The Kentucky Derby is tamed, and it's a shame

Kentucky Derby Previews Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Kentucky Derby Previews Michael Reaves/Getty Images

I grew up on the backstretch of Churchill Downs, learning to imbibe, thrive and survive. From 1971 through 1979 I attended every wild Kentucky Derby ride I could and regret nothing for the bodily fluids I voluntarily and involuntarily left there.

Today that wild ride is tamed, and it’s a shame.

If you take the stoic’s view, then this too shall pass. But, the observer in me can’t help but notice the comic elements of the passing.

The Derby’s reputation as an out-of-control party that made Woodstock seem like a church fish fry rose at the height of the counterculture of the 1960s and culminated in 1970 with an article in Scanlan’s Monthly written by Hunter S. Thompson, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” The article was cheered as one of the first examples of “Gonzo” Journalism. Thompson could not have picked a better subject for his acid and bourbon-soaked narrative.

The infield of the Derby – the general admission area inside the racetrack where you couldn’t catch a glimpse of a horse – was a hippy fest of Biblical proportions during my youth. When Charlton Heston marched down from the mountain with the 10 Commandments in hand, rumor was the orgy scene in the movie was taken from memories of the Derby infield – though they had to dial it back for the movies.

In 1971 infield tickets were $3. LSD and marijuana, among other potent potables and edibles, were available at several locations inside the track from freelancers who sold their illegal wares to help everyone enjoy the day. While you couldn’t bring in your own liquor, patrons devised several ingenious methods to smuggle in alcohol past the requisite security searches prior to entrance. False bottoms in coolers were popular, as was inserting a clear bag of alcohol into a two-liter soda bottle, hidden by your favorite soda. Those worked occasionally, but my favorite method was smuggling my favorite bourbon in a large bottle of contact solution. That method always worked. 

In the infield on the back stretch of Churchill Downs, you’d occasionally see large groups of teens and young adults holding tarps and tossing people, many of them naked, into the air to the sounds of rock n’ roll, Motown, and the squeals of laughter and enjoyment that come with an early-morning buzz and a deep love of public nudity. Some of the most memorable occasions came during rainstorms – but cool, clear days brought their fun as well.

The infield smelled like bourbon, mint, horse manure (when the breeze was right), sweat, weed and the midway at your local county fair. Watered-down mint juleps were sold at concession stands and by vendors who walked through the crowd of half-naked people, some vomiting, some singing, some copulating and all of them partying. There were few fights, although one occasionally broke out and quickly subsided with the arrival of track security, cops, National Guard troops or because someone broke it up before it escalated. It was an atmosphere untainted by politics or religion. “To Hell with the horses, I came to party” was a popular t-shirt. Randy teenage boys could be seen walking around with signs that read “show us your t*ts” and they never failed to be surprised when someone did. Randy teenage girls had signs saying “Show us your package” – and had occasional offers as well.

Infield tickets increased in price over the years, first from $5 to $10, then $20 and $25 before I ditched the infield for the grandstands. I didn’t see a horse until 1984 when I got to work the Derby as a reporter for the first time and witnessed the wind carrying Howard Cosell’s toupee aloft. 

In the early 90s, I graduated to so-called Millionaire’s Row when I came back to Louisville as a correspondent for “America’s Most Wanted.” We put together a show about grifters and Derby scams, and got a table at the Finish Line several floors up, overlooking the track. The denizens of Millionaire’s Row wore white linen, seersucker suits, flowery hats and expensive lace versus the short pants and bathing suits among those who lived in the infield. Coolers were replaced by waiters who brought you everything you needed – often including whatever illicit drug of choice you craved. Celebrities wandered through Millionaire’s Row, as half-naked or violently vomiting as their lesser heeled brethren who never saw a horse. It was, in short, a communal experience. Though money helped grease the skids, the entire experience wasn’t about the Benjamins.

The lines between have and have nots was noticeable, but the attitude? Everybody came for a good time. 

The city of Louisville, itself had the same character. The entire week ahead of the derby was filled with activities including the Great Steamboat Race, a mini-marathon, and a massive fireworks display from a downtown bridge that rivaled anything ever staged at the National Mall in Washington D.C. for Independence Day. The city cleaned itself up, and put its best face forward. Bars were open 24/7 during Derby week. Streets were closed down while music played and people roamed around sampling a variety of cuisine from food vendors.

People passed out in the street, sold space on their front lawns for parking and generally acted as if there wasn’t a care in the world.. Many among us felt the week was just a great big party and everyone was invited. 

A newspaper article in the Courier-Journal and Louisville Times, about the time of the 100th Derby (won by Cannonade) speculated what the 150th Derby would look like. For the most part, the speculation was fairly accurate.

A five-story Jumbo Tron dominates the infield today. Additional seating has destroyed what little view infield dwellers have of the track. A turf course years ago cut down the size of the infield and the Twin Spires that once dominated Churchill Downs are now dwarfed by the Disneyland amusement park surrounding the track. 

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But the Run for the Roses has lost something over the years. More than 160K attended the track in 1974 for the 100th race. Many of those, in the infield, paid little for their tickets and the pleasure of being there. Those in Millionaire’s Row paid much more, but it wasn’t like today where you can spend $135K for a private suite and just to purchase a general admission “Infield” ticket costs you $130.

The divide between the classes is as dramatic as ever in society and that is reflected at the Kentucky Derby. Outside the gates at The Downs, those in the surrounding lower middle-class neighborhood still charge to park in their front yard – and sometimes not much more than they got 50 years ago.  

People still pass out and walk around the street at all hours of the night. But, somehow, the town seems different. Political ads and vendors selling political swag of the MAGA and other variety are in several places. The town seems less clean and more worn out. A public bathroom at a gas station on Grinstead Drive and Bardstown Road in the Highlands – one of the most progressive neighborhoods in Louisville – is marked with graffiti that claims it was voted “The dirtiest public restroom in Louisville”. Mitch McConnell lives near there – maybe he’s to blame.

The Derby is still a fun afternoon, but it now costs what a family of two will spend for a week’s worth of groceries just to purchase the cheapest ticket. The most expensive seats cost more than a middle-class family will make in a year. Corporations have bought and sold the Derby. It’s no longer decadent. It’s no longer depraved.

The Paddock area is ostentatious. The appearance is decadent, but the reality is something else. Somehow, somewhere when they homogenized the Derby, they pulled some of the fun out of it. While it hits many of the old familiar notes— the genteel southern charm, the hats, the suits, the drinking and the infield mayhem — it’s a pale shadow of its former self. It’s not a wild hippy ride of freedom. It’s a corporate imitation of the same. It’s sanitized Disney under a five-story Jumbotron. 

It’s enough to make me want to pick up a bottle of Wild Turkey 101 (the kickin’ chicken) drop a couple of hits of purple windowpane acid and chase the ghost of Hunter S. Thompson for several days on end looking for the perfect Derby degenerate – only to look in the mirror and realize it was me all along.

Oh, the good ole’ days.