Editor’s note: Well, it is a week from the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby and I am posting a section of the famous Kentuckian Hunter S Thompson’s Gonzo article on the Derby entitled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved”. Here is part three is this really entertaining piece first published in a 1970 edition of the short running Scanlan’s Monthly.
The next day was heavy. With only thirty hours until post time I had no press credentials and–according to the sports editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal–no hope at all of getting any. Worse, I needed two sets: one for myself and another for Ralph Steadman, the English illustrator who was coming from London to do some Derby drawings. All I knew about him was that this was his first visit to the United States. And the more I pondered the fact, the more it gave me fear. How would he bear up under the heinous culture shock of being lifted out of London and plunged into the drunken mob scene at the Kentucky Derby? There was no way of knowing. Hopefully, he would arrive at least a day or so ahead, and give himself time to get acclimated. Maybe a few hours of peaceful sightseeing in the Bluegrass country around Lexington. My plan was to pick him up at the airport in the huge Pontiac Ballbuster I’d rented from a used-car salesman name Colonel Quick, then whisk him off to some peaceful setting that might remind him of England.
Colonel Quick had solved the car problem, and money (four times the normal rate) had bought two rooms in a scumbox on the outskirts of town. The only other kink was the task of convincing the moguls at Churchill Downs that Scanlan’s was such a prestigious sporting journal that common sense compelled them to give us two sets of the best press tickets. This was not easily done. My first call to the publicity office resulted in total failure. The press handler was shocked at the idea that anyone would be stupid enough to apply for press credentials two days before the Derby. “Hell, you can’t be serious,” he said. “The deadline was two months ago. The press box is full; there’s no more room…and what the hell is Scanlan’s Monthly anyway?”
I uttered a painful groan. “Didn’t the London office call you? They’re flying an artist over to do the paintings. Steadman. He’s Irish. I think. Very famous over there. Yes. I just got in from the Coast. The San Francisco office told me we were all set.”
He seemed interested, and even sympathetic, but there was nothing he could do. I flattered him with more gibberish, and finally he offered a compromise: he could get us two passes to the clubhouse grounds but the clubhouse itself and especially the press box were out of the question.
“That sounds a little weird,” I said. “It’s unacceptable. We must have access tp everything. All of it. The spectacle, the people, the pageantry and certainly the race. You don’t think we came all this way to watch the damn thing on television, do you? One way or another we’ll get inside. Maybe we’ll have to bribe a guard–or even Mace somebody.” (I had picked up a spray can of Mace in a downtown drugstore for $5.98 and suddenly, in the midst of that phone talk, I was struck by the hideous possibilities of using it out at the track. Macing ushers at the narrow gates to the clubhouse inner sanctum, then slipping quickly inside, firing a huge load of Mace into the governor’s box, just as the race starts. Or Macing helpless drunks in the clubhouse restroom, for their own good…)
By noon on Friday I was still without press credentials and still unable to locate Steadman. For all I knew he’d changed his mind and gone back to London. Finally, after giving up on Steadman and trying unsuccessfully to reach my man in the press office, I decided my only hope for credentials was to go out to the track and confront the man in person, with no warning–demanding only one pass now, instead of two, and talking very fast with a strange lilt in my voice, like a man trying hard to control some inner frenzy. On the way out, I stopped at the motel desk to cash a check. Then, as a useless afterthought, I asked if by any wild chance a Mr. Steadman had checked in.
The lady on the desk was about fifty years old and very peculiar-looking; when I mentioned Steadman’s name she nodded, without looking up from whatever she was writing, and said in a low voice, “You bet he did.” Then she favored me with a big smile. “Yes, indeed. Mr. Steadman just left for the racetrack. Is he a friend of yours?”
I shook my head. “I’m supposed to be working with him, but I don’t even know what he looks like. Now, goddammit, I’ll have to find him in the mob at the track.”
She chuckled. “You won’t have any trouble finding him. You could pick that man out of any crowd.”
“Why?” I asked. “What’s wrong with him? What does he look like?”
“Well…” she said, still grinning, “he’s the funniest looking thing I’ve seen in a long time. He has this…ah…this growth all over his face. As a matter of fact it’s all over his head.” She nodded. “You’ll know him when you see him; don’t worry about that.”
Creeping Jesus, I thought. That screws the press credentials. I had a vision of some nerve-rattling geek all covered with matted hair and string-warts showing up in the press office and demanding Scanlan’s press packet. Well…what the hell? We could always load up on acid and spend the day roaming around the clubhouse grounds with bit sketch pads, laughing hysterically at the natives and swilling mint juleps so the cops wouldn’t think we’re abnormal. Perhaps even make the act pay; set up an easel with a big sign saying, “Let a Foreign Artist Paint Your Portrait, $10 Each. Do It NOW!”
PART FOUR, tomorrow