On Saturday, more than 150,000 people will cram themselves into Churchill Downs for the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby.
One of the great spectacles in American sport, the two minutes of the Derby are horse racing's annual stint in the spotlight. But the freakshow starts long before post time and continues well after the race has been run.
In 1970, Hunter S. Thompson, a Louisville, Ky. native, returned to his hometown to chronicle the Derby, searching Churchill Downs not for the winning horse but for "a symbol, in my own mind, of the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is."
He turned that search into "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved," an article for Scanlon's magazine that, while little read at the time, now is a touchstone of gonzo journalism -- and still one of the best accounts of what really happens in Louisville as filtered through the good Doctor's twisted brain.
It's always worth a read. Just Google it and the whole text pops up online in many places. But it's highly entertaining in recorded form, too.
A CD of the piece just has been released by Paris Records and, like the CD adaptation of Thompson's classic "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," it's a gem. Thompson's action-packed prose lends itself well to performance, and Tim Robbins gets him right as he takes Hunter's first-person part on the disc.
Thompson has been played by Johnny Depp in two films, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "The Rum Diary," and often reads from Thompson's work. He's got Thompson's clipped, mumbling speech down to an art form so, to be honest, it's a little odd hearing Robbins do Hunter, at least at first.
But he's got the choppy speech down too and really brings the wild story to life, starting with the airport encounter with Jimbo, a Texan who's in Louisville to have a big time, then gets seriously rattled by Hunter, who tells him the cops are preparing for a Black Panther riot at the track on Derby day. (This comes from 1970, remember?)
On the CD, Jimbo's given voice by Dr. John in a Southern-accented grumble. But the other star of the show is Ralph Steadman, the English illustrator who teamed up with Thompson for the first time at the Derby. Steadman plays himself on the CD, giving it a bizarre authenticity.
"The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" is considered the first piece of gonzo journalism, Thompson's oft-imitated but never equaled feed-it-into-the-machine, highly imagined, wildly entertaining writing style.
The move to pure gonzo comes midway through the piece, and the change can be heard in the production, which, like the writing, becomes choppier and faster.
The good thing about "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" is that it's a short story; it fits easily onto a CD. And it's no simple book on tape. Instead, it's a full-on production helmed by Hal Willner, who recruited jazz guitarist Bill Friselll to do create a score.
That score, played by trumpets, woodwinds and strings, draws heavily on "My Old Kentucky Home" while veering and wobbling like Thompson and Steadman in the midst of their days-long whiskey-fueled adventure.
With its references to the Black Panthers, Thompson's nemesis Richard Nixon, Col. Sanders and the shootings at Kent State that took place that weekend, "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" is a piece that's set in a specific time.
But its observations, the "fear and loathing" Thompson unleashed for the first time, remain relevant today. I'm guessing this passage, when Thompson and Steadman ventured into the jam-packed infield, will ring mostly true on Saturday:
"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 the winning numbers flash on the big board, like a giant bingo game. ...
"No booze sold out here, too dangerous ... no bathrooms either. Muscle Beach ... Woodstock ... many cops with riot sticks, but no sign of a riot. Far across the track, the clubhouse looks like postcard from the Kentucky Derby."
You're not going to see that on NBC on Saturday, and you're sure not going to read anything like that from the press covering the race. They couldn't do it better than Thompson anyway.