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!”