Kentucky Derby Americana: Decadent and Depraved

Profile Picture: Sara Dacus

August 13th, 2020

The Kentucky Derby is deeply woven into the fabric of Americana. The iconic racing event goes beyond horse racing and touches many facets of history, culture, and leisure, and this series examines those ties. This week, Kentucky Derby Americana focuses on the birth of a new genre: gonzo journalism.

Fifty years ago, Louisville native Hunter S. Thompson, then 33, returned to the Kentucky Derby after a 10-year absence. The 96th running of the American classic led him to write “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” which introduced gonzo journalism to the world and established Thompson as a counterculture icon.

Born in 1937 to the head librarian at the Louisville Free Public Library and an insurance adjustor, Thompson was not allowed to take high school finals after a run-in with the law. Instead, he joined the Air Force. When he returned in 1970, on assignment for Scanlan’s Monthly, a magazine published for less than a year, he arrived with a critical eye toward the set he referred to as the “whiskey gentry.”

His trip began haphazardly. Thompson arrived the Thursday before Derby with no press credentials, no room reservation, no car rental, and no “illegal drugs, so we would have to get by on booze.”

He had never met his collaborator for the assignment, artist Ralph Steadman, a native of England with no knowledge of the Derby. The published piece proved Steadman’s “foul renderings” pair hauntingly well with Thompson’s manic, substance-fueled, stream-of-conscious prose, and an odd partnership formed. The next year, the duo partnered on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

At the Derby, the two inexplicably obtained press passes, and Thompson served as Steadman’s guide. Thompson, who invented gonzo journalism as a style without claims of objectivity, was eager to portray the crowd as pretentious, raving, vomiting drunks participating in a jaded tradition.

“And unlike most of the others in the press box, we didn't give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track,” he writes. “We had come there to watch the real beasts perform.”

Copious amounts of alcohol, food from the Fish-Meat Village, mace, and fake Playboy credentials ushered Thompson and Steadman on their debauched, humorous and dark journey — a quest for a face symbolizing “the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is.”

Although Thompson is prone to exaggeration about the Derby set, his subtle social commentary gives import to the social struggles surrounding the Derby, from the reactions to Julie Crump riding as the first female jockey in the Derby, to larger issues, including the Black Panthers, the Vietnam War, and the Kent State protests.

When it was post time for the Derby, Thompson and Steadman couldn’t see the action on the track. Holy Land, Steadman’s Derby horse, stumbled and lost his jockey in the final turn. Thompson’s, Silent Screen, had the lead into the stretch but faded to fifth at the finish. The winner was a 16-1 shot named Dust Commander. At the end of the weekend, writer and illustrator were confused, unable to focus, and their eyes were swollen shut. Thompson and Steadman realized they were the epitome of the debauchery they were trying to depict.

“The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” was later reprinted in Thom Wolfe’s anthology The New Journalism and the book The Great Shark Hunt, which is a collection of Thompson’s earlier works.