04/11/2008 12:00AM

Searching for a party leader


"Zoolander" was a movie about the world of high fashion that featured the line, "Have you ever wondered if there was more to life, other than being really, really, ridiculously good looking?"

There was also a Manchurian candidate subplot, jokes about styling gel, and a male model smackdown refereed by David Bowie. In addition, there was the unveiling of a line of clothing, dredged from the unfortunate depths of society, that celebrated the "look" of people forced to live on the street. It was called Derelicte.

Like most good bits, this was inspired by the real world, in this case the fashion phenomenon of the early 1990s known as "grunge" that attempted to domesticate and re-package the stuff Kurt Cobain and his pals used to buy for a buck in a Seattle thrift shop when that's all they had to spend. When Calvin Klein went grunge, and torn flannel shirts started going for $125, you knew the party was over.

Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, is only the most recent corporate entity to troll the lower reaches for fun and profit. And no, this is not a reference to the company's attachment of the Yum! Brands family of fast and slippery foods to the official name of the Derby itself. That, ladies and gentlemen, is mainstream America all the way.

The promotional wing of the Churchill Downs operation has turned its attention to the glory of its annual infield orgy on Derby Day, a 12-hour marathon of extreme behavior whose traditional elements include alcohol, mud, vomit and, weather permitting, acres of exposed, sunburned flesh.

In a contest that ends Sunday, Churchill Downs has been advertising for a Chief Party Officer (there will be a brief pause to appreciate the wordplay). Auditions for the role have been sent to Churchill Downs via YouTube. The selected individual will be showered with all sorts of goodies and asked to preside over this year's infield hijinks.

For promotional purposes, the Derby Day infield is being compared to Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, which I guess Churchill Downs gets to do because it also owns the Fair Grounds. But really, what do the two revels have in common other than the public consumption of many cocktails and a tribal urge to roam in packs, swagger, and howl?

"It's an experience of acceptable excess and is forgivably risque," notes the Churchill Downs website in describing the infield on Derby Day. "A place where you overeat, overspend, and over flirt."

The logo for the promotion is a silhouetted male wearing a T-shirt and a crown, his left fist raised in triumphant "Wahoo!" and his right hand brandishing a 20-ounce cup. Filled with green tea, no doubt.

Horse racing seems to be in a panic to be relevant, but in a twist of the old Huey Lewis tune, it can be very square to try and be so hip. Still, the embrace of public drunkeness in the name of a corporate promotion is probably nothing new - ever been on spring break? - and what else does Churchill Downs have left to feed its publicity machine, besides, of course, the most famous sporting event in America this side of the Super Bowl.

For sheer human depravity and rate of arrests, the Preakness infield is and ever shall be king. The Derby infield is more of a twisted pilgrimage, and everyone worth their blood type wanders into the chaos at one time or another.

Some linger longer than others, raising the issue of personal choice. But really, you usually don't see anything more alarming than might be encountered at the average rock festival, and most of the action is reasonably clean, with the definite exception of 2004 when a drenching storm hit the track between the running of the Woodford Reserve and the Derby. Plumbing reacted badly, and before you knew it a grassy depression at the east end of the infield was filled and beckoning. The bacteria were big as Po-Boys, but folks were still diving in headfirst.

Hunter Thompson would have loved it. The native of Louisville was a infield regular in his youth. Later, when he was actually paid to attend - and write about the 1970 Derby for Scanlan's Monthly - he peered down from the press box on the day before the race, waved a hand toward the infield, and warned of what the 'morrow would bring:

"That whole thing will be jammed with people; fifty thousand or so, and most of them staggering drunk," Thompson wrote, in "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved." "It's a fantastic scene - thousands of people fainting, crying, copulating, trampling each other and fighting with broken whiskey bottles. We'll have to spend some time out there, but it's hard to move around, too many bodies."

The corporate creed of Churchill Downs in recent times has leaned heavily on crowd control and liability concerns, which is why such potentially dangerous elements as umbrellas and tubes of sunscreen are not allowed at the track on Derby Day. But rather than clamp down and spoil all the fun, Churchill Downs has decided to institutionalize the capacity of its infield customers for free-wheeling excess. Next, look for the official Derby infield line of clothing . . . Alcoholique.