Monday, April 24, 2006

Derby season has arrived

That's right... it's Derby season, and Kentucky is busily preparing for what is the state's Biggest Event. People come from every corner of the western world to watch the biggest horse race on the planet, and the tenant chaos that grips Louisville begins two weeks in advance with "Thunder Over Louisville," which is billed as the largest airshow/fireworks display east of the Mississippi.

I went to Thunder last year with a coworker and friend of mine (who goes by "Coolcutter"). A friend of his had an invite to an exclusive rooftop soiree and he said he could get us in, which he eventually did by claiming to the hosts that we were noted journalists. We went up to Louisville pretty early, and by 2 p.m. the weather had turned bitter cold. This led to a protracted episode of wandering the streets and ducking into the various bars and pubs that litter downtown.

On the rooftop, we were fed Maker's Mark throughout the evening, and by the time we headed home, we were in the mood for White Castles.

I skipped out on Thunder this year, since I had no such access to a good vantage point, much less one populated with girls handing out free bourbon. But while I missed the actual Derby last year thanks to a nasty bug I came down with (no doubt during our escapades at Thunder), I'll be in the fabled Churchill Downs infield this time around.

The Derby infield is basically where the mad rabble goes -- the ones not rich enough to make it into the grandstands (or Millionaires' Row, much less), but still want to swallow alarming numbers of mint juleps and smell horse sweat. I've only heard stories, of course -- but it certainly sounds like the kind of scene you need to see at least once in your lifetime. Based on the tales I've been told, the infield sounds something like Woodstock and Las Vegas mixed together and rolled lightly in a breading of egg yolks and pure speed. Set temperature to 89 degrees Fahrenheit, add a healthy dose of Kentucky bourbon, and let simmer.

Of course, this is all just hearsay. I haven't had the pleasure of attending quite yet.

However, a fantastic account of the Kentucky Derby was written by Louisville's own Hunter S. Thompson, who documented the event for the now-defunct Scanlan's Monthly in a piece called "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved." The article is regarded as the first usage of what would eventually be called "Gonzo journalism," and was also the first collaboration between Thompson and British illustrator Ralph Steadman.

Be warned -- the article contains references to drug and alcohol consumption and also uses some "naughty words."

An exerpt:

Steadman was already in the press box when I got there, a bearded young Englishman wearing a tweed coat and RAF sunglasses. There was nothing particularly odd about him. No facial veins or clumps of bristly warts. I told him about the motel woman's description and he seemed puzzled. "Don't let it bother you," I said. "Just keep in mind for the next few days that we're in Louisville, Kentucky. Not London. Not even New York. This is a weird place. You're lucky that mental defective at the motel didn't jerk a pistol out of the cash register and blow a big hole in you." I laughed, but he looked worried.

UPDATE: Open Post at the Mudville Gazette.