Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved

Art by Ralph Steadman

Forty years ago, Hunter S. Thompson attended the classic at Churchill Downs, and here, thanks to Google docs, is his account, "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved," which originally appeared in Scanlan's Monthly (vol. 1, number 4, 1970). According to the essay, which offers probably the world's first shot at Gonzo sports writing, this was the first occasion when HST worked with British artist Ralph Steadman. Steadman flew in from London, sketchbook in hand, hoping to capture the face of the Kentucky Derby. Or so the story goes.

According to HST, who grew up in Louisville and knew the Derby crowd all too well, what he wanted Steadman to see went something like this:

"It was a face I'd seen a thousand times at every Derby I'd ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry--a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture."

Reporter and artist searched all over Churchill Downs, from among the thousands in attendance, for a glimpse of this face. As they searched, Steadman sketched much of what he saw, and as a sort of British quirk, would share his hideous renderings with his drunk and increasingly belligerent subjects. In this way Steadman risked taking a beating or two himself. Still, the face of the Kentucky Derby eluded them until, toward the end of the debauched weekend, HST saw his own face in the mirror.

"There he was, by God--a puffy, drink-ravaged, disease-ridden caricature...like an awful cartoon version of an old snapshot in some once-proud mother's family photo album. It was the face we'd been looking for--and it was, of course, my own. Horrible, horrible..."

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