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On Friday night at the Keeneland sales pavilion in Lexington, Ky., Paul Wagner’s documentary Thoroughbred premiered to a live audience. The movie will have its broadcast premier on Kentucky Educational Television March 8 at 8 p.m. and is expected to run nationally on Public Broadcasting Stations later this year.

Wagner already has won an Academy Award for The Stone Carvers, an independent documentary about the Italian immigrant stone workers who created the gargoyles and statues of the Washington Cathedral.

In that film, as well as in Thoroughbred, Wagner shows a storyteller’s eye for the incidents and characters that catch the interest of the public. From the hours of film interviews and sweeping video of the sport, the director manages to distill much of the essence of the sport into a single documentary.

Wagner manages the storytelling by weaving the action of the racetrack and the pastoral beauty of the farms into a cycle of birth and resolution. Working back and forth between the farm and the track, Wagner covers the story of two Kentucky Derby prospects from 2009, Imperial Council and I Want Revenge, through the upset victory of game little Mine That Bird on the first Saturday in May.

It is the reality of racing that both horses fail in their ultimate goal. And this story shows the disappointments, as well as the exultant joys, of life in racing. Wagner handles his material with subtlety, and what could be more fundamentally realistic in a film than seeing a massively talented horse sidelined with a relatively moderate injury? I Want Revenge, the Derby favorite who was scratched hours before the race, has not raced since.

Supporting and filling in details around that line of narrative are insights into Thoroughbred breeding, the horse sales, international owners, and the horsemen who make Thoroughbreds their life’s work. In all, the movie Thoroughbred gives its audience a good sense of what being in the Thoroughbred world of Kentucky is like.

That is part of the documentary’s success and was key to its development because the film is funded by KET’s Commonwealth Endowment for Kentucky Productions.

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