Decadent Derby - by Evan Hammonds

(Originally published in the May 2, 2009 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)  

One of Louisville’s favorite sons, the legendary (and late) Hunter S. Thompson, added his own flair to the art of news reporting and journalism in the 1970s with his “Gonzo” brand of writing. His books, essays, and columns continue to be must reading for those of us of a certain vintage.

One of his first major published pieces was a magazine article titled “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” a first-person narrative that chronicles his alcohol-soaked exploits in and around Churchill Downs at the 1970 Run for the Roses. And after 39 years, the story holds up remarkably well.

Thompson’s wild and wooly weekend in Louisville, full of fear and loathing and liberal doses of the “management’s Scotch,” is a rollicking tale not of the race, but of the event.

“And unlike most of the others in the press box, we didn’t give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track. We had come there to watch the real beasts perform.”

Thompson could capture the pop culture of his day in a paragraph. He was at his best when he was able to take a caricature of a stereotype and gallop it out another eighth of a mile past the finish.

While the actual results of the race are whittled down to a paragraph near the end of the piece, Thompson does note that jockey Diane Crump was about to make history as the first female rider to make the Derby field.

Churchill Downs and the Derby have come a long way since then.

The article, while once likely a sore spot for many top-level managers at Churchill Downs, now has a new home, proudly displayed on the Web site. Shocking.

Marketing, branding, and corporate sponsorships have taken a lot of the individuality out of not only the Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, but all major sporting events in this country, from college football bowl games, to the World Series, to events like the Indy 500 and New York City Marathon.

“The grim reaper comes early in this league…” Thompson’s words carry an even heavier air in this era. While Thompson swilled a “double Old Fitz on ice” in 1970, today Woodford Reserve is a corporate and race sponsor.

To stay current with the times, selling major sporting events requires something edgier. The pomp, pageantry, and color of Thoroughbred racing isn’t going to bring people to the track these days.

Today’s Churchill Downs and Derby has been positioned a lot differently. Not only can you go to the infield and have a good time, you can hang with Churchill Downs’ “Chief Party Officer.”

We’ll likely catch up with Churchill’s second CPO, Nick “Rinickulous” Ferrara, during some backstretch hijinks during Derby week, but it’s doubtful he, or last year’s representative, Tim “Stymie” Snyder, could sprint the first six furlongs with Thompson.

Readers of The Blood-Horse are the insiders to this greatest of games played outdoors. At some point this week, we need to take a moment or two and step back and accept the Derby for what it is to the general public: a rite of spring; a long week’s party that just happens to have a two-minute Thoroughbred race at the end of it. Most patrons today would think My Morning Jacket is the best rock band to come out of the Derby city, not something they left at home on their way to watch the workouts.

We’ve been witness to a few things over the last decade in Louisville. During Derby week, we’ve chatted with all walks of life from grade I winner Penny Chenery to bottom-level claimer O.J. Simpson. We’ve marveled at the regal Barbaro, been smitten by the pint-sized Smarty Jones, and been stunned by longshots like Charismatic and Giacomo. We’ve seen thousand-dollar Mint Juleps (and talked with those who drank them), giant inflatable Juleps, and colleagues beaned with a full bottle of Budweiser in the parking lot nearing the end of what had to be a two-day bender for a group of guys in an RV.

Decadent and depraved? You bet.

And just like the final line of Where the Buffalo Roam, a film based on Thompson’s life starring Bill Murray, “It never got weird enough for me.”

Well…ask us again May 3.

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