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Why We Still Run for the Roses

A lesson from Hunter S. Thompson on why the Kentucky Derby’s decadence and depravity is just what we need.   derby The Run for the Roses. The First Jewel of the Triple Crown. The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports. The event goes by many monikers. To most, it’s simply known as the Kentucky Derby. Every first Saturday of May, throngs of people and horses flock to Louisville, Kentucky, to experience one of the most renowned — and expensive — sporting events in the country. Many recognize the occasion other than just horses: fancy hats, mint juleps and more money changing hands than a day at the stock market. But in its essence, the Kentucky Derby is first and foremost one of the most eminent horse races and one of the grandest traditions in Southern culture. This year marks the 140th running of the Derby. The race has run during both world wars and endured through to the present today, drawing crowds of well over 100,000 fans, from horse lovers and socialites, to college students and gamblers. It is a rare occasion when all the disparate strands of society seem to intertwine. Drawn by the spirit of competition, the hopes of seeing the birth of another Triple Crown run or the extravagant fashion, everyone is gathered in one place for two of the most exciting minutes you’ll ever watch. Yet not everyone is enamored by the history and the horses. In Louisville native Hunter S. Thompson’s infamous portrayal of the excess and drunkenness that surrounds the event, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” the people and traditions are viewed through a satirical lens. All the expected caricatures make an appearance: the Texas oil barons, the raucous teenagers, the Kentucky Colonels and the hordes of wealthy elite. But Thompson’s essay comes full circle. Determined to enjoy the spectacle of the drunk and the reckless, he and his companion realize that by the end of their wild weekend, it is they themselves who act the most drunk and reckless. They came looking for a caricature of Southern decadence and, instead, joined the party. Despite his original intent, Thompson ends up illuminating — in an ironic fashion that would become gonzo journalism — the compelling aspects of the Kentucky Derby. While focusing on grotesque depictions of some of the lewder participants, what he’s created at the end is a story of unity. This rings of particular importance considering the time period his essay was written. Set against such cultural turbulence as the Kent State shooting, Black Panther riots and Nixon and Vietnam, his commentary stands in the middle of one of the most divisive times in American history. Yet he also points out how it is events and traditions such as the Derby that, despite these factors, continue to draw people together. This is crucial because the Kentucky Derby is so much more than just oversized hats and wallets. At its core, there still beats a heart of competition, tradition and a celebration of the unique bond between a horse and its rider. It’s true that the sport of horse racing has seen a steady decline over the years (due to financial, ethical and entertainment reasons). Races like the Kentucky Derby will, and should, endure as a vital brick in the wall of Southern culture and history. Sure, maybe it could use a few less mint juleps, bit of a dressing down and refocus back on the actual competition. Regardless, the Derby brings people together to celebrate some of the strongest values our society honors: tradition, respect and the unbridled spirit of competition. But perhaps most importantly, the Derby celebrates the joy found in gathering together with all kinds on a beautiful spring day. That is why it is still a relevant aspect of Southern and American culture, and why we need to keep running for the roses.

Rain all nite until dawn. No sleep. Christ, here we go, a nightmare of mud and madness … But no. By noon the sun burns through–perfect day, not even humid. – Hunter S. Thompson

Read Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 essay for Scanlan’s Monthly on the Kentucky Derby here Image credit: Ralph Steadman, Kentucky Derby, 1970; print available from artsy.net.

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