The famous race is in the news again, and when looking through image galleries with pictures from previous years I can’t help but think of Thompson’s early essay where he covered it in 1970 – he aptly called the race “Decadent and Depraved” and not much has changed since.
I got off the plane around midnight and no one spoke as I crossed the dark runway to the terminal. The air was thick and hot, like wandering into a steam bath. Inside, people hugged each other and shook hands…big grins and a whoop here and there: “By God! You old bastard! Good to see you, boy! Damn good…and I mean it!”
In the air-conditioned lounge I met a man from Houston who said his name was something or other–”but just call me Jimbo”–and he was here to get it on. “I’m ready for anything, by God! Anything at all. Yeah, what are you drinkin?” I ordered a Margarita with ice, but he wouldn’t hear of it: “Naw, naw…what the hell kind of drink is that for Kentucky Derby time? What’s wrong with you, boy?” He grinned and winked at the bartender. “Goddam, we gotta educate this boy. Get him some good whiskey…”
I shrugged. “Okay, a double Old Fitz on ice.” Jimbo nodded his approval.
“Look.” He tapped me on the arm to make sure I was listening. “I know this Derby crowd, I come here every year, and let me tell you one thing I’ve learned–this is no town to be giving people the impression you’re some kind of faggot. Not in public, anyway. Shit, they’ll roll you in a minute, knock you in the head and take every goddam cent you have.”
I thanked him and fitted a Marlboro into my cigarette holder.
“Say,” he said, “you look like you might be in the horse business…am I right?”
“No,” I said. “I’m a photographer.”
“Oh yeah?” He eyed my ragged leather bag with new interest. “Is that what you got there–cameras? Who you work for?”
“Playboy,” I said.
Continue reading more (starts on page 12).
Wikipedia provides some background on the piece:
The article’s focus is less on the actual race itself—indeed, Thompson and Steadman could not actually see the race from their standpoint—and more on the celebration and depravity that surrounds the event. Thompson provides up-close views of life in the Derby infield as well as the grandstand, and a running commentary on the drunkenness and lewdness of the crowd, which he states in narration as the only thing he was focusing on with the work. The narrative ends with a bittersweet anagnorisis somewhat common of Thompson’s work in which Thompson and Steadman (the latter of whom also had similar goals to Thompson’s, of capturing the debauched atmosphere in his surreal drawings), after several days of immersing themselves in raucous partying and alcoholism to get a sense of the event, realize they’re exactly the type of people they originally planned to caricature.