Talk Derby To Me, Baby!

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Here it is, the one time of the year when it’s actually encouraged to spend your Saturday night in Louisville, KY.  Celebrities in prodigious hats will sip mint juleps, inhale Woodford Reserve and talk the thoroughbred talk like they were born, raised and taught the ponies in the Commonwealth.  If you’ve ever wanted to pretend to be a southerner, here’s your chance.  It’s pretty much the only time it can be done without harsh social consequence.

But enough jibber-jabber, let’s get to the real reason everyone’s checking Lexpatriates on Derby Saturday: predictions.  My pick in this year’s run for the roses is Lookin At Lucky, the Kentucky-born progeny of Smart Strike, the half-brother of former Canadian Triple Crown winner Dance Smartly.  If my Bluegrass upbringing taught me anything, it’s that when picking Derby winners, 1) never bet against the distant horse-racing pedigree of former Canadian powerhouses and 2) always go with the favorite, no matter what post they draw; those guys win it pretty much every year.  I mean, they’re the favorites for a reason, you know?  Plus, Lucky’s got the rail.  My seventh-grade track and field experience taught me that spot actually has the shortest distance to run around the track.  Seriously.

Another reason for this post: it gives me an excuse to link to some of the finer works of Hunter S. Thompson, maybe the finest ambassador the city of Louisville’s ever known.

In honor of today’s shit show, we’ll kick it off with a Lexpatriates favorite:

“The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,”by Hunter S. Thompson (from Scanlan’s Monthly), 1970.

“The Derby, the actual race, was scheduled for late afternoon, and as the magic hour approached I suggested to Steadman that we should probably spend some time in the infield, that boiling sea of people across the track from the clubhouse. He seemed a little nervous about it, but since none of the awful things I’d warned him about had happened so far–no race riots, firestorms or savage drunken attacks–he shrugged and said, “Right, let’s do it.”

To get there we had to pass through many gates, each one a step down in status, then through a tunnel under the track. Emerging from the tunnel was such a culture shock that it took us a while to adjust. “God almighty!” Steadman muttered. “This is a…Jesus!” He plunged ahead with his tiny camera, stepping over bodies, and I followed, trying to take notes.”

“He Was a Crook,” by Hunter S. Thompson (from Rolling Stone), 1994.

“Richard Nixon is gone now, and I am poorer for it. He was the real thing — a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. He lied to his friends and betrayed the trust of his family. Not even Gerald Ford, the unhappy ex-president who pardoned Nixon and kept him out of prison, was immune to the evil fallout. Ford, who believes strongly in Heaven and Hell, has told more than one of his celebrity golf partners that “I know I will go to hell, because I pardoned Richard Nixon.”

“The 450-Square Mile Parking Lot,”by Hunter S. Thompson (from Pageant), 1965. (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4)

“If you count yourself in that legion of restless Americans who’ve been “thinking” for years about moving to California — and especially to the Los Angeles area in Southern California — you’d better get your plans into high gear pretty soon, or forget it.  Because the Golden State is getting crowded.  So many people have gone there seeking the “good life” that every year it gets harder and harder to find.”

Stuff I Read and Liked

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“The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,”by Hunter S. Thompson (from Scanlan’s Monthly), 1970.

“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?”

“The Dirtiest Player,” by Jason Fagone (from GQ), 2010.

Robert Nixon had seen everything. He had seen more than enough to put a rich and famous man, an NFL superstar, in prison. But this is what you tell the police unless you’re a fool. You can’t go wrong if you say you ain’t seen nothin’, and you can go very wrong if you say otherwise. And as far as Robert Nixon is concerned, what happened to the fat man with the Muslim beard is proof.

Nixon didn’t know the fat man with the Muslim beard when the fat man was still alive—that is to say, before he was perforated with bullets. But he’d seen him around. More than a year before the murder, Nixon stumbled upon the fat man lying in the street, in front of a water-ice stand, getting the crap beaten out of him by Marvin Harrison and Stanley McCray, one of Harrison’s employees.

It was a scene* to make anybody stop and watch. Broad daylight in North Philadelphia. April 29, 2008—a Tuesday. The corner of 25th Street and Thompson, about seven blocks north of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the steps Rocky climbed. A block of brick row houses, a church with a rubbed-out sign, a Hispanic grocery, a vacant lot. In one sense, the presence of a future Hall of Famer at this seedy vortex of the city—Harrison, eight-time Pro Bowl wide receiver with the Indianapolis Colts, then at the tail end of a thirteen-season career and a $67 million contract—was incongruous. Especially given that Harrison, who is usually described as “quiet” and “humble,” was noisily stomping the fat man in the face and gut.”

“We Still Hold Our Breath For Air Jordan,” By Bill Simmons (from ESPN.com), 2001.

“I’ll go this far: You could drag somebody off the street — let’s say, a homeless person who doesn’t follow sports and couldn’t pick MJ out of a police lineup — bring him into the arena before a Wizards-Celtics game, sit him somewhere close to the floor, have him watch the layup lines and ask him, “Which person stands out?” And he would pick Jordan. He just would. There’s something about him, an instinctive posture that says two things: “I know everyone’s looking at me right now … and they should be.”

When MJ comes to town, before the game, people have a collective hop in their step. You can sense it. You look around 15 minutes before game time and realize that 75 percent of the fans have already arrived (it sounds like the crowd before a rock concert, waiting for the lights to turn off). Every male patron exudes a glazed, giddy, “I’m important because I’m attending this important game” glow. Every female patron seems to have spent an extra 10 minutes getting ready. Little kids look like ready to self-combust. Wide-eyed teenagers stand in the first few rows, rocking back and forth, holding pens, pathetically desperate, praying against 1,000,000,000-to-1 odds that MJ will inexplicably leave the lay-up line, vault the press table and glide into the stands to sign autographs. And when MJ comes out, he stops the place cold. All eyes shift to him. Fans start making strange sounds. You hear squeals and cries mixed in with appreciative applause, and then a slow-developing roar emerges, almost like a chain reaction: “hhhhhhhhrrrrrrrrrrrHHHHHHRRRRRRAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!”

MJ’s in the house.”