Gonzo US racing culture strung out on narcotic decadence
Dangers of allowing a sport to turn into a medication free for all is evident in America
Steve Asmussen: Runs the fancied Tapiture in the Kentucky Derby but was also the subject of an undercover investigation. Photograph: Rob Carr/Getty Images
It was 1970 when Hunter Thompson returned to his old Louisville stomping ground and declared the Kentucky Derby to be decadent and depraved, which when you think of some of the stuff the whacked-out, gun-toting loon liked to indulge in, is a pretty cool compliment.
Hunter didn’t go back to “the Durby” again, maybe because he knew his local-yokel dissection would be tough to top. His famously withering essay became a gonzo benchmark and reading it is always a good way to dilute any posthumously cuddly Johnny Depp-delusions about Thompson’s skanky reality.
It has also become the most famous piece of literature on “the most exciting two minutes in sport”, which is ironic as it actually is not about the race at all.
There’s only one paragraph about the supposed point of the whole thing and how Thompson didn’t bet on the winner, Dust Commander. That’s fair enough. Thompson’s expertise concerned a different kind of horse and he wasn’t there to tout. His piece was brilliant and incendiary and still pulsates with energy 44 years later. But in general terms it was a piece of social filleting that could have been done at any event anywhere in the America of the time. The derby was just a convenient hook on which to hang it.
Thompson’s specific depiction of bourbon-swilling good ol’ boy debauch remains pretty much the prism through which America still views its greatest horse race, the sole slot in the US sporting calendar when racing pokes its way into the general consciousness.
Bitterness and hypocrisy
In fact, in a twist that no doubt would have fused Thompson’s befuddled brain even more, his teeming, drunken, tits-flashing, piss-reeking infield of renown is now embraced as part of the folklore, a Vegas-like rite of passage to experience at least once, another shallow two-fingered retort to bitterness and hypocrisy that surely a bright man like Thompson knew were never going to go away.
As for the Derby – “Total chaos, no way to see the race, not even the track . . . nobody cares,” he wrote.
And that’s fair enough in its way too. But when the 20 horses line up for this Saturday’s Run for the Roses, even the infield, and its millions of beery brethren watching on telly, might care, if fully cognisant, about integrity issues American racing is battling with right now.
No doubt Thompson would mumble something brilliantly cutting about racing and integrity being placed together in one sentence. But although he wasn’t interested, even he must have realised the hook essentially consisted of those two minutes. Everything else hangs off what happens on the track. And in the business of one horse running faster than another, American racing was a lot more at ease with itself when Thompson was nibbling at it all those years ago.