Beautiful horses, serene scenery, gripping human drama — KET's new documentary Thoroughbred has it all.
As sleek as a 3-year-old trotting down to start a Kentucky Derby, the film shows off the best of the world of Thoroughbred racing and glosses over many of the less attractive aspects. The film will premiere on KET at 8 p.m. Monday.
The documentary opens on the gritty backside of Aqueduct racetrack in New York, where I Want Revenge wins the 2009 Wood Memorial with a come-from-behind surge that starts him down the path to the Kentucky Derby.
His owner, former rock singer David Lanzman, got hooked on racing early. At 13, Lanzman sneaked into Hollywood Park and got a security guard to place bets.
He went from gambling to owning horses in 1991, and the film follows him on his heartbreaking journey to Churchill Downs. I Want Revenge, the favorite for the Derby, was scratched the morning of the big race.
The Kentucky Derby — winning it, losing it, missing it — is a defining moment for many in the film. There's Arthur Hancock, who took a yearling rejected by a buyer all the way to the top. Sunday Silence won the Derby and went on to become the top stallion ever in Japan.
There's Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who has spent millions upon millions in pursuit of his Derby dreams and so far fallen short.
There's Tom McCarthy, a retired school superintendent, taking his chances with his one and only Derby contender ever, General Quarters, who finished 10th.
There's John Veitch, who trained the great Alydar. In 1978, Alydar and Affirmed battled throughout their 3-year-old season, with Affirmed winning the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont to become Thoroughbred racing's last Triple Crown winner. But it was Alydar, the second-place finisher all the way, who became the champion sire for the storied Calumet Farm in Lexington.
"If you won the Derby all the time, it would be easy to understand why you loved horse racing," said Paul Wagner, the film's director. "If you don't win the Derby, if you never win the Derby, if you face the challenges of rarely winning, which is how most people have to deal with the game, I think it really raises the question, what is it that keeps you going? Why do you love the sport, why do you love the animal? Why do you love the competition?"
Wagner, who won an Oscar in 1984 for The Stone Carvers, has made a career of exploring folklore. He likened the horse industry to a hidden world in American society.
"The film tries to take a longer view, and I hope, in 10 years, it will be a film people will still want to see, that will still be true," Wagner said. "It's not necessarily about the most famous people, although we've got those; it's more about the whole idea of it."
While the film offers an intimate look at the Thoroughbred industry, it encompasses so much (hundreds of years of history) that the thread of tension sometimes gets lost.
And it barely acknowledges the controversies that have raged in the sport in recent years, such as fatal breakdowns, racing medication, the slaughter of retired racehorses and broodmares, or the devastating injuries of riders.
But there also are revealing moments, such as the discussion of racism by black stable workers, including one who said he could not gain acceptance as a trainer; and sexism, as seen through the eyes of female jockeys.
Framed by the racing and breeding year, the film also delves into the high-stakes gamble of Thoroughbred auctions.
In contrast to the barely perceptible head-nods of Sheikh Mohammed that mean thousands of dollars to the auctioneers, there's breeder and consignor Ben Walden, who shows what it really takes to get a horse sold, especially in this economy. Walden works the ring, talking up his yearlings to everyone he can, just looking to keep one from "falling through the cracks," he says.
The film ends back at the beginning: with the birth of a Point Given foal that was bred by Hancock. With its first wobbly steps, the cycle begins anew.
The documentary was the first production funded with KET's Endowment for Kentucky Productions, launched with a $500,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.