The Hunter S. Thompson Kentucky Derby ExperienceBy Mike Payne
The words "Decadent and Depraved" won't appear on the official marketing materials for this Saturday's Kentucky Derby. 39 years ago, however, those were the very words used by iconic journalist Hunter S. Thompson to describe this classic American sporting event. "It's a fantastic scene-- thousands of people fainting, crying, copulating, trampling each other and fighting with broken whiskey bottles..."
In one of his most significant works, Thompson made his own experience the spectacle of the event he was tasked to cover, and it was there that his own unique brand of journalism would be born. Want to experience that for yourself? Here is our guide on how to re-live this year's Kentucky Derby in the spirit of Hunter S. Thompson. Don't forget to pack your whiskey-- or your mace.
The 5 Ingredients of a Hunter S. Thompson Kentucky Derby
In the Spring of 1970, Hunter S. Thompson was hired by a little known British sports magazine to cover the Kentucky Derby with an artist named Ralph Steadman. The Derby was quite familiar to Thompson, having grown up in Louisville, Kentucky and attending the race throughout his youth. His return to Kentucky for the Kentucky Derby in 1970, at the age of 33, marked the beginning of Thompson's "Gonzo Journalism". Thompson made his own experience the focus of the story, not the event itself- a style of journalism which Hunter would champion with books like the popular Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Without further adieu, here are the 5 ingredients needed to experience the famed Kentucky Derby like the greatest outlaw writer that ever lived...
1. The Magic of Playboy
Name dropping can be a subtle, effective art-- especially when you're dropping a name like Playboy. Often in his career, Thompson would flash a playboy photographer badge he had prominently displayed on his attache' bag. By this fake association alone, he would be granted access to places and people most couldn't touch-- not to mention the adoration and favor of John Q. Public. Make sure the clerk at your hotel sees it when you check in. Flash it at the bar when reaching for cash to pay for cover. You'll be amazed at how people respond to that kind of association...
Key Quote: "'Never mention Playboy until you're sure they've seen this thing first,' he said. 'Then, when you see them notice it, that's the time to strike. They'll go belly up every time. This thing is magic, I tell you. Pure magic.'"
2. The Magic of Mace
Thompson, always the weapon lover, couldn't leave home with out some kind of heat. For the now historic Kentucky Derby, Hunter brought with him a can of "chemical billy", a high-powered mace spray that'll decimate the face (and respiratory system) of a would-be threat. Sure, you don't need to be as malicious as Hunter S., but its certainly helpful to have on hand should you have too much of the next item on this list...
Key Quote: "Macing ushers at the narrow gates to the clubhouse inner sanctum, then slipping quickly inside, firing a huge load of Mace into the governor's box, just as the race starts. Or Macing helpless drunks in the clubhouse restroom, for their own good..."
3. Whiskey: Lots and Lots of Whiskey
Among the only things Thompson loves more than weapons is whiskey (although, technically, he was partial to tequila). Having grown up in Kentucky, he was no stranger to the wonders of whiskey, the beast of bourbon. At the Kentucky Derby, Thompson would consume such unhealthy amounts of the stuff that he became the very monster he was on a hunt to find. For your Kentucky Derby experience, you'll need a good stock-- and be sure to bring your drinking shoes. The best Kentucky Derby will be the one you don't remember, but the photographs and notes you've taken along the way re-tell an horrific story.
Key Quote: "We've come down here to see this [terrible] scene: people all pissed out of their minds and vomiting on themselves and all that... and now, you know what? [that's] us..."
4. An Eccentric British Artist
Not only did Hunter S. Thompson have his own demons to worry about at the Derby, he was responsible for a soft-spoken, eccentric British artist. Thompson was paired with Ralph Steadman for the first time at this event, the man who would become the visual counterpart to Thompson's Gonzo Journalism-- the illustrations behind Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and many of Thompson's later works. The magazine put the two together, knowing little about what bond was to form in Kentucky. If you want to live the Derby in a Gonzo fashion, you'll need someone to capture the insanity from a visual standpoint-- so hire yourself an eccentric British artist. If not, maybe hire a monkey.
Key Quote: "We could always load up on acid and spend the day roaming around the clubhouse grounds with big sketch pads, laughing hysterically at the natives and swilling mint juleps so the cops wouldn't think we're abnormal. Perhaps even make the act pay: set up an easel with a big sign saying, 'Let a Foreign Artist Paint Your Portrait, $10 Each. Do It NOW!'"
5. A Journal of Horrors
As we mentioned above, if you don't have notes to reflect on, did anything really happen? You're going to be consuming more Kentucky whiskey than you've ever drank before, and that liquid does wonders for a sharp memory. You're going to forget most of your drunken debauchery, so you'll want to write it down. After all, can you imagine the life and times of Hunter S. Thompson if he didn't make a record of his experiences? Would Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, would the Great Shark Hunt, would The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved ever be written?
Key Quote: "But now, looking at the big red notebook I carried all through that scene, I see more or less what happened. The book itself is somewhat mangled and bent; some of the pages are torn, others are shriveled and stained by what appears to be whiskey, but taken as a whole, with sporadic memory flashes, the notes seem to tell the story..."
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Thanks for reading, Diggers, Stumblers, Redditers and otherwise. So, are you planning on taking a trip to the Kentucky Derby? Will you be trying out the Hunter S. Thompson experience? Contact us or leave a comment below, we'd love to know how it goes... and if you are lucky enough to survive. If you'd like to read the entire Thompson account of the Kentucky Derby, check it out at Amazon... Thanks again for reading!