Forty-six years on, few people remember (or even care) that the 1970 Kentucky Derby was won by a horse called Dust Commander. And yet, the legacy of that particular race continues to loom large — not because of what happened at Churchill Downs, but because Hunter S. Thompson was there to write about it.
"The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved," Thompson's account of the race for Scanlan's Monthly, is the subject of Gonzo @ the Derby, a highly entertaining new entry in ESPN's 30 For 30 Shorts series. (You can view the film here.) Vicious, hilarious, and not a little depraved itself, Thompson's piece took dead aim at the "whiskey gentry" of his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, painting the liquored-up pageantry of the Derby as a symbol of everything that was wrong with Richard Nixon's America. But while the 32 year-old Thompson intended to bruise the thin skins of Louisville's horse society, his piece wound up leaving a significantly greater mark on journalism — particularly in the arena of sports writing.
"It's not only a formative moment in Hunter's career, but it's also a groundbreaking and direction-changing moment in sports journalism," says the short's director, Michael D. Ratner. "If you go back and read the sports reporting from the time, so much of it is so bland — almost the writing equivalent of a box score. And then Hunter comes along, puts himself in the story, and gives you the whole experience of the event, which is so much more than what you would have seen on TV. Nobody was really doing that at the time, and it set the precedent for a whole new style of sports writing — a style that's now commonplace."
Other sports writers before him had taken similarly immersive first-hand approaches to their subjects: Arnold Hano's 1955 book A Day in the Bleachers, John Updike's 1960 New Yorker piece "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," George Plimpton's 1966 book Paper Lion. But none had done so with either Thompson's flair for wild-eyed stream-of-consciousness prose or his zest for puncturing the inflated self-importance of the American middle and upper classes — nor with as sizeable an axe to grind.
"In covering the Derby, Hunter was going back home to a place where everyone thought he was a delinquent," Ratner explains, "and he was going with the intention of exposing it on both a micro and macro level; he was going to expose the Derby people that he knew, and then he was going to expose the whole Derby infield scene as being emblematic of the Nixon era. He was ultimately delivering a political and social critique of America as a whole, and that's what I think made it such revolutionary piece."
Further bolstering the impact of Thompson's piece were surreal and satirical illustrations by Ralph Steadman, who began his long-running collaboration with Thompson on this Scanlan's assignment. The English artist, who appears in Gonzo @ the Derby — along with former Scanlan's editor Warren Hinckle, actor Sean Penn, and Thompson literary executor Douglas Brinkley — tells Rolling Stone that he had no idea what he was getting into when he flew to Kentucky to meet Thompson. "They told me to look for a Hell's Angel who'd shaved his head, or something like that," he laughs. "I'd never even heard of Hunter; for the first day or so I kept calling him Hunter Johnson!"
Steadman, who'd never been to America before, quickly fell in step with his most unusual tour guide — "I was an innocent abroad, but I was looking forward to being corrupted," he says. The disparate pair's booze- (and mace-)soaked Louisville misadventures form the bulk of Thompson's Kentucky Derby essay, which ends with the brutally hung-over journalist shoving the vomit-soaked artist out of his car at the airport and berating him as a "scumsucking foreign geek," while news of the Kent State massacre blares from the radio.
"He didn't actually physically kick me out," Steadman remembers. "He just kind of opened the door and mumbled, 'Good knowing ya, off ya go, have a good flight.' I think he didn't want to admit that he enjoyed our time together, really. He wasn't sure of what he was going to get from me, but I was able to give him the kind of thing that he wanted. The drawings that I did — which I colored in using Revlon makeup samples, since I'd left all my inks in the back of a cab shortly before I flew to the States — were suitable for the sort of crazy things he was after."
"Gonzo is really an art form — it's not, 'Go get bombed and write some shit.' With Hunter and Ralph's work, the skill came first, and the insanity came second."—Director Michael D. Ratner
"It was kind of a big brother/little brother act," says Ratner of Thompson and Steadman, who would go on to collaborate on the books Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail and The Curse of Lono, as well as numerous legendary articles for Rolling Stone and other publications. "In Louisville, Hunter got Ralph to go along with everything like it was normal, and it led to one of the greatest creative pairings of all time. Hunter put Ralph down for his 'filthy scribblings,' but he needed them; they really brought his words to life. And now, whenever you read his stream-of-consciousness writing, you envision Ralph's illustrations — that's what you see in your mind!"
As Gonzo @ the Derby explains, "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" not only launched Thompson and Steadman's fertile creative partnership, but it also signaled the arrival of "Gonzo" journalism — an energetic and over-the-top form of reportage that captured the overall experience of its subject matter while making no actual claims to objectivity. "Not everything in Hunter's story was true, but its effect was quite correct," explains Steadman. "The important thing about Gonzo is that you don't cover the story, you become the story. That's the most fundamental part of it, really, and that's what we did."
"What Hunter and Ralph did spawned a whole generation of imitators," says Ratner. "But Gonzo is really an art form — it's not, 'Go get bombed and write some shit.' With Hunter and Ralph's work, the skill came first, and the insanity came second."
The 26 year-old Ratner, founder of the multi-media production company OBB Pictures, was still in high school when Thompson killed himself in 2005. "My introduction to Hunter's work was seeing [the 1998 film] Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," he says, "and then I read the book, and really fell in love with his stuff. At this point, he's probably my favorite writer. So my hope is that this 30 For 30 will open up his work and his genius to a whole new generation of fans."
Though he never met the man, Ratner feels the experience of making Gonzo @ the Derby gave him a greater understanding of Thompson's complex character. "He was a wild man, and he was troubled," he says, "but for all his crazy antics, he was beloved. He frequently crossed the line when dealing with others, but he operated with a knowing wink to those closest to him, and found a way to keep his friendships and relationships intact even when he was spiraling out of control. People didn't hang onto him because of his success; they did so because they really loved him. Everyone I talked to for this short said some version of, 'He was fucking nuts, but he was my friend.'"