Friday, April 25, 2008

Required Derby Reading: "This Saw Boone?"

This time next week, I'll probably be sunburned and stupid after Oaks Day at Churchill Downs. "Stupid" is not necessarily a euphamism for "drunk," as I've learned the hard way that Lou + adult beverages + open betting windows = Ramen Noodles for the next few weeks.

Last year at this time, I felt like I had a better handle on the ponies. Or at least I thought I did. I put my big money on Dominican to take it all. There was no alcohol involved in that bet; she'd won me good money at the Bluegrass Stakes.

This year Mama has an awesome futures bet on Denis of Cork. All the pony pundits say that he's been working out like he's the one to beat, unfortunately he hasn't yet earned his way onto the Derby card. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

I've been getting myself in the mood by reading classic Derby essays by Faulkner and our native son Hunter S. Thompson.

If you're a Derby purist, Faulkner's 1955 Sports Illustrated articles celebrate the beauty of the Bluegrass region and the magestic athleticism of the thoroughbred racehorse: So it is not just betting, the chance to prove with money your luck or what you call your judgment, that draws people to horse races. It is much deeper than that. It is a sublimation, a transference: man, with his admiration for speed and strength, physical power far beyond what he himself is capable of, projects his own desire for physical supremacy, victory, onto the agent—the baseball or football team, the prizefighter. Only the horse race is more universal because the brutality of the prizefight is absent, as well as the attenuation of football or baseball—the long time needed for the orgasm of victory to occur, where in the horse race it is a matter of minutes, never over two or three, repeated six or eight or 10 times in one afternoon.

If you're happier in the infield, good ol' Hunter S. provides a dizzying account of his first experience with Ralph Steadman at the 1970 Derby. Considered the first example of Thompson's trademark "gonzo journalism," "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" uses the Derby as only a backdrop for an essay that's more about overindulgence, the international and social politics of the Vietnam/post-Civil Rights era, and-- as always with Thompson-- Thompson himself.

He writes: This was the last coherent decision we were able to make for the next forty-eight hours. From that point on--almost from the very moment we started out to the track--we lost all control of events and spent the rest of the weekend churning around in a sea of drunken horrors. My notes and recollections from Derby Day are somewhat scrambled....But now, looking at the big red notebook I carried all through that scene, I see more or less what happened. The book itself is somewhat mangled and bent; some of the pages are torn, others are shriveled and stained by what appears to be whiskey, but taken as a whole, with sporadic memory flashes, the notes seem to tell the story.

Interesting that Thompson notes in his essay that they didn't sell alcohol in the infield during Derby and that it cost $25 to park in the driveway of one of the houses near Churchill; some things change and some things stay the same. Weird that inflation hasn't yet taken hold of the neighbors in the Churchill 'hood ($25 is still about right these days) but in our increasingly parental society somehow Churchill has gotten less concerned about personal safety (booze in the infield-- heck yeah).

Enjoy your required reading!

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