of the film and some day we would like to release more of our footage of him we just haven't found the time. We are going to sell the DVD this May. Log on to our website and register. We might even start pre-selling it right after the Derby and ship it before the Belmont.
Brad and John, I saw your movie while in Arizona in December and it was great. Exceeded my expectations because it was more entertainment than I was expecting from a documentary. Did you have any trainers and/or racetracks that refused to cooperate with your project?
Thanks for the kind words. As for tracks that refused us - nope. Everyone was cool.
Were there any "happy accidents" during a shoot that ultimately made the cut?
The whole golf scene. It actually wasn't an accident but we never thought it would be such a crowd pleaser.
Thank you so much for making this movie, I think a lot more like it should be made. Did you learn anything that surprised you while you were making this film?
I had never spent so much time with horses to really see their individual personalities. Jazil was very laid back and almost like a family's golden retriever. Brother Derek was a mean SOB and would bite you if he had the chance. Barbaro was really inquisitive and he always wanted to run.
The other thing that was surprising was that making the film was the easy part. The attempt to separate from the pack and get people to care about it is an uphill, draining battle. And we're still battling.
LAST UPDATED: Thursday, April 3 @ 1:13 p.m. (ET)
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