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May 2, 2012

A divinely ‘decadent and depraved’ Kentucky Derby

We interrupt this disturbing drip of doom to predict that Saturday’s Kentucky Derby will again be decadent and depraved. That’s how Hunter S. Thompson famously lampooned the absurdities of Derby 1970 in the pages of Scanlan’s Monthly.

The magazine is defunct; Thompson is deceased.

The literary landmark still resonates as a hysterical satire of the inevitable annual excesses of the orgy at Churchill Downs. Historically, it’s a fascinating, scathing social critique of a dysfunctional party by a people in turmoil as the nation confronts hypocrisies of official corruption, racial injustice and segregation. On both levels, it provides a baseline to measure our progress.

And wisdom on how to do the Derby instead of having the Derby do you.

“Along with the politicians, society belles and local captains of commerce, every half-mad dingbat who ever had any pretensions to anything at all within 500 miles of Louisville will show up there to get strutting drunk and slap a lot of backs and generally make himself obvious,” he wrote of the clubhouse clientele.

“By midafternoon, they’ll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomiting on each other between races … people falling down and grabbing at your legs to keep from being stomped. Drunks pissing on each other in the betting lines.”

As for the Infield, “It’s a fantastic scene — thousands of people fainting, copulating, trampling each other and fighting with broken whiskey bottles.”

With unbridled contempt, Thompson cast then-Gov. Louie Nunn as “a swinish neo-Nazi hack” and described a resemblance among a sub-class — a “whiskey gentry” mask — “a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture” of bigots.

Even inbred racists should know that a lily-white city can’t pretend to be world class. Vastly, we view our thriving community of cultures as a blessing — not a threat. Now that Jefferson County Public Schools has duly defended the value of diverse classrooms and shortened many bus routes, may the courts refuse to enable the re-segregation of schools after mandating desegregation in the mid-1970s.

Thompson clearly viewed racism as alive and sick as he ogled the crowd for a singular face to epitomize the whole “doomed atavistic culture” of the Kentucky Derby.

But the weekend became a “vicious, drunken nightmare,” due to “meetings with old friends, relatives, etc., many of whom were in the process of falling apart, going mad, plotting divorces, cracking up under the strain of terrible debts or recovering from bad accidents.”

As dire as that sounds, 42 years hence, we’re even more miserable, with an extended forecast of fear and loathing, which is probably more toxic than a diet of cholesterol, trans fats, sodium, high fructose corn syrup, gluten and the latest enemy of public health: sugar.

I’m not here to restrict your diet — especially while you’re pregnant. But I have three words guaranteed to enhance your Derby experience: less is more. Back when Gordon Gekko or Mitch McConnell said, “Greed is good,” gluttony was considered patriotic — good for the economy. But trying to do, see, eat and drink to capacity may leave you bloated and/or bankrupt. I’m so broke, I motor around the Kroger parking lot on senior day hoping I’ll be T-boned.

We plan weekends with ample time to relax or maybe grab a bite at one of our many famously savory but affordable restaurants. True Louisville natives pride themselves on hospitality. We strive to make memories of comfort, joy, wit, charm, laughter and, time permitting, a thoughtful, meaningful conversation.

The most we expect from our guests is their full attention. Texting has no place at social gatherings, so I send the compulsive keyboarders away in search of a voice and manners. Primitive etiquette precluded polarizing issues, but I’m throwing them out like rats in a snake pit. How will misinformed people ever see the light beyond their close circle of dimwits?

I’ll spend this Derby Day savoring a civilized tradition of watching the races on TV with close friends. We’ll be scanning the Infield, where Tom Stevens of Northfield will again wear a plaid kilt, be asked what’s beneath it, and gleefully flash his lucky charms.

Happy Derby, y’all.