A couple of months ago, I got an email from my editor asking if I'd be interested in covering the Derby. Well, y'all can imagine that it took me about ten seconds to jump on that opportunity. I filled out my application for Churchill Downs
media credentials as quickly as possible. And I waited.
Even though there was still snow on the ground, I started thinking of angles. What if I only got credentials for the infield? I've never been there, but I hear it's dicey. Maybe I could do a fish-out-of-water thing -- a well-coiffed Junior Leaguer in the muck. Speaking of muck, what kind of shoes should I wear? The last time I did any walking at Derby, I wound up with huge blisters. Dare I store a pair of wellies in the press locker I requested? That seems so... Steeplechase. And do I let my handbag double as a satchel, or should I buy a chic, teeny notebook? I hoped, of course, for credentials that would give me a ritzier view. I thought of the ways that I could play with the way that Derby portrays Kentucky's social stratum. I planned the optimal number of mint juleps that would keep me festive and alert. And, of course, I started to think about hats. Maybe I'd finally get the opportunity to write the "the year Louisville girls started to make fascinators" piece I'd been envisioning since the Royal Wedding.
And then, I didn't hear back from my application. I'm not sure what got screwed up. I must admit, however, that I was suffering from bronchitis and pretty heavily medicated at the time of my application. I can't overlook the possibility of user error. I waited and waited, and I followed up a bit, and I made some preliminary plans to go, and then some things happened and then other plans for Derby Day started to materialize. Before I knew it, the First Saturday was upon us and I wasn't remotely near Louisville.
|Ralph Steadman's artwork for Dr. Thompson's masterpiece.|
Before I mixed up a batch of mint-infused simple syrup yesterday morning, I sat down with a little required Derby Day reading. There was Mr. Faulker's Three Days to the Afternoon
, of course, and Dr. Thompson's The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved
. I read these both as earnestly as I do every May, and I joked to my beau that I should read them aloud to the dogs in the same manner that normal people read the Christmas Story to their children. I was quite taken with a sense of satisfaction with myself as a writer, a sports fan, and a Southerner as I reflected on these hallowed words. And then, those same hallowed words jumped out at me:
Finally, after giving up on Steadman and trying unsuccessfully to reach my man in the press office, I decided my only hope for credentials was to go out to the track and confront the man in person, with no warning — demanding only one pass now, instead of two, and talking very fast with a strange lilt in my voice, like a man trying hard to control some inner frenzy.
Hunter S. Thompson had flown from Texas to Kentucky on a day's notice armed only with fake tags identifying himself as a photographer from Playboy. He hadn't waited for a confirmation email. He'd merely insisted that Scanlan's magazine foot the bill. As late as Oaks Day, he was still hammering out the details:
Clearly, we were going to have to figure out some way to spend more time in the clubhouse tomorrow. But the "walkaround" press passes to F&G were only good for 30 minutes at a time, presumably to allow the newspaper types to rush in and out for photos or quick interviews, but to prevent drifters like Steadman and me from spending all day in the clubhouse, harassing the gentry and rifling an old handbag or two while cruising around the boxes. Or macing the governor. The time limit was no problem on Friday, but on Derby Day the walkaround passes would be in heavy demand.
Something tells me that Dr. Thompson never really gave a thought to wellies. Or hats. By his own admission, he didn't "give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track." I doubt he ever wrote a piece on how to get julep stains out of a Lilly Pulitzer dress. I suppose that makes me far more "whiskey gentry" than "gonzo", in the rhetoric of his essay. I certainly know that, unlike Thompson, I never hope for a mob scene in the infield; I'm too busy saying a little prayer that the horses and jockeys stay safe. I'd never be accused of macing the Governor; I personally find him to be quite a nice fellow.
Still, I wish I'd had a little bit of gonzo spirit in the days leading up to the race. If I'd pushed the issue a little harder, I'd be writing a far more interesting piece tonight...