The Kentucky Derby Trip is Decadent and Depraved
I GOT OFF the charter bus around midnight and no one spoke as I walked into the Seymour, Indiana Days Inn. The air was thick and hot, like wandering into the men's bathroom of the Keg. Inside, people hugged each other and shook hands … big grins and a whoop here and there: "By God! You old bastard! Come here bro."
In the air-conditioned lounge I met an Econ major who said his name was something or other — "but just call me Jimbo" — and he was here to get it on. "I'm ready for anything, by God! Anything at all. Yeah, what are you drinkin?" I ordered a Margarita with ice, but he wouldn't hear of it: "Naw, naw … what the hell kind of drink is that for Kentucky Derby time? What's wrong with you, boy?" He grinned and winked at the bartender. "Goddam, we gotta educate this boy. Get him some good whiskey … "
I shrugged. "Okay, a double Old Fitz on ice." Jimbo nodded his approval.
"Look." He tapped me on the arm to make sure I was listening. "I know this SAE Derby crowd, I come here every year, and let me tell you one thing I've learned — this is no town to be giving people the impression you're some kind of theater major. Not in public, anyway. Shit, they'll roll you in a minute, knock you in the head and take every goddam cent you have."
"Say," he said, "you look like you might be in the horse business … am I right?"
"No," I said. "I'm a writer."
"Oh yeah?" He eyed my Wild Turkey with new interest. "Who you work for?"
"Sherman Ave," I said.
He laughed. "Well goddam! I thought you meant a real publication. What are you to do, write lists about if each horse's name was a sexual maneuver?"
I shook my head and said nothing; just stared at him for a moment, trying to look grim. "There's going to be trouble," I said. "My assignment is to write about the riot."
I hesitated, twirling the ice in my drink. "At the track. On SAE's Derby Day. The Occupy Movement. Living Wage Campaign." I stared at him again. "Don't you read the Daily Northwestern?"
The grin on his face dropped. "Of course not."
"Well … maybe I shouldn't be telling you … " I shrugged. "But hell, everybody seems to know. The cops and the National Guard have been getting ready for six weeks. They have 20,000 troops on alert at Fort Knox. They warned us — all the press and photographers — to wear helmets and special vests like flak jackets under our bro tanks. We were told to expect shooting … "
"No!" he shouted; his hands flew up and hovered momentarily between us, as if to ward off the words he was hearing. Then he hacked his fist on the bar. "Those sons of bitches! God Almighty! The SAE Kentucky Derby Trip!" He kept shaking his head. "No! Jesus! That's almost too bad to believe!" Now he seemed to be jagging on the stool, and when he looked up his eyes were misty. "Why? Why here? Don't they respect anything? This is one of the greatest weekends of your life! Your LIFE bro!"
He sat for a moment, looking hurt and confused and not quite able to digest all this terrible news. Then he cried out: "Oh … Jesus! What in the name of God is happening in this country? Where can you get away from it?"
"Not here," I said, picking up my bag. "Thanks for the drink … and good luck."
I felt a little guilty about jangling the poor brother's brains with that evil fantasy. But, what the hell? Anybody who wanders around the world saying, "Yes, I'm majoring in Economics with a minor in business institutions," deserves whatever happens to him. And he had, after all, come here once again to make a 19th century ass of himself in the midst of some jaded, atavistic freakout with nothing to recommend it except a very saleable "tradition." Early in our chat, Jimbo had told me that he hasn't missed a Derby since 2006. "The little biddy won't come anymore," he said. "She just grits her teeth and turns me loose for this one. And when I say 'loose' I do mean loose! Horses, whiskey, women … "
Why not? Money is a good thing to have in these twisted times. Even Morty Schapiro is hungry for it. And if there's one difference between the good prostitutes of Seymour, Indiana and Morty, it's that there are some things even the women won't do for money.
Waiting for Twattingworth
The next day was heavy. With 30 hours to post time I had no press credentials and — according to the sports editor of North by Northwestern — no hope at all of getting any. Worse, I needed two sets; one for myself and another for Sir Edward Twattingworth III, the English illustrator who was coming from a tryst with Pippa Middleton and three members of One Direction to do some Derby drawings. All I knew about him was that this was his first visit to the United States. And the more I pondered that fact, the more it gave me fear. Would he bear up under the heinous culture shock of being lifted out of London and plunged into a drunken mob scene of future consultants at the Kentucky Derby? There was no way of knowing.
The only other kink was the task of convincing the moguls at Churchill Downs that Sherman Ave was such a prestigious sporting journal that common sense compelled them to give us two sets of the best press tickets. This was not easily done. "Hell, you can't be serious," he said. "The deadline was two months ago. The press box is full; there's no more room … and what the hell is Sherman Ave anyway?"
I told him that Chet Haze had finally unfollowed us, and finally he offered a compromise: he could get us two passes to the clubhouse grounds.
"That's unacceptable. We must have access to everything. The spectacle, the people, the pageantry, the Kappas, and certainly the race. You don't think we came all this way to watch the damn thing on television, do you? One way or another we'll get inside. Maybe we'll have to bribe a guard — or even Mace somebody."
A Huge Outdoor Loony Bin I took the expressway out to the track, driving very fast and jumping the monster car back and forth between lanes, driving with a Busch Light in one hand and my mind so muddled that I almost crushed a Volkswagen full of nuns when I swerved to catch the right exit. There was a slim chance, I thought, that I might be able to catch the Britisher before he checked in.
"Just pretend you're visiting a huge outdoor loony bin," I said. "If the inmates get out of control we'll soak them down with Mace." I showed him the can of "Chemical Billy," resisting the urge to fire it across the room at that one kid who always did the readings for class.
By midafternoon we had everything under control. We had seats looking down on the finish line, color TV and a free bar in the press room, and a selection of passes that would take us anywhere from the clubhouse roof to the jockey room. The only thing we lacked was unlimited access to the clubhouse inner sanctum in sections "F&G" … and I felt we needed that, to see the whisky gentry in action. The governor would be in "G." Rick Santorum would be in a box in "G" where we could rest and sip juleps, soak up a bit of atmosphere and the Derby's special vibrations, and marvel at Santorum's sweater vest.
But unlike most of the others in the press box, we didn't give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track. We had come there to watch the real beasts perform.
View from Evander's Head Later Friday afternoon, we went out on the balcony of the press box and I tried to describe the difference between what we had seen today and what would be happening tomorrow. Looking down from the press box, I pointed to the huge grassy meadow enclosed by the track. "That whole thing," I said, "will be jammed with Northwestern students and their future employees; fifty thousand or so, and most of them staggering drunk. It's a fantastic scene — thousands of people fainting, crying, copulating, trampling each other and fighting with broken whiskey bottles. We'll have to spend some time out there, but it's hard to move around, too many bodies."
"Is it safe out there? Will we ever come back?"
"Sure," I said. "We'll just have to be careful not to mention Paddy Murphy and start a fight."
He looked so nervous that I laughed. "I'm just kidding," I said. "Don't worry. At the first hint of trouble I'll start Macing everybody I can reach."
He had done a few good sketches but so far we hadn't seen that special kind of face that I felt we would need for the lead drawing. It was a face I'd seen a thousand times at every Derby Trip I'd ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry — a mix of booze, hair coiffage, and a terminal identity crisis.
So the face I was trying to find in Churchill Downs that weekend was a symbol, in my own mind, of the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby Trip what it is.
On our way back to the motel after Friday's races I warned Twattingworth about some of the other problems we'd have to cope with. Neither of us had brought any strange illegal drugs, so we would have to get by on booze. "You should keep in mind," I said, "that almost everybody you talk to from now on will be drunk. People who seem very pleasant at first might suddenly swing at you for no reason at all." He nodded, staring straight ahead.
It was Saturday morning, the day of the Big Race, and we were having breakfast in a plastic Christian palace called Chick-fil-A.
Twattingworth liked Chick-fil-A because if you closed your eyes, the taste might be so good you could forget about gay rights for a little while. I preferred the breakfast biscuit, which made me reconsider my stance on contraceptives.
Beyond drink and lack of sleep, our only real problem at that point was the question of access to the clubhouse. Finally we decided just to go ahead and steal two passes, if necessary, rather than miss that part of the action. This was the last coherent decision we were able to make for the next 48 hours. From that point on — almost from the very moment we started out to the track — we lost all control of events and spent the rest of the weekend just churning around in a sea of drunken horrors. My notes and recollections from Derby Day are somewhat scrambled.
But now, looking at the big red notebook I carried all through that scene, I see more or less that 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. To wit:
Unscrambling Derby Trip — I Twattingworth Is Worried About Fire
Rain all nite until dawn. No sleep. Christ, here we go, a nightmare of mud and madness and heinous …. Drunks in the mud. Drowning, fighting for shelter …. But no. By noon the sun burns, perfect day, not even humid.
Twattingworth is now worried about Fire. Somebody told him about the clubhouse catching on fire two years ago. Could it happen again? Horrible. Trapped in the press box. Trapped in the closet. A hundred thousand people fighting to get out. Drunks screaming in the flames and the mud, crazed horses running wild. Blind in the smoke. Grandstand collapsing into the flames with us on the roof. Poor Edward is about to crack. Drinking heavily, drinking like Keith Moon at an open bar.
Setting fire to the rain. Heating up on the bp table.
Took the bus to the track. Horrible. Twattingworth won't stop snapchatting. Think I asked a DZ if she'd like to "see Deez nuts." Had to drink the last of our Fireball so Twattingworth could pee into it. No hope. Beautiful women. Fake accents. Fake tans.
Don't mention baby seals to the kid from Vandy. Don't mention baby seals.
Hats. Hats everywhere. Hats that make Aretha Franklin's hat look like a Macklemore purchase. Hats so big you could barely float them down a Wrigley Field urinal.
Unscrambling D-day II Clubhouse/Paddock Bar
Pink faces with stylish Southern sag, old Ivy styles, seersucker coats and buttondown collars. "Mayblossom Senility" (Sir E's phrase) … burnt out early or maybe just not much to burn in the first place. Not much energy in these faces, not much curiosity. Suffering in silence, nowhere to go after thirty in this life, just hang on and humor the children. Let the young enjoy themselves while they can. Why not?
I left Twatman sketching in the Paddock bar and sent off to place our bets on the sixth race. I always bet on the horse with the most sexual name. Normally I'd go with something exotic, like "Will Take Charge," but my mind hurt thinking of what that would involve. "Giant Finish" just seemed lazy.
When I came back he was staring intently at a group of young men around a stable not far away. "Jesus, look at the corruption in that face!" he whispered. "Look at the madness, the fear, the greed!" I looked, then quickly turned my back on the table he was drawing. The face he'd picked out to draw was the face of an old friend of mine, a prep school football star in the good old days with a sleek red Chevy convertible and a very quick hand, it was said, with the snaps of a 32 B brassiere. They called him "Dan Persa."
But now, a dozen years later, I wouldn't have recognized him anywhere but here, where I should have expected to find him, in the Paddock bar on Derby Day … lost eyes and a pimp's smoke, blue silk suit and his friends looking like crooked bank tellers on a binge ….
The Derby, the actual race, was scheduled for late afternoon, and as the magic hour approached I suggested to Twattingworth that we should probably spend some time in the infield, that boiling sea of people who listen to Brad Paisley unironically across the track from the clubhouse. Greeks and geeks. He seemed a little nervous about it, but since none of the awful things I'd warned him about had happened so far he shrugged and said, "Right, let's do it."
To get there we had to pass through many gates, each one a step down in status, then through a tunnel under the track. Emerging from the tunnel was such a culture shock that it took us a while to adjust. "Heinous almighty!" Twattingworth muttered. "This is a … Jesus!" He plunged ahead with his tiny camera, stepping over bodies, and I followed, trying to take notes.
Unscrambling D-day III The Infield
Total chaos, no way to see the race, not even the track … nobody cares. Big lines at the outdoor betting windows, then stand back to watch winning numbers flash on the big board, like a giant bingo game.
Nattly Light. Get me a Natty Light. Rage o'clock. Girl riding piggyback, T-shirt says, "Stolen from Fort Lauderdale Jail." Thousands of teenagers, group singing "Gangnam Style," and a huge fat drunk wearing a blue football jersey (No. 80) reeling around with quart of beer in hand. Bros. A veritable bro-tanic garden.
Fuck horses, man. Just fuck them.
No beer pong out here, too dangerous … no bathrooms either. Muscle Beach … Woodstock … Dillo Day.
Unscrambling D-day IV "My Old Kentucky Home"
We went back to the clubhouse to watch the big race. When the crowd stood to face the flag and sing "My Old Kentucky Home," Twattingworth faced the crowd and sketched frantically. Somewhere up in the boxes a voice screeched, "Turn around, you hairy freak!" The race itself was only two minutes long, and even from our super-status seats and using 12-power glasses, there was no way to see what was really happening. Later, watching a TV rerun in the press box, we saw what happened to our horses. Frac Daddy, Edward's choice, stumbled and lost his jockey in the final turn. Mine, Black Onyx, had the lead coming into the stretch, but faded to fifth at the finish. The winner was a 16–1 shot named Fear the Kitten.
I remember when I first tried the "Frac Daddy." Last time I ever combine natural gas and deep drilling.
The rest of that day blurs into madness. The rest of that night too. And all the next day and night. Such horrible things occurred that I can't bring myself even to think about them now, much less put them down in print.
We went to the Louisville Slugger, only to realize 30-minutes in it wasn't a strip club. Twattingworth almost got in a fight with Gavin Degraw while I tried to find Jennifer Lawrence. Twattingworth claimed he dropped acid with Rick Pitino at a Kentucky Fried Chicken, but that's a goddamn lie.
Twattingworth was lucky to get out of Louisville without serious injuries, and I was lucky to get out at all.
Getting Out of Town
Sometime around 10:30 Monday morning I was awakened by a scratching sound at my door. I leaned out of bed and pulled the curtain back just far enough to see Twattingworth outside. "What the fuck do you want?" I shouted.
"What about having breakfast?" he said.
I could barely see him. My eyes were swollen almost shut and the sudden burst of sunlight through the door left me stunned and helpless like the campus fox. Twattingworth was mumbling about sickness and terrible heat; I fell back on the bed and tried to focus on him as he moved around the room in a very distracted way for a few moments, then suddenly darted over to the beer bucket and seized a Colt .45. "Christ," I said. "you're getting out of control."
He nodded and ripped the cap off, taking a long drink. "You know, this is really awful," he said finally. "I must get out of this place … " he shook his head nervously. "The plane leaves at 3:30, but I don't know if I'll make it."
I barely heard him. My eyes had finally opened enough for me to focus on the mirror across the room and I was stunned at the shock of recognition. For a confused instant I thought that Edward had brought somebody with him — a model for that one special face we'd been looking for. 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 …
"Maybe I should sleep a while longer," I said. "Why don't you go on over to Chick-fil-A and eat some wholesome self-importance? Then come back and get me around noon. I feel too near death to hit the streets at this hour."
He shook his head. "No … no … I think I'll go back upstairs and work on those drawings for a while." He leaned down to fetch two more cans out of the beer bucket.
"You've got to stop drinking," I said.
He nodded. "I know. This is no good, no good at all. But for some reason I think it makes me feel better … "
He shrugged and wandered out, pulling the door shut behind him. I went back to bed for another hour or so, and later we drove to Bojangles for a fine lunch of dough and butcher's offal, fried in heavy grease.
He smiled. "You know — I've been thinking about that," he said. "We came down here to see this heinous scene: people all pissed out of their minds and vomiting on themselves and all that … and now, you know what? It's us … "
Huge Chevy Suburban blowing through traffic on the expressway. The journalist is driving, ignoring his passenger who is now nearly naked after taking off most of his clothing, which he holds out the window, trying to wind-wash the Mace out of it. His eyes are bright red and his face and chest are soaked with the beer he's been using to rinse the awful chemical off his flesh. The journalist rams the big car through traffic and into a spot in front of the terminal, then he reaches over to open the door on the passenger's side and shoves the Englishman out, snarling: "Bug off, you worthless twat! You twisted pigfucker! [Crazed laughter.] If I weren't sick I'd kick your ass all the way to Bowling Green — you scumsucking foreign geek. Mace is too good for you …. We can do without your kind in Kentucky."
Hunter S. Thompson contributed to the reporting of this article.