Watching the Real Beasts Perform
A Derby Virgin Walks the Well-Trod Infield
By Adam Brun
“… the appeal to tradition is not an appeal that can be made to barbarians.”
from A Ceremony , a play by Wallace Stevens
Evidently, word jockey Wally Stevens (no relation to Thoroughbred jock Gary) never made it to the infield on Derby Day.
Here I sit, on the morning of Super Bowl XXXV, to write about the infield at Kentucky Derby 2000. Both of these national sporting holidays are irreparably intertwined with the seminal writings of Louisville’s Hunter S. Thompson, who thirty years ago penned his account of the 96th running, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” for Scanlan’s Monthly. Dust Commander won at 16-1 that year.
That was a quick thirty clicks on the calendar. Then again, these nine months have passed almost as quickly as the two minutes it took Fusaichi Pegasus to earn an unstartling victory with his impressive acceleration off the final turn. But time is as good as any other prism through which to view the Derby infield tradition – at least as effective as Bollè wraparounds, Pappy Van Winkle’s, network television or some legacy batch of ’70′s windowpane.
Fermented excellence is what it’s all about. That and endurance – which was the first type of horse racing that thrived in Louisville. Oh, and tradition of course, what Thompson called that “saleable” tradition. The armada of hats, cash and finery couched beneath the spires goes round and round with the drunken raunch, cash and debauchery of the infield. And as the hierarchy of conformation reigns in the paddock, non-conformity holds a contest all its own across the way.
Old Granddad Time brings a special luster to every lingering infield story. There’s the one my friend tells about finding a perch atop the day’s pile of beer cans to actually catch a glimpse of the steeds rushing by, with her horse winning to boot. Another buddy regales me with a tale of streakers across the tops of the PortaPottys. That display inspired a volley of thrown garbage – “People in the grandstands said all you could see was the air filled with trash,” he says. That in turn was followed by his being knocked out by a hurled cooler.
“I reached for my girlfriend as my knees started to crumble,” he remembers. “Next thing I know I’m waking up thirty seconds later. There were about 40 people around me, somebody broke through saying they were with EMT and started asking me the questions like my name and all that. He said I might have a small concussion, but no big deal. Then another guy leans over while I’m still laying down and says, ‘Man, you look like you need a beer,’ and gives me a drink.”
So there’s more than one way to get unconscious in the infield. But while most infield tales involve altered states, others tell of friendships forged years before, since annealed in annual memories made of substance more human than illicit. The Derby is as full or as void of magic as you make it. Depends on where you choose to look.
I drive to my first Derby from the dawning heart of the bluegrass whence so much of the champion blood pumps… from the karst through the limestone into that special pastureland is that blood refined and strained and cooked just under the boil. The scattered fog is just beginning to dissipate as I leave the farms and turn left at the “Bourbon Candy” sign.
An hour later I’m parked and ambling through the neighborhood to the track. Don’t forget to stop in at the Quarter Pole Lounge for your early morning bloody mary. Look over in the dark corner by the bandstand, and there’s a wheezing old man in a bed covered with a blanket, hovering, nursing a beverage as he’s nursed by his companion. It’s an eerie tableau for a Derby morning. And here I always thought Ralph Steadman’s drawings were exaggerated.
A concentric set of not-so-vicious circles comprise the Kentucky Derby tradition, led by the industry model of breeders feeding racers feeding breeders in turn. Purses, fields and betting pools whirl in their lucrative orbit. Finally, following up the city’s Pegasus Parade comes a handsome procession in its own right – the tradition-laden March of the Red Wagons, each lugging a unique mix of provisions.
Outside the track, I count nine airborne vessels in very close proximity, joining the dull roar of every generator in town, working like they do at every media spectacle to keep our inflatable myths full of air. The engine noise meshes into the dull roar of the crowd at the parimutuel windows, which evolves in turn into the inchoate roar of the tunnel.
People rally to get a roar going as they come through that tunnel, riding its reverberations as they emerge into the infield. It’s a primal, general yell – although some are coordinated enough at this early stage to actually sing drinking songs in unison.
I fall in step on an endless carousel, drifting through all the turns, navigating the Catholic section, the family section, the college section. Groups cordon off their party areas with the now ubiquitous crime scene tape, either hoping for the worst or hoping to repel it. I make several crossings through the tunnel, fording my way through one nexus after another, passing close enough to the paddock to smell the cologne.
At sporting events of any brand these days, the opportunity to watch seems to outweigh any kind of participation. This point had been driven home to me with sickening irony not long before at a Louisville minor league baseball game, where the crowd’s attention was much more riveted on a manufactured computerized animation between innings than on anything that actually happened on the field before them. You might as well just hand everybody a ready-made box score and send them on their way. Or, in the case of horse racing, maybe one of those clever little Lottery games where you can scratch your way to a photo finish. But then you’d miss the crowd scan camera, where you can watch yourself watching all the watching going on.
It feels like there’s about, oh, 153,204 people here… and by god, there are – the second-largest crowd in Derby history. They’ll go on to bet nearly $10 million on just the one race alone ($63.50 per attendee), while the rest of the world bets over $55 million.
John Gaver, Churchill Downs’ website content editor and grandson of famous John Hay Whitney Greentree Stable trainer John Gaver III, informs me during a smoke break outside his cubicle that there have already been eight million hits on the site this week, and a million and a half this morning alone. “We can’t even get updates on there on a timely basis,” he says.
I had planned to avoid wagering altogether, cleverly picking all my winners the day before at the convenient drive-through windows of placid, demure Keeneland over in Lexington. But then I got to thinking – a sure sign of Derby fever. What the hell, everybody likes at least one bet to go for a name that holds some significance. In 1999, Tipper Gore won by picking Charismatic, but apparently that word’s magic didn’t stick where it needed to. The future President “W” is showing this year – we can’t make him out from the oval, but I have run into a large number of Texans.
Sandy Beck, a fast-talking woman from Dallas, is at her first Derby too. Since gambling boats have been in the news around Louisville, I ask her about the wagering options in her neck of the woods, and whether they detract from the horse racing scene.
“Those boats don’t seem to hurt Louisiana,” she says. “A lot of times they hit the races during the day and the casinos at night. People are going to gamble one way or the other – just give them the opportunity and they’re gonna spend their money.”
“I’d pick going to the races over going to a casino boat anytime,” says Louisvillian Ernestine Thomas, who’d just as soon be on the grandstand side today if she still had those seats.
There’s plenty of law enforcement around, including a contingent of military police. They’re out on the roofs watching for trouble, more than ready to use those billy clubs. Some of the girls are taunting the cops lined up on the observation platform out by the rail. The uniforms smoke their cigars and raise their binoculars to their mirror shades for the next sighting. They’re looking for signs of trouble, looking for bodies.
“I’d heard so much about the infield I had to go over there and see it for myself,” says Robert Longwell-Grice of the 1999 race. “The worst behavior I saw was the passing of naked women over the heads of hundreds of men, all of them drunk out of their minds. I was so shocked that I went home and told my 16-year-old daughter that I never want to hear that she went to the Derby infield when she’s in college, because I’ll know the kind of shenanigans she’ll have been up to.”
Two hours into my infield excursion, I see the first pair of bare breasts, high astride some young stud’s shoulders. Suddenly, now that the gauntlet has been thrown down, lifted women are lifting their easy-off tops on all sides. Two well-dressed matrons walk over to the rail from the temporary grandstands and find themselves being egged on to join in the baring. Their blushing laughter lights up the concession lines.
Over here’s a sex dummy on stick, wobbling in the air with its big red mouth, not far from the big inflatable penis. Some of the celebrants are draped with beads, an obvious theft (along with the breast-baring) from the Mardi Gras tradition, but nonetheless fitting for a sister river city with French heritage. We may have a ways to go to reach a consistently high (low?) level of decadence however.
“At Mardi Gras, I was in a bar, and a girl came over and peed in my beer,” remembers a local stockbroker and fellow Derby virgin. “That really pissed me off.”
Betty DeFreese, an elementary school art teacher here from Greenwood, Indiana, tells me about the flashers she’d seen here back in the hippie days. “They would climb up the flagpoles, and you would see their bare you-know-whats,” she says. “For a country girl from Terre Haute, that was something to behold.” The year of Secretariat, she says, they tore down the fences, “and we were so close, we actually had mud kicked on us from the track.”
Just then, Betty, the binoculared cops and I turn to witness a nearby woman-to-woman breasts-to-breasts sloppy French kiss.
“Well,” says Betty from Indiana, “maybe you’d like to interview those two.”
A gaggle of Japanese girls come through, laughing and repeating their calls for what is now a major Kentucky export to their country – “Whiskey!” they giggle. Here’s a guy with a dummy tied around his waist, so it looks like he’s doing his granny from behind. “We’re somewhere near Turn Two,” shouts a cell phone talker, his use of the device strangely just as offensive to me as if we were in a fine restaurant.
As the heat continues to sear the skin, the tunnels become a place of refuge more than passage. Then, two races before the Derby, the rain comes – you can hear it sizzle as it bounces off the mass of red bodies.
“A lot of people around here need to take a shower, because I’m at armpit level,” says Candace Sparks from her wheelchair. “These guys are so proud of their investment bellies, and they’re young. But we asked them if they could shake it somewhere else.”
Sniffing the enticing scent of a genuine marijuana cigarette, Candace’s friend informs me “They grow that here you know – every year it sprouts in those bushes around Derby time.”
“This makes 23 straight for me,” says computer geek Keith Hays, retiring from Derby duty after this year. “I came one time and sat in the stands and I said I’d never do it again. You want a cocktail? We got vodka.”
“In 1979 or ’80,” Hays tries to recall, “we had met up the night before, rented a U-Haul truck, put 30 people in it and a keg of beer. By the time we got to the track, this guy was passed out at eight a.m. By the end of the day, you could count every finger that he’d had draped across his chest, because he never moved all day. It was 95 degrees and sunny, and he’d french fried himself.”
Hays remembers the flagpole flasher from the year some British royalty was present. “I thought they were gonna shoot him.” But his best memory is of his first one, when Cauthen won with Affirmed in ’78.
“We went over that fence like commandos, and actually ran out on the track and shook hands with Stevie Cauthen after the race,” he says. “Howard Cosell was in the winner’s circle, we followed the horse right in there, and got our picture in Sports Illustrated. Then we climbed into these people’s boxes over there. It was unbelievable. That’s what hooked me on it.”
Hays says the stunts have grown tamer over the years – “people doing each other in the bushes, in the fountains, you don’t see that anymore.” Besides, he adds, humping a cooler all the way here gets old after a while too.
Not wanting to waste the vaunted “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” I abandon my infield mates and use my full press privileges to get into the grandstand for the actual race. All the little traditions – the song, the post parade, the donning of “Visa” singlets – unfold with networked precision and speed. The day’s weirdest and most hallucinogenic moment comes when winning owner Fusao Sekiguchi crosses the track to the grandstand with his cane in hand, trailed in glorious dissonance by four geisha girls in full regalia. The gasps in the grandstand are palpable, julep glasses frozen in their wet-napkined hands.
Back in the infield, screams and shouts fill the tunnel as the drunken exodus begins. Stumblers are quickly helped to their feet before they’re trampled. A muddy infielder gives a healthy middle finger to the grandstand gawkers – “Suck ass, you rich bastards,” he shouts. He’s greeted with a benign smile, like they must have misheard what he said.
One teenage girl looks a bit scared, coming down from her Derby high for the first time. There are a lot of other girls crying too. A portly man with a trimmed white beard, nattily attired in matching royal blue vest and derby, sits and contemplates the masses streaming past.
Wallace Stevens wrote that “… tradition is like the revelations of an instinct.” Certainly it is. And just as the race divorces itself from the party, so too do the horses seem to distance themselves from the two-minute hubbub. Their bodies are so powerful and sleek, their bones so thin and their blood so fast, they just can’t help it anymore.
As I drive back to Lexington, my creeping cynicism is overcome by lush and slanting golden light, helping me to shed mile by mile the cacophony, the drunkenness, the broiling all-day sun. Out here where the living happens, there’s no sentiment for longshots, or owners getting that one big chance. It’s more about the landscape. About an unadorned beauty that always wins, breaching all manner of ugliness to rise out of the earth and frolic.
I turn at Frankfort to take the old pike back home. The lantern-lit cupolas of the ecclesiastic barns unfold into the night like runway indicators for the next winged champion. I gaze at the horses’ shadowy forms on the hillsides, the new crop of foals learning their legs, the mares rushing this way and that like some urgent and necessary wind.
SOME FAMOUS WORDS ON THE DERBY
“some jaded, atavistic freakout with nothing to recommend it except a very saleable ‘tradition.’”
-Hunter S. Thompson
“… the horse race is more universal because the brutality of the prizefight is absent, as well as the attenuation of football or baseball – the long time needed for the orgasm of victory to occur, where in the horse race it is a matter of minutes, never over two or three, repeated six or eight or 10 times in one afternoon.”
-William Faulkner, SI, 1955
“This Kentucky Derby, whatever it is – a race, an emotion, a turbulence, an explosion – is one of the most beautiful and violent and satisfying things I have ever experienced.”
“Everything and anything you want to do is in the infield at the Derby. You never see a horse when you’re out there.”
St. X, Vanderbilt, Buffalo Bills, Pittsburgh Steeler tackle, Sports Illustrated
“… unlike most of the others in the press box, we didn’t give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track. We had come there to watch the real beasts perform.”
-Hunter S. Thompson
“The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,”
Scanlan’s Monthly, June 1970