Nothing much has changed since June 1970 when Hunter S Thompson’s break-out piece, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” was published by Scanlan’s Monthly. The Kentucky Derby, which swung into horrifying action this Friday, is still a hotbed of decadent and depraved behavior from the Southern Horse Racing glitterati and their admirers.
I envy Hunter and his sidekick and illustrator extraordinaire, Ralph Steadman, their trip to the steamy whiskey-scented south, and the chance to watch the wildlife and horse-torturers up close. It is not often someone gets the opportunity to look at everything which is wrong with society, full in the eye, and pass by mostly unnoticed. After all in the eye of the decadent and depraved storm, nobody notices a minor freak, and dubious behavior is almost always excused.
The fillies ran in the Kentucky Oaks yesterday. Secret Oath won ahead of Nest and Desert Dawn, proving that intrigue and obscurification win ahead of domesticity and possibly ‘furrin’ outside interests every single time, at least in the land of the slugger, in Louisville, Kentucky. Come rain or shine, mud and heat, the horses will run, and historically speaking, at least a few will die. There have been accusations from Peta, of racehorses being abused, drugged and made to run despite being hurt. Peta claim that 24 horses die weekly on race tracks in the USA, and trainer Gordon Elliott made the news after putting a photo of himself up on social media, sitting on a dead horse and joking about it. The Kentucky Derby runs on equine suffering. The punters love to see ‘mudders’ – horses that can run well in mud, but how many of them shed a tear for the horse when it breaks a leg and has to be euthanized right there on the track?
Just last year, the winner of the Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit, died of a heart attack three days after winning the race, after being disqualified for pissing a positive drug test. Horse racing has a problem, and the nature of the beast is that it cannot be solved by making the ‘sport’ more humane. There is nothing else for it but to force horse racing to cease, because it is inherently cruel. Like human body builders who cannot compete unless they ruin their health with steroids, equine racers are given more drugs than Hunter S Thompson managed to imbibe in Las Vegas, simply to be able to continue to race competitively. Medina Spirit’s sad demise proves the point. Where human athletes can weigh up the risks and make active choices to dope themselves into bad health and early heart attacks, the horses are forced into this decadent sport where they, the stars, matter the least.
You see where there are race horses, there is big money and big power. Every rich famous person from the Queen of England, to Saudi Arabian rulers; to Alain and Gerard Wertheimer who own the Chanel fashion house and Kevin Plank who owns Under Armour – the list goes on and on. Horse racing is the sport of Kings and Queens, banking magnates and Campbell’s Soup billionaires. The people don’t have the power, the rich do, and it is events like the Kentucky Derby that see them come out to schmooze and play. I can barely make myself look at the inhabitants of the winner’s circle – I feel like a lame zebra in front of a whole gang of ugly starving lions. I can only imagine how the horses feel, when they are doped up to the eyeballs to be made to run faster despite horrendous conditions and life threatening possibilities. The rich are slavering for equine blood.
The Kentucky Derby this year is run amid just as much turmoil as the 1970 race. In his 1970 piece, Hunter started, or at least perpetuated a rumor that the Black Panthers were going to protest at the Derby. I suspect he did it to put a cat amongst the pigeons of the rich and depraved. I suppose there are worse ways than getting 1970 southern rich white society to show their racist core, than seeing how they react to such news. It was not pretty.
This year, I suppose the equivalent would be to tell these Southern ‘Pro-Life’ supporters of banning abortion that there were going to be some hard hitting feminist Angry Women chaining themselves to some million dollar race horses whilst demanding that Kentucky allow free and unfettered access to abortion services. That would put The Fear into them, and no doubt a little loathing and hatred too.
Control and Chaos, the naughty twins of the early 2020s are still on the ascendant, and whilst the rabidly Christian, right wing and conservative try and exert control, and to be frank, so do the woke and demanding-of-compliance left wing. I am left in the center waving a ragged Stars and Stripes, wondering if the middle can ever hold. I suspect the answer is no. There is too much pressure being exerted from the far reaches of either side for the center to ever be comfortable. In return the constant struggle leads to chaos and lack of non-vanilla unsweetened soy milk on the shelves, not to mention the biggest shortage of baby formula this country has ever seen. Don’t worry about the horses, I hear the peanut throwing Easter-bonnet wearing crowds demand, we have bigger fish to fry!
This constant see sawing between extremes is doing my head in. I have spent the past 48 hours alternating between rocking on the sofa listening to Metal Machine Music, and furiously writing letters to the editor of some famous etiquette book wanting to know why on earth manners matter more than Truthful, Honest expressions of deeply held feelings. Let it all hang out…and to be frank, the chattering non-horse owning fans of the Kentucky Derby, for all their cotillion classes and debutante balls, are grotesque in their exhibition of wasteful, gaudy, ugly excess and suspension of good manners. It is hard to be polite when hopped up on cheap diluted race track whiskey, big money gambling and equine suffering.
The Kentucky Derby is a place where current events go to die, or at least be put on the backburner while some horses are being tortured. There is no sign of the fact that the Ukraine is being reduced to rubble and Putin is parading thermonuclear missiles through Red Square, after threatening to nuke the west on multiple occasions. Just like in Hunter’s day he found there was no news of a little war in Vietnam or the unrest at Kent State university while he was covering the Kentucky Derby race meet. Civil rights and war mattered nothing to the masses cutting it up and getting loose at the Kentucky Derby in 1970, and they don’t appear to matter much now. Where are the pussy hats? The abortion rights placards? Where are the Ukrainian sunflowers and other protests about civil rights and things that actually matter to humanity? They are nowhere to be seen, instead there are men in pink Colonel Saunders style suits and outrageous Easter Bonnets, and women wearing things on their heads that cannot possibly be seen as decent, or even good for their health.
Flowers and studded stiffened leather straps arranged into violent bouquets and then pinned onto hair that has been sprayed to within an inch of it’s life, cheap-looking fascinators fashioned from the best arts and crafts supplies that the local Hobby Lobby (Bastion of right-wing ideology and alleged smugglers of illegal near east biblical artifacts) can supply, outrageous mad hatter confections perched on the heads of men who have the balls to wear a Colonel Sanders suit, but do so with appalling black shoes that don’t match, are the order of the day. My dear boys, be outrageous, but come on now! Black shoes with a light pink suit? Penny loafers in navy with a white suit and waistcoat? True depravity knows no bounds!
Everyone has a drink in their hands, a mint julep or a whiskey on the rocks. Some of the less stylish rock bottles of beer and pink betting slips which fall to the ground like so much wasted confetti. Faces are shiny and red with alcohol, some strain at the seams after bad plastic surgery, and more than a few sport desperate countenances courtesy of the only thing that these bastards like, enjoy, and dare I say, crave..from south of the border, other than avocados.
It looks like a mad house down there, and all the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ people of Southern Society are at it. I can’t get the true flavor of the debauchery observed by Hunter S Thompson and his errant artist sidekick, Ralph Steadman from my living room sofa. I really need to be there down where the action is. Hunter describes scenes of wild drunken brawls, in piss soaked clothes, begging for workers to take their bets and reaching new heights of desperation as they lose more and more moolah. Scenes of total depravity and desperation pour from the pages. I can only get a second hand kick from the photos and video of the event.
Back in 1970 there was a huge upset about a woman jockey riding in the Derby: nowadays in Kentucky that might be the only way a woman can secure a legal abortion. We have slid so far back in our thinking and quest for a truly free and equal society, that I fear the only way from here is back even further. Gay marriage is on the chopping block, and I fear civil rights are not far behind.
This is a reactionary decade, marred by disease and violence and lack of respect for democracy meaning the rule of the people, by the people, for the people. Even the venerable, though conservative, Clarence Thomas was quoted as saying that Americans are “becoming addicted to wanting particular outcomes” from SCOTUS. “We can’t be an institution that can be bullied into giving you just the outcomes you want,” he said. But surely this is the entire point of democracy, not bullying, but giving the people the outcomes that they want! Surely that is democracy and the people are ‘addicted’ to having majority rule imposed upon those who are meant to represent us, the people? I just don’t understand it.
The lesson I learnt from the Kentucky Derby is that the desired outcome can be achieved by whipping the horse’s eyes, running until the point of pulmonary embolism and blood gushing from the nose, drugging and pushing to the point of breaking with no regard for life or limb. I am sure that is not the kind of society we should be pushing for or the kind of lessons anyone needs to learn.
I would like to put horse racing up to the common vote and see how many people would vote to put the pleasure of the depraved who take joy from suffering animals, whilst getting wrecked and wearing ugly hats, over the rights of animals not to be tortured and killed for pleasure. The Kentucky Derby is still vile and depraved 52 years after Hunter S Thompson declared he found it to be so, and more than that, society has not only failed to evolve decently, we have devolved into a state much more depraved than anything 1970 had to offer. There is still war, there is still suffering, there is still control and chaos fighting for supremacy, and still, amid all the upheaval and risk, there are people who like to waste wealth and party while the rest of the country struggles to put food on the table and pay the rent, and that might be the most vile and decadent act of all.
You can’t make this shit up. A long odds winner took the Kentucky Derby, with Trump looking on. The winner was an 80 to 1 long shot called Rich Strike. The horse had longer odds than Trump himself winning the 2024 election. The flagrantly decadent Trump, his very name now a byword for excesses and lack of control and propriety, then held a $75,000 dollar a head fundraiser in Mitch Maconnell’s home state. Let’s forget about the flagrant animal abuse, endorsed by the ultimately rich and powerful and a horse named after their ethos, just for a moment, and consider this. The most corrupt politician since Dirty Dickie gets his hands and money deep into the Kentucky Derby and it’s movers and shakers. The Kentucky Derby might well be the ultimate expression of the downfall of democracy and decency in my beloved United States of America. What is dirtier and downer, more decadent and depraved, more full of fear and loathing, chaos and control, than Trump at a horse-abuse fest in Kentucky, playing power broker while society burns and war rages in Europe? Nothing. I cannot think of a single goddamn thing. Right now the longest shot of all looks like the world escaping the 2020s without some hugely disastrous breakdown of society and crisis without conscience. The Kentucky Derby is indeed deeply vile, depraved and decadent. The rich fiddle while the world burns, and I for one can’t let it happen without at least raising the alarm call. There is trouble brewing, and you don’t need a weatherman to tell you which way the wind is going to blow off those ridiculous hats.
“We have slid so far back in our thinking and quest for a truly free and equal society, that I fear the only way from here is back even further.” Sliding into the abyss with a goofy hat on our heads… I enjoyed this, however painful it is to read.
My adventures in Hunter S Thompson studies bare bitter fruit. I hope it was less painful to read than to write…Apologies for the goofy photo editing…