05/04/2016 10:46AM

Hovdey: Thompson told of a different Derby


The list of objects banned from Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day includes coolers, cans, glass bottles, laptops, tripods, selfie sticks, grills, alcohol, backpacks, luggage, wagons, umbrellas, weapons, fireworks, air horns, laser pointers, mace, pepper spray, drones, hoverboards, and animals, with the exception of service animals for patrons with disabilities. Cash is okay.

Those forbidden Derby items are not to be confused with the collection of traveling goods stowed in the trunk of the red Chevy convertible rented by Hunter S. Thompson and his attorney for their trip to Las Vegas in 1971 to cover an off-road race called the Mint 400. But they’re in the ballpark:

“We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls.”

In “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” written for Rolling Stone, Thompson is still sailing high and wild on the twisted energy he tapped to write “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” for Scanlan’s Monthly the year before. Scanlan’s lasted only eight issues, but “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” has lived on, like a stubborn literary virus, infecting every first Saturday in May with its fevered take on America’s signature horse-racing event.

“But now,” Thompson wrote in the wake of that 1970 Derby, “looking back at the big red notebook I carried all through that scene, I see more or less what happened. The book itself is somewhat mangled and bent; some of the pages are torn, others are shriveled and stained by what appears to be whiskey, but taken as a whole, with sporadic memory flashes, the notes seem to tell the story.”

Unlike the corporately controlled, Yum! Brands-presented Derby of the modern era, the Kentucky Derby atmosphere of 1970 was unapologetically unhinged, awash in alcohol, Southern gentry, and bad behavior. The Derby scene was Vegas on the Ohio, a grimy, sweat-soaked experience, its memories shared only later by dazed survivors.

Lord knows what they let you take into the track back then, but the most dangerous item brought through the gates by Thompson on that bygone May 2 afternoon was his collaborator, the young British artist Ralph Steadman, who was armed with a small camera, sketch pad, and a growing paranoia coloring his first big American assignment.

The relationship between Thompson, Steadman, and the Kentucky Derby as told in “Decadent and Depraved” is the subject of “Gonzo @ the Derby,” a short feature released this week under ESPN’s “30 for 30” banner of historic sports landmarks. Michael Ratner, head of OBB Pictures, produced and directed the mini-doc, with Oscar winner Sean Penn, a Thompson acolyte, reading from the article’s text and sharing memories of his friend.

At that point in Thompson’s career, he had yet to establish a firm beachhead on crazy island, but he was close. His book about the Hell’s Angels set him on a path of embedded “gonzo” journalism that required the writer to become part of the story being told. In that sense, the Derby was the perfect target for the return of a Louisville boy once run out of town as a worthless delinquent. Thompson knew the Derby better than most.

“Along with politicians, society belles, and local captains of commerce,” Thompson wrote, “every half-mad dingbat who ever had any pretensions to anything at all within five hundred miles of Louisville will show up there to get strutting drunk and slap a lot of backs and generally make himself obvious.”

It is Steadman, 79, who remains the only eyewitness to the events. Thompson died in 2005 by a self-inflicted gunshot in his Colorado cabin.

“I think after the first two days, there was nothing there to take seriously,” Steadman says in “Gonzo @ the Derby.” “I went completely off my head. By the time the end of the week came, I was a basket case.”

But as Thompson himself always insisted, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” Steadman’s raw illustrations for “Decadent and Depraved” revealed him as an heir to the disturbing imagery of George Grosz and set him on a path of critical and commercial success that thrives to this day.

“It’s shocking to work with him,” Thompson said in an interview for Steadman’s book “America,” published in 1974. “Just about the time I’m starting to sit down and get to work, he’s finished. It’s depressing. It took me three weeks to write that Kentucky Derby story, but Steadman did his drawings in three days.”

Thompson’s exaggerated style is not for everyone, which is probably for the best. Later, he was set loose upon not only Las Vegas but also the Super Bowl, the America’s Cup, high-stakes polo, and all corners of culture and politics, each time delivering his prose with a vengeance that made readers recoil even as they were being entertained.

Let’s face it, though: There is really no polite way to describe the Kentucky Derby, which is essentially a two-minute equine hurlyburly used as an excuse to foment a week’s worth of commercial and social excess. Thompson nailed it 46 years ago, and, as appreciated in “Gonzo @ the Derby,” the nails still hold.