Award winning documentary filmmaker Paul Wagner.
File photo/Jen Fariello
From political strife in Tibet to Irish dancing to America's polio epidemic, documentary filmmaker Paul Wagner has followed his diverse interests and turned them into award winning films. His latest effort, Thoroughbred, took him deep into the world of horse racing.
"It's really a rich area, with its own little subculture," says Wagner. "I thought it would be great to paint a portrait since it isn't known to most people except once a year."
That once a year takes place in the spring with the Triple Crown races, and Wagner, who won an Academy Award in 1985 for The Stone Carvers, a short documentary on the artisans whose work adorns the National Cathedral in Washington, traces his interest in "America's oldest sport" back to his Kentucky childhood when his father would tell him stories about sneaking through a hole in a fence as a kid to watch the Kentucky Derby.
Opportunity to explore horseracing on film presented itself when Kentucky Educational TV contacted Wagner several years ago asking him to produce and direct a documentary on the subject.
With a budget of "a few hundred thousand," Wagner and his crew, including his filmmaking partner and wife, Ellen Casey Wagner, spent three years making the movie, traveling from Kentucky to Dubai during 2009, interviewing the people who make up the world of horseracing from the modest grooms to one of the richest men in the world, Sheikh Mohammed, royal ruler of Dubai.
"He bid $3 million for a horse that's never been on a track," says Wagner.
There is a dark side to horseracing, the filmmaker acknowledges– from the fate of "retired horses" who are often neglected or turned into meat to the illegal use of steroids.
"This is a big issue," says Wagner, who says his film doesn't focus on the problems but is instead an "anthropological study."
"A lot of people in the industry are trying to do something about those issues," he notes, describing increased efforts to retrain racehorses as pleasure horses but adding that there's still some ground to cover before the problems are solved.
"I hope that the film can help the sport reform itself and revitalize it a little bit for the future," says Wagner.
The Farmington Hunt Club sponsors the Thursday, April 14 showing of Thoroughbred at The Paramount Theater. A Q&A with Wagner and Kentucky Breeder Arthur B. Hancock III takes place after the screening. A portion of proceeds benefits the Piedmont Environmental Council. Film at 6pm. $16.50 adult/$11 Children. $75 VIP tickets.
Thoroughbred also airs at 9pm on May 5 on PBS.