Miscellany

Hunter S. Thompson's Vision of the Kentucky Derby Is Alive & Well

“It’s a fantastic scene, thousands of people fainting, crying…trampling each other, and fighting with broken whiskey bottles.” That’s how Hunter S. Thompson described the Kentucky Derby back in 1970, in his infamous essay “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” his first journey into the gonzo journalism style he made famous.

Forty-one years later, those words still ring true — the Kentucky Derby is still decadent and depraved.

The decadence is best represented by Millionaire’s Row, the famous 4th and 6th floors of Churchill Downs where celebrities, athletes, and titans of industry separate themselves from the common folk. With the possible exception of the Super Bowl, no American sporting event attracts a wider array of famous beautiful people (and plenty of not so famous beautiful people).

Most of those celebrities will find themselves at one of the myriad of parties that make up the week-long bacchanal that is the Derby. The most famous of these is the Barnstable-Brown Gala, hosted yearly by a former set of Doublemint Twins. This year’s expected attendees include Erin Andrews, Tom Brady, John Calapari, Marisa Miller, Niki Taylor, and Miranda Lambert (celebrating her bachelorette party!). One of the newest kids on the Derby party circuit is Ferdinand’s Ball, a black-tie affair being hosted this year by TBL favorite and SI cover girl Kate Upton. The ball is named for the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand, who met a premature death in a Japanese slaughterhouse. The Ball benefits Old Friends, a group that seeks to provide refuge for retired racehorses.

As for the depravity, anybody who’s ever attended the Kentucky Derby is familiar with the mini-Mardi Gras that is the Infield, and the legendary art of attempting to sneak booze in — people try everything from booze sandwiches to buried kegs. It really is a game. My first foray into the infield was back in 1989, and we came up with our own ingenious plan. Take plastic gallons of cheap OJ. Insert syringe and withdraw certain amounts of OJ. Reinsert syringe and replace with vodka. Hope security doesn’t notice small needle holes near top of jug. They didn’t, success for the neophytes! — and to top it off, I cashed some nice tickets on Sunday Silence that day.

Law enforcement in the infield takes a very laizzez-faire approach on Derby Day. But when the revelry really spins out if control, as it is apt to do, the cops suddenly appear in full riot squad gear. I was witness to one such occurrence, and in fact was right in the middle of the incident that set off the single largest food fight I have ever seen. It was sometime in the late 1990s, and my group had purchased the special KFC Derby Tailgate pack to take into the track. Included therein was a very unappetizing miniature cake. One of my companions, who shall remain nameless, asked if anybody was interested in consuming this monstrosity. Upon being assured that nobody was going to eat this thing, he chucked it right into the heart of the Third Turn masses, aka Frat Boy central. Well, I don’t have to tell you where this headed. But for 10-15 strong minutes, we were in the middle of a projectile battle unlike anything I could have imagined. It’s a shame that this was in pre-YouTube era, because this deserved to be saved for all humanity to witness. The riot squad eventually broke this fiesta up, and I later learned that an aspiring model had been injured in the fracas, and would go on to reach a financial settlement with Churchill Downs. Ah, the guilt…and a story that would have been right at home in Hunter S. Thompson’s article. Decadent and depraved indeed.

Of course, at the heart of all this unbridled revelry lies the most famous horse race in the world. Next week we switch the focus back to the race itself.

Next week we get back to the race itself. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter @KyDerbyJay for all things Derby.

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