What A Long Strange Race It’s Been: A Hedonist’s Manual for Derby Day

Updated: April 30, 2015

The Kentucky Derby is an American showpiece.  Steeped in history, festooned in finery and shrouded in largesse, the “most exciting two minutes in sports” is one of this country’s greatest traditions.  It combines no fewer than five of our most time-honored traditions…horse racing, gambling, bourbon cocktails, beautiful heiresses, and most importantly, the flagrant flouting of personal wealth (ill-gotten or otherwise).  Each of these pillars of American culture is cause for celebration in its own right.  When these American staples collide with alcoholic overindulgence, you have got entertainment.  Mix in some horrific hats and a few millinery masterpieces, and combine with most of the money on America’s east coast….

Rich folk, dumb hats, $1000 cocktails.

Rich folk, dumb hats, $1000 cocktails.

…Well, now you’ve got a bunch of drunk, gambling-crazed, dilettante millionaires, and their drunk significant others at a racetrack.   And they are all fighting to get back to Millionaires’ Row from the betting window with their chapeaus and bonnets intact.

That’s not just entertainment.  That’s a damn spectacle.

And it really isn’t always about the race, or Millionaire’s Row.  It’s about that infield, too.

Sure, don’t get me wrong; the auspice under which these merrymakers congregate is one of sport, of horse racing.  But the more one reads, hears and sees, the more it seems like Hunter S. Thompson was right when he wrote his first piece of gonzo literature: The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.  The man hit it spot on when he said, “We didn’t give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track. We had come there to watch the real beasts perform.”  That was Hunter S. on the infield; he had this to say about the clubhouse:

“Hell, this clubhouse scene right below us will be almost as bad as the infield. Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks, getting angrier and angrier as they lose more and more money. By mid-afternoon they’ll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomiting on each other between races. The whole place will be jammed with bodies, shoulder to shoulder. It’s hard to move around. The aisles will be slick with vomit; people falling down and grabbing at your leg to keep from being stomped.”

The Infield.

The Infield

Nice form; get him a drink.

Nice form; get him a drink directly.

Hunter S., who could appreciate a mind-altering agent himself, was clearly taken aback by the level of debauchery that was part and parcel of this esteemed and respected event.  Today, in the interest of the fiscal health of the liquor manufacturers and distributors connected to the event, booze sales and possession are highly regulated.  That doesn’t stop some though….amateur liquor smugglers abound at ol’ Churchhill Downs; we are in the cradle of bootleggin’ country!  One anonymous perpetrator offered her proven method up to BLS….”

“I have this huge oversized bra. It’s a double-D.” She looked down at her chest. “On a good day, I might be a B-cup. I fill up baggies with bourbon and pad my bra with ‘em. No one can tell – it’s perf! Now I’ve got some bourbon and great tits! Once I’m inside, I just bust open a corner and take shots off my titties.  They may shrink but I won’t care.”

Whatever, it's mud, as long as my boubon titties are still hitting!

Whatever, it’s mud.  As long as I have my bourbon titties and a cool buzz, I’m fine.

Using unneeded prosthetics to get ‘yer likker’ into an event?  Good times.  If you will stoop to the use of prosthetics to move contraband into a sporting event, you needn’t stoop further.  You have stooped to rock bottom.  Congrats. Hope your exacta hits, barfly.

Another famous part of the Derby’s history is, to put it simply, the money.  I should really say, The Money.  Because that is the golden ticket that gets you into the party at the Derby; The Money.  The section famously known as ‘Millionaire’s Row’ is populated by the glitterati; famous faces, captains of industry, movie icons, sports stars.  The merely ‘uber-wealthy’ and ‘semi-famous’ are forced to find other accommodations.  As far as American sports events, there are two classes of prestige (and price):  The Super Bowl and Derby Day – and everything else.   Let’s run the numbers for a day at the races.

Drunk, Rich, White Southern Girls

Drunk, Rich and White.  Southern Girls

The price of the ‘nice’ ticket this year was $9300 dollars.  Per ticket.  That’s up almost 50% over last year’s paltry $6400 ducat.  Mint Juleps run $8; that is for your entry-level “compact model”- an Early Times concoction banged out by a 19-year old veterinary student from Lexington Community College.  If you want the G5, then you can shell out a cool G for the following; Ice infused with rose water, candied rose petals, mint julep simple syrup and Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select, the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby.  $1000.  No shit.  Or, if you are a horse aficionado with real elan, taste, and shitloads of money, you obviously opt for the Brown-Forman ‘Royal Rose’ julep; at $2000 a pop, you are really showing up those paupers only spending $1K per cocktail.  More than 140,000 mint juleps are generally sold on race weekend at Churchill Downs.  You may be able to spend more on a Super Bowl ticket, but in terms of the ‘incidentals?’ The Derby has the SB licked.

The Cheap Shit

The Cheap Shit

Along with the depravity and drunkenness of the derby, and its ostentatious opulence, the characteristic that sets the “Run for the Roses” (as it’s been known for roughly two-thirds of its adult life) apart is the history of the race, which provides the ample mystique that the day at Churchill Downs carries.  Some interesting facts….

  • On Derby Day, the infield will be about 80,000 strong.  That’s the third-biggest city in Kentucky.
  • For the gaming lad or lass; only four of the last twenty-one Derby winners were post favorites, and no winner ever has emerged from post  17 or 19.
  • Since 1901, the ‘dreaded’ rail (Post 1) has supplied 12 victors, though it is considered unlucky.
  • The oldest living winner is Sea Hero; he is doing what studs do in Izmit, Turkey, at the age of 23.

At day’s end (for those who can say they’ve coherently arrived there on Derby Day) the Kentucky Derby is an orgiastic medley of gambling, drinking, vulgar displays of opulent wealth and equally vulgar displays of partying depravity.  It’s thrilling and dirty and heartbreaking and exhilarating. John Steinbeck said it best when he described his trip to the ‘Run for the Roses’ in 1956:

“I am fulfilled and weary. This Kentucky Derby, whatever it is — a race, an emotion, a turbulence, an explosion — is one of the most beautiful and violent and satisfying things I have ever experienced. And I suspect that, as with other wonders, the people one by one have taken from it exactly as much good or evil as they brought to it.”

And it’s a damn American tradition.