We arrived at the track around noon. Our driver, a lifelong local steeped in the pre-GPS wisdom of the back roads, got us up to the lip of the entrance via stealth steering and side streets. In that neighborhood on Derby days, every avenue, from Central over to Longfield, overflows with adjunct entrepreneurs. Folks sell everything from forty-dollar (front yard) parking spots to bathtub Jell-O shots—even God. For instance: the redheaded bible believer who’d chained himself to a homemade cross on the sidewalk outside the track. With his free hand he handed my wife, Ashley, a postcard as we passed. It said: FEAR GOD.
I said, “Get right or get left, right brother?”
He squinted off into the sun. He was not amused. In my mind, I did him a solid and raptured him into heaven. He didn’t need to see any more of this mess…
“Fearing God is a fairly scary idea,” Ashley said, turning over the postcard as we walked away. She handed it to me and I dropped it into my blazer pocket without a thought. It was far too nice a day to waste another second worrying about eternity.
Now the spring blue sky above the bluegrass was so light blue that it almost looked unreal, as if the abstract clouds were photoshopped by some wild impressionist in the art department over at the Chamber of Commerce. The temperature was agreeable, too: sunny and 73 according to my iPhone. I snapped a quick pic and then we wandered into the general admission line.
Sixty bucks gets you through the door—but without a seat—and afterward you’re free to roam around the paddock with the rest of the plebes and watch the races on the 13,000 square foot Panasonic Jumbotron. Or if you’re feeling frisky you can head out to the infield and mix and mingle with 120,000 of America’s best up-and-coming drunks and, in between banter, witness the races on the bigger, better 15,000 square-foot screen at the center of the track.
Otherwise, if you want seats–if sitting down is a must–the ticket disbursement system for the Derby works much the same way as America itself works: it either does or it doesn’t (and for most it mostly doesn’t). The good seats are all either inherited or corporate or both and the general perception is that the higher the seat, the bigger the bank account–all the way up to Millionaire’s Row at the top of the track, which depending on the year, hosts the likes of Michael Jordan, Richard Branson, members of the Saudi royal family, as well as the Queen of England, among others. But yet if you’re not old money or newly rich there’s still hope for attaining seat-holder status as you can enter a ticket lottery (one year in advance) and if you’re fortunate enough to win then you’re allowed to buy some bad seats at a premium. (Hey, it takes luck and money to be in proximity to luck and money. Thank those stars.)
So there we were in the paddock, standing in a long line for mint juleps, looking up at the rich folks looking down on us. We’d come to the Derby for different reasons, my wife and I. She’d come to the Derby to come to the Derby for the first time. Me, I’d been a race day veteran in my twenties, and now I’d come here for the first time in eleven years–after almost a decade-long purgatory in Southern California–and I was searching for a story. My editor said, “Go out there and see what strikes you.”
So far the most striking detail from the julep line was a perceived shift in brand affiliation. After nearly two decades of aiding and abetting race day binge drinking, the new and improved Old Forester Mint Julep Ready-to-Serve Cocktail had replaced the classic Early Times Mint Julep Ready-to-Serve Cocktail. You see, the drinks on Derby are all premixed because they sell almost 60,000 of them in a single afternoon and so today, I thought, must be a banner day for ol’ Old Forester. Too late Early Times. So long, suckers. No one likes a loser. Not around here.
But everyone in the know knows that Brown-Forman owns both distilleries. So then has anything changed or is it just the ordinary illusion of it? …Two sides of the same coin… Politics… 2016: Hillary v. Jeb… You can choose between a Clinton and a Bush… You can choose between the illusion of choice and the idea of choice… Meanwhile, settle in, and relax with an Early Times or an Old Forester. It’s your choice. Meanwhile, the infrastructure of ideology extends from production to politics. Meanwhile, billionaires are off deciding the future of future consumers’ futures. Meanwhile, look forward. Look up. Fear God. Wave proudly at that proud flag, waving in the prouder breeze. USA.
“I’ve got it,” I said, as we edged closer to the front of the drink line. “I know what I’ll write about. I’ll do a story about mint juleps and how they’re a metaphor for our fractured political system. I can talk about change or the illusion of it, how we’re always promised progress but all we ever get is business as usual.”
“You could,” Ashley said, “but that doesn’t really sound like a story.”
“Next,” the bartender said.
I ordered two Old Forester Mint Julep Ready-to-Serve Cocktails, paid the twenty-two bucks, tipped two bucks, and walked away with an obvious epiphany. “We just spent 144 dollars in five minutes,” I said.
“Yes,” Ashley said. “We pretty much have no choice but to win it all back.”
“Cheers,” I said.
We sipped our juleps. They tasted the same as they’d always tasted: like drinking cheap bourbon after brushing your teeth.
By now, we’d seen enough fashionable people to know that it was a handsome crowd here. By now, we’d stood in another long line and re-upped on overpriced drinks. By now, we were broke and standing in an even longer line at the lone ATM, located by the Kentucky Derby Museum Gift Shop. By now, you’d assume that there’d be money machines everywhere at a cash only betting establishment, but no, that’s not the case at the Downs, which makes sense if you think about it: if you limit the supply, it creates more demand. It’s an old advertising trick. With a lump in my throat and sweaty hands I withdrew the daily max so that we wouldn’t have to go back and wait anymore. I suspect everyone else did the same. I handed Ashley half and we were on our way. Where? We didn’t know. We had money now.
We ended up back at the paddock and I switched over to beer. Pardon my French: I was drinking Stella Artois and the big race was only an hour and a half away and I hadn’t made a single bet all damn day. Over by the VIP escalators, crowds were gathered around the giant glass windows to watch celebrities turn and pivot on the red carpet. “You want to go see the stars,” I said.
“Not really,” Ashley said.
I went for another round and around that time we ran into my old friend, Scott. Scott’s a musician and he was with his girlfriend, Karis, and they were both on their phones.
“What are you guys doing?” I said.
“Betting,” Scott said.
“On your phones,” I said. “How?”
“TVG account,” he said, smiling smartly down into his iPhone. “If you put in 150 bucks and spend it in ten days, they match you 150 bucks, so I’m betting for free. Free money.”
“Genius,” I said. “And you don’t have to wait in these lines.”
“Lines are for suckers,” Karis said.
We talked for a while and it eventually came up that I was working on a story.
“What’s your story about,” Scott asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not seeing it. All I see are hats and lines.”
“Let’s go to the infield,” he said. “You’ll see something there for sure.”
And so we braced ourselves with beers and made our way towards the mayhem.
Historically, the infield on race day looks a lot like a lost scene from Caligula: mobs of misanthropic perverts fighting and fucking and crying and lying. Picture Mardi Gras on steroids in early May. And I’ll bypass all the obscene scenes I’ve seen on past Derby’s and instead I’ll say that the infield on race day is not unlike Sodom and Gomorrah on a Saturday night. It’s a pretty good time. I was sure I’d see something to write about there. And it’s like the Department of Homeland Security says: If you see something, say something. Now we were on our way to see something.
The way Hunter Thompson describes the path to the infield in his iconic 1970 essay, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, is a Dante-esque downward spiral in which you have to “pass through many gates, each one a step down in status, then through a tunnel under the track.” Indeed, there’s only one way into the infield–through the tunnel–and only way out, and if a riot were to break out while you’re inside that tunnel you’d surely be stomped to death or worse.
Midway through the tunnel, Scott let out an operatic scream which echoed off the walls and soon enough a hundred other people joined in until the howling sustained, peaked, diminished, and ultimately culminated in a few frat boys chanting: “USA, USA, USA.”
Ashley said, “Those guys must be from a different planet.”
I agreed. Strange times in the USA these days. Here we were at the center of a long-standing American cultural tradition but it was hard to feel patriotic or optimistic. Harder still to forget that all across the country there’s an enormous psychic battle that no one is winning except for the winners while the rest of us feel divided and conquered, angry and afraid. Fear God on this afternoon when, not 40 miles from the Capital, Baltimore is under siege, occupied by National Guardsmen in the wake of the Freddie Gray murder case. And the possibility that justice will be served is quite possibly a long shot. It’s hard to forget that this is a ceremony that exists on a calendar, in our paltry collective bank accounts, and on a screen that could be used to televise so much else.
“USA, USA, USA…”
When we emerged from the tunnel, the sunshine slapped me in the face, and I lightened up a bit. “All right,” I said. “Let’s go see some shit, shall we?”
“Let’s,” Scott said.
Everyone else agreed.
But by the time we made it to the third turn, the epicenter of so many scenes of prior Derby day depravities, it was obvious that there was nothing to see here. Move along. Everyone around us was well dressed, polite, and erudite. Where was the skin, sins, and the grit? Where were the freaks, the ugly people, and the idiots?
They must’ve been priced out of the picture, I guessed, as I heard a nearby blond dude in a bowtie and a seersucker suit extolling the wisdom of hybrid automobiles to his acolytes. “I mean, if you don’t drive a Prius these days,” he said, “you should either be castrated or forced to ride a fixed gear bike to work. Period.”
Scott thought everything and everyone around us was hilarious. He was cracking up. He said, “Hey man, I know what you should call your story. Call it: What the Fuck Happened to the Kentucky Derby? Or maybe: The Kentucky Derby is Nice & Polite.”
Ashley said, “How about call it: The Kentucky Derby is Decent & Behaved? Everyone seems so nice.”
It was true. There was a strange sense of a scene here, a burgeoning community of sorts. That’s why folks were paying the big bucks, including us.
“I’m glad we came?” Ashley said, but it was more of a question.
“I’m down two fifty and I haven’t even made a bet today,” I said.
“That’s the best bet,” Scott said and took out his phone and began betting.
Now it was ten minutes until post and on the Jumbotron the horses were on their way to the gate. A bay colt with a misspelled name, American Pharoah (sic), was the clear favorite, going off at 5-2. I liked a horse named Firing Line, which was coming in at 9-1. “Give me 40 to win on Firing Line,” I said, handing Scott some bills. He put the money into his pocket and punched the bet into his phone and between his small screen and the Jumbotron, it felt like we’d all wandered into some postmodern theory book. Sure, it’s the 21st century and all is simulacrum and nothing is real, especially not the horses. All day I hadn’t seen a horse anywhere other than on a screen. Were there even any horses here, I wondered. Or were they broadcasting everything from a remote location? I was getting buzzed.
I sipped another Stella as the University of Louisville marching band launched into Stephen Foster on the Jumbotron:
The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home, etc.
Two minutes later, the race was over and American Pharoah had won. Firing Line, the horse I liked, placed, but I didn’t bet it to place—I bet it to win—which made me a perfect loser.
Even later, as we drifted far from the gates and into the evening, with the crowd swelling, through the parking lot and into the makeshift parking lots on this day when the neighbors got to make some money, the big screen shined in the distance behind us. Now the programming had switched to something post-Derby where the fancy people who’d flown in on private jets were celebrating their wins or losses (the difference of which probably didn’t matter). The screen, I imagined, could see us, too. I imagined it was a panopticon, watching us all walk our long ways back to the places where friends or cabs could pick us up. I looked back and there was the eye in the sky with its pixilated grass and televised dirt and the smell in the air tonight was a combination of gasoline and regret.
One of the little disappointments with regard to digital gambling is that you don’t have a ticket to rip up after you’ve lost. As Ashley and I waited for our ride, I instinctually reached into my pocket for my losing stub but since there wasn’t one I was halfway surprised when my hand returned with a creased postcard. I unfolded it and it said: Fear God. Then I ripped the card into pieces and tossed the confetti into the air. Fear God, I thought, that’d be a decent name for a horse. I bet a lot of people would bet on it.