At over 700 pages, The Best American Sports Writing of the Century (20th century, of course) anthology incudes several absolute gems of the genre, from from early classics penned by Red Smith, to landmark portraits of iconic figures Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams—by Gay Talese and John Updike, respectively, to the adventure journalism standard Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer.
But this time of year, the anthology’s re-printed article that I always re-read is Hunter S. Thompson’s original piece of gonzo journalism (as described in 1970 by Boston Globe Magazine editor Bill Cardoso), The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved. (Though an argument could be made that re-reading Krakauer in early May’s Everest season would be appropriate as well.)
From starting a rumor that the Black Panthers were going to start a riot at the Derby, to carrying around a bottle of mace, Thompson’s Derby “coverage” has all the adventurous aspects of his adventurous gonzo style. But because he is covering the major annual event that defines his hometown, he comes with the credentials that allow him to provide some hard-tounged commetary on the Derby’s social scene, as opposed to the sporting event.
“Unlike most of the others in the press box,” he famously wrote in Scanlan’s Monthly, “we didn’t give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track. We had come there to watch the real beasts perform.”
Noting that he grew up going to the Derby every year, Thompson continues to paint his impression of the racegoers:
“It was the face I’d seen a thousand times at every Derby I’d ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry—a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture.”
To read the whole article, along with notes about the creation of the Scanlan’s story, check out Michael MacCambridge’s “Director’s Cut: ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,’ by Hunter S. Thompson: Revisiting one of the Good Doctor’s Greatest Hits” over at Grantland. Preferably with a mint julep, of course.