Decadent, Depraved and DQ’d: The Scene Inside the Kentucky Derby After the Historic Finish

Decadent, Depraved and DQ’d: The Scene Inside the Kentucky Derby After the Historic Finish article feature image

Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Maximum Security

  • Sean Zerillo details the atmosphere at Churchill Downs in the wake of Maximum Security's disqualification at the 2019 Kentucky Derby.

LOUISVILLE — At the 1970 Kentucky Derby, Hunter S. Thompson authored one of the great articles in the history of sports journalism — “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” — the foundational work for what later became known as his signature “Gonzo” writing style.

It was fitting that his partner in crime throughout that Derby experience, illustrator Ralph Steadman, was honored at and in attendance for the 2019 Kentucky Derby.

I could only help but wonder what Thompson would have made of all of this madness; cigarette dangling in his mouth with a drink in his hand, watching the real frenzy unfold before him … more than 30 minutes after post time:

After the race had ended, the stands quickly emptied as the majority of the 150,000-plus attendees either left to cash winning tickets or to escape the lurking rainstorms that had started about 90 minutes before the Derby (changing the condition of the dirt track from fast to sloppy) and ended shortly after Maximum Security (who predictably thrived in the mud) crossed the finish line.

At the wagering windows, up to 50 people deep, bewilderment was redefined. In the stands, where I remained to avoid the herd of a mass exodus, there was a much more lighthearted delight in addition to the shock; that we were in attendance together to witness this historic moment in time, regardless of the outcome.

The woman directly in front of me, attending the Derby for the first time, screamed in jubilation. She had $10 on the No. 20 to win and couldn’t believe her eyes. She had anxiously awaited the review, despite admittedly having zero knowledge of horse racing or how betting it generally worked.

By the time it was all over, she’d cash a ticket for the second-biggest longshot winner in the history of the Derby.

After the decision, I temporarily lost control of my body and stiff-armed my wife away from my personal space about 15 times.

My brain eventually started working again. “How much unclaimed money is on the ground?!” I thought. Then said it aloud. And then I kept saying it over and over again as I walked out, past all of the distraught losers, animated winners and staff working diligently to sweep all of the ripped-up betting tickets and other mixed garbage on the ground.

I hope like hell that one or more of those track workers found a ticket or two with “Race 12, No. 20 to win” on it. I was too shocked to go dumpster diving.

The Gonzo Mecca

The Derby crowd is as diverse as any single gathering of people could possibly be: From celebrities, to (likely underage) college kids drinking and playing cornhole, to corporate clients from different continents learning how the wagering works, to regulars who are treating the Saturday like any other day at the track … just with more public money in the race pools.

The ridiculous outfits, hats, and cocktails all translate well to television. That being said, all of the attire is more enjoyable in person, particularly if you’re wearing something so absurd that it garners compliments from a passerby.

What you don’t see on the Derby coverage is everything just outside of Churchill Downs.

The masses of Christian protestors — mostly all older white men, many with scraggly beards — wearing shorts, t-shirts, baseball caps or sometimes head-to-toe camouflage, preaching to dressed-up Derby attendees over megaphones and speaker systems with warnings of their need to repent for their soon-to-be sinful behavior.

The accompanying looks of disgust on either side are a most unwelcome start to what should be a carefree day.

More alarming are the poor and rundown surrounding neighborhoods, with boarded-up houses, eroding streets and sidewalks, and an obvious need for financial support from the city of Louisville.

The Derby, Breeder’s Cup, and the Kentucky Bourbon festival are financial boons for the community as a whole; but it doesn’t appear that the money is ever re-invested in the areas directly surrounding Churchill Downs.

Instead, Churchill Downs is mostly paving over them.

Derby attendees get in and get out of the area as quickly as possible, choosing to eat, sleep, and drink in other places of the city that are miles away from the track.

Locals do whatever they can to make a buck off of the captive attention of the massive crowds driving and walking through their neighborhoods.

Qualified Uber and Lyft drivers hop into their cars the moment that the big race ends. One woman told me that she could easily make enough money driving over Derby weekend to pay off a month of her mortgage.

In the greater Louisville area, many people put their homes up for rent during Derby week and can pay off their mortgage for the entire year. Even the typically less expensive brand name hotels in the area get away with raising rates to over $300 per night.

People pay these outrageous costs to attend the Derby, because it is inexplicably magnetic and provides an unforgettable experience unlike any other.

Hunter S. Thompson scoffed at, “the opulent fashion, the sugary, overpriced mint juleps, and the crowded, sweaty infield.” Ralph Steadman has a more optimistic viewpoint, seeing the Derby as a unique place, full of character, whose essence should exist in things all over the world.

The truth is always somewhere in the middle.

Sadie Steadman, Ralph’s daughter, called Churchill Downs a “Gonzo Mecca.”

At the right moments there, you feel thrust into the midst of a storybook, watching history made before your eyes.

At the worst, you’re crushed by all of the harsh realities of the world at once; the enormous disparity that exists between the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor, and the direct conflict and division of principles/beliefs that opposing groups will always hold, no matter the discourse.

I haven’t been to any other Kentucky Derby in my life, but I can’t imagine one being more emblematic of all these layers — the good and the bad; the decadent and the depraved — than the 2019 edition.