Famed Ky. writer’s essay on Derby infuriates and inspires

Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson

Every year leading up to the first Saturday in May, I pull out my copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” I hold on to this tradition the way a child reads about the Grinch days before Christmas.

I’ve always taken pleasure in all things pertaining to the Derby, especially the literary description of a visit to Churchill Downs during the tumultuous ’70s. Slowly reading Thompson’s weird journey through Kentucky’s pride and joy helps me to appreciate the yearly spectacle for what it is.

Never mind that Thompson wrote his opus from the perspective of a native Louisvillian. He traveled home with a respectable number of miles on his typewriter, simply to cover what he deemed as “the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is.”

The final edit that appeared in “Scanlon’s Monthly” eventually became a cult classic. The article set itself apart by offering a deep first-person perspective and relentless, outlandish observations. I believe Thompson would have skewered the Run for the Roses if he were a Kentuckian or not. This was simply his modus operandi, his proven method of getting to the core of anything he found fascinating — or troubling.

The reason Thompson’s work still manages to be relevant is that it offers a truthful and hilarious alternative to what every television newscast, paper or respected journalist annually churns out. His narrative, stripped of polish and veneer, showed the reality of his hometown visit, the pride and the embarrassment. His lens undoubtedly skewed, heavily altered by Kentucky’s official spirit, and his readiness to challenge the conventional traditions, morphed the cherished event into a twisted, unsettling dreamscape.

The Kentucky Derby continues to hang its hat on the very tradition Thompson mocked. It currently has claim as the longest continuously running sporting event in the United States. The act of watching elite thoroughbreds from long, successful bloodlines race for millions of dollars does not look to dissolve any time soon. People clamoring to wear their finest clothing and accessories, the brighter the better, is only gaining momentum. Consuming pirate-inspired quantities of bourbon has been, and always will be, encouraged.

If Thompson were still alive, I could only imagine his delight in the fact that very little has changed since his original publication in 1970.

His article is not written to slander the south or Kentucky. If you take away his questionable decision-making and inherent animosity, Thompson articulates his frustration with the state of his country, unabashedly including his boyhood home. He spotlights how the Derby gives everyone an excuse to “to get strutting drunk and slap a lot of backs and generally make himself obvious.”

Thompson also reminds readers of the commonwealth’s contradictory belief that gambling will send you to hell, unless you lay your money down on pure Thoroughbreds, then all’s forgiven. He talks about people’s infatuation of power and authority and appearance of prestige. From movie stars, politicians, athletes, and executives — no one was safe from his verbal assault.

Should his representation of the Kentucky Derby be the definitive judgment given to this illustrious event? It absolutely should not. What Thompson’s prose ought to do is conjure a sliver of time when very little seemed to be going right in the world. It should recreate the madness that filled the twin spires and the “anything goes” mentality. His gonzo story aims to remind readers that “Tricky Dick” Nixon was in office and distrust of authority ran rampant. He wrote what he saw and what he experienced, or more precisely, what he remembered.

As the first Saturday of May approaches year after year, whether I am in my beloved commonwealth or afar, I will make it a priority to read Thompson’s masterpiece. I will read it because it makes me laugh, because it infuriates me, and because no piece of writing can match his description of the Derby in its rawest form.

Jim Jackson of Frankfort is a freelance writer.