The 135th running of the Kentucky Derby takes place today, which mean that for more than a century Americans have been annually treated to one of the most bizarre and deranged sporting events ever devised. The Derby is a full-on freak show, encased in a bubble of ersatz southern elegance.
Think about it: Every year, an obscure venue called Churchill Downs plays host to a throng of overdressed middle-aged white people who drink sugared whiskey, don ridiculous hats, and wait hours to sing a maudlin song before watching undersized ethnic men in brightly colored tunics mount large, powerful animals and race them at breakneck speed around a dirt track while whipping the beasts.
It should surprise no one that this bizarre scene inspired the first collaboration between gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and artist Ralph Steadman, who companioned Thompson's addled prose with grotesque sketches of the race's denizens.
"The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" appeared in 1970 and pretty well nailed the flavor of the event. Now don't get me wrong--the horsey aspect of the Derby is pretty cool. The 3-year old thoroughbreds that participate are magnificent and surly creatures. High-strung, raring to go, they will bite the ponies that accompany them as they are marched around the track prior to the race, and loading them into the starting gate is an arduous process that can lead to serious injury for the men who are asked to do it. Better than a dozen of these 19th-century speed machines, presumably un-doped, are then released to blast wide-eyed around the mile-and-quarter track, kicking up a rooster tail of dirt and dust as froth spews from their bitted jaws and their jockey's goggles become pasted with crud.
This year's Derby should be, race-wise, somewhat livelier as a competition, because the favorite, I Want Revenge, has dropped out. This won't necessarily open things up for the long-odds entrants, but it might set up a battle among the remaining three or four horses that have a legitimate shot.
Unfortunately, I Want Revenge's absence means a lessened prospect of a Triple Crown winner this year--although another horse could take it. This is yet another strange aspect of Derby Day: It kicks off a sequence of races, moving first to Pimlico in Baltimore for the Preakness Stakes, then concluding at the Belmont Stakes in New York. From the cradle of American horse culture, with its rolling green hills and tipsy women in pouffy sundresses, the Triple Crown moves swiftly toward it seedy denouement in the suburbs of Gotham, to the cigar-chomping, bent-fedora-and-body-odor betting-man's destiny that horse racing, for all its charm, can never shake off. By the end of the Triple Crown, you kind of want to take a shower.
But in the beginning, the gooey pageantry tends to overcome the OTB element. The flower of Louisville will hoist their frosty juleps and hope that their makeup doesn't run in the Bluegrass State sunshine. There will be blazers and seersucker and acres of roses. Wagers will be placed. The band will play. The trumpet will sound. The horses will thunder. We will have a winner, as we have since 1875. In times of crisis, we truly need this kind of uniquely American insanity. And so we should give thanks for the Kentucky Derby, in all its twisted glory.
UPDATE: A commenter pointed out rightly that just because the favorite horse is out, that doesn't mean no Triple Crown. I think it's less likely, but you never know. Anyway, I've corrected.
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