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Teresa Genaro is a high school English teacher and freelance turf writer whose work has appeared in a variety of turf publications. A former and erstwhile resident of Saratoga Springs, she lives in Brooklyn and writes about New York racing at Brooklyn Backstretch.

Paul Wagner and the Wood Memorial

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Filmmaker Paul Wagner has a particular fondness for the Wood Memorial. In his documentary,Thoroughbred: Born to Run, the road
to the 2009 Kentucky Derby begins at Aqueduct.

Wagner is an Academy Award-winning documentarian who grew up in Louisville. “My father grew up,” he said recently by phone from Virginia, “on Southern Parkway, about a block from the backside of Churchill Downs. He used to tell me stories about when he was a little boy, back probably in the 1930’s, 40’s; he and his buddies would go over to the track, and the people who worked on the backside would cut a hole in the fence and charge them a nickel to get in.”

Wagner grew up in Louisville and lives in Charlottesville, Virginia now, and after decades as a filmmaker, he finally got around to making the movie that he’s been thinking about for decades. “I always thought that horseracing would make a terrific film,” he said.

Thoroughbred: Born To Run is about more than the Kentucky Derby; it offers viewers glimpses into many aspects of the racing business, including breeding, sales, and history. But Wagner does follow several horses on the road to Louisville, among them I Want Revenge and Imperial Council, both of whom prepped for the Kentucky Derby in the 2009 Wood Memorial.

“I feel a real connection to the Wood,” Wagner offered enthusiastically. “It’s an incredible race. I love the Wood as a prep; I think its timing is good in relation to the Derby, and I was pleased that we could get up there and film it that year. I loved that we could contrast Imperial Council’s group and David Lanzman.”

Imperial Council was trained by Shug McGaughey and owned by Sequoia Racing, a partnership based in Lexington and run by Reynolds Bell, whose Bluegrass roots run deep. I Want Revenge was trained by Jeff Mullins, a California trainer with a reputation as a maverick; the colt was owned by Lanzman, a former rock and roll singer based in Los Angeles.

The 2009 Wood lends itself to dramatic re-telling: I Want Revenge, the odds-on favorite, broke badly, got stuck between horses, went five wide and won going away.

Shortly after the race, the news broke that the scratch earlier on the card of another Mullins starter, Gato Go Win, had been due to a detention barn violation. Imperial Council, the second choice in the race, finished fifth, ending his Derby dreams. A month later, I Want Revenge, Derby favorite, was scratched on the morning of the race. 

Asked about a pick for this year’s race, Wagner evinces Derby disappointment. Early in the film, Arthur Hancock ventures out to a paddock and hears from an employee, Everett “Powell” Charles, about the tenacity of a young colt who, in the middle of a storm, reared up, trying, apparently, to fight the elements. “He was pawing at the rain, like a boxer,” said Charles, awed. “This one’s a man among men,” observed Hancock, looking at the horse who was not more than a few months old. That colt was Arthur’s Tale, second by a neck in this year’s Wood. Arthur’s Tale is bred by Stone Farm and owned by Darley Stable; he was purchased for $750,000 at the 2009 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale.

“I thought that he was going to qualify for the Derby, but he came up a little bit lame. I was so excited,” lamented Wagner. “He’s named after Arthur Hancock.” So with his sentimental favorite off the Derby trail, who is Wagner’s pick in this year’s race? He goes back to the Wood, to the horse that beat the colt featured in his movie.

Wagner’s pick in the 2011 Derby?  “Toby’s Corner,” he said.


Thoroughbred: Born To Run is airing this week on PBS. In the New York area, it airs on WNET (channel 13) on Wednesday, May 4 at 10 pm. Check local listings for your area.

Photos courtesy of NYRA, Adam Coglianese

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