Hunter S. Thompson: The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved

A classic. Sadly, this version doesn’t have Ralph Steadman’s illustrations…

I posted this to the Blather discussion board a few weeks back, but just thought I’d highlight it here too.
I love this essay… it is, apparently, Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘first’ Gonzo article, a wild journalistic style that lead to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. However, after reading his earlier works and collected letters, Thompson did not simply launch into himself into Gonzo, but rather developed it, in parallel with the ‘new journalism’ of Tom Wolfe etc.

    Gonzo: “a type of committed, subjective journalism characterized by factual distortion and exaggerated rhetorical style.”
    – Oxford English Dictionary
    ‘Gonzo journalism is a style of reporting based on William Faulkner’s idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism – and the best journalists have always known this. Which is not to say that fiction is necessarily ‘more true’ than journalism – or vice versa – but that both ‘fiction’ and ‘journalism’ are artificial categories; and that both forms, at their best, are only two different means to the same end.’

    Hunter S. Thompson

Coming from Thompson, that’s pretty bloody sober. He also says that ‘a journalist into gonzo is like a junkie or an egg-sucking dog’. I read that quote the other day, and now can’t find it again. So maybe I’m quoting incorrectly…As HST would say, ‘cazart’.
The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved only barely covers the Derby. It does, however, cover the experiences that HST has with Ralph Steadman, the slighly demented British satirical cartoonist. Most their time together is spent eating terrible food, getting awfully drunk (mint juleps!) and indulging in questionable and violent behaviour.
Originally published in the short-lived Scanlan’s Monthly (vol. 1, no. 4, June 1970), this online version, is, sadly, without Steadman’s alarming imagery of the Derby-goers. You can see some of Steadman’s Gonzo stuff here The essay, and the images, can be found in The Great Shark Hunt, Gonzo Papers, Vol. 1, Strange Tales from a Strange Time by Hunter S. Thompson (New York: Ballantine Books, 1979).
See also:

The Great Thompson Hunt

Current journalism from HST
And now:
The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved
by Hunter S. Thompson

    I got off the plane around midnight and no one spoke as I crossed the dark runway to the terminal. The air was thick and hot, like wandering into a steam bath. Inside, people hugged each other and shook hands…big grins and a whoop here and there: “By God! You old bastard! Good to see you, boy! Damn good…and I mean it!”
    In the air-conditioned lounge I met a man from Houston who said his name was something or other–“but just call me Jimbo”–and he was here to get it on. “I’m ready for anything, by God! Anything at all. Yeah, what are you drinkin?” I ordered a Margarita with ice, but he wouldn’t hear of it: “Naw, naw…what the hell kind of drink is that for Kentucky Derby time? What’s wrong with you, boy?” He grinned and winked at the bartender. “Goddam, we gotta educate this boy. Get him some good whiskey…”
    “Look.” He tapped me on the arm to make sure I was listening. “I know this Derby crowd, I come here every year, and let me tell you one thing I’ve learned–this is no town to be giving people the impression you’re some kind of faggot. Not in public, anyway. Shit, they’ll roll you in a minute, knock you in the head and take every goddam cent you have.”
    I thanked him and fitted a Marlboro into my cigarette holder. “Say,” he said, “you look like you might be in the horse business…am I right?” “No,” I said. “I’m a photographer.”
    “Oh yeah?” He eyed my ragged leather bag with new interest. “Is that what you got there–cameras? Who you work for?”
    Playboy,” I said.
    He laughed. “Well, goddam! What are you gonna take pictures of–nekkid horses? Haw! I guess you’ll be workin’ pretty hard when they run the Kentucky Oaks. That’s a race just for fillies.” He was laughing wildly. “Hell yes! And they’ll all be nekkid too!”
    I shook my head and said nothing; just stared at him for a moment, trying to look grim. “There’s going to be trouble,” I said. “My assignment is to take pictures of the riot.”
    “What riot?”
    I hesitated, twirling the ice in my drink. “At the track. On Derby Day. The Black Panthers.” I stared at him again. “Don’t you read the newspapers?”
    The grin on his face had collapsed. “What the hell are you talkin’ about?”
    “Well…maybe I shouldn’t be telling you…” I shrugged. “But hell, everybody else seems to know. The cops and the National Guard have been getting ready for six weeks. They have 20,000 troops on alert at Fort Knox. They’ve warned us–all the press and photographers–to wear helmets and special vests like flak jackets. We were told to expect shooting…”
    “No!” he shouted; his hands flew up and hovered momentarily between us, as if to ward off the words he was hearing. Then he whacked his fist on the bar. “Those sons of bitches! God Almighty! The Kentucky Derby!” He kept shaking his head. “No! Jesus! That’s almost too bad to believe!” Now he seemed to be sagging on the stool, and when he looked up his eyes were misty. “Why? Why here? Don’t they respect anything?
Chief Bottle Washer at Blather
Writer, photographer, environmental campaigner and "known troublemaker" Dave Walsh is the founder of, described both as "possibly the most arrogant and depraved website to be found either side of the majestic Shannon River", and "the nicest website circulating in Ireland". Half Irishman, half-bicycle. He lives in southern Irish city of Barcelona.


  1. Great story, fun to read. I saw Hunter on a late night talk show a little while back when he was talkin up his new book.The drugs have really caught up with him , it was hard for him to talk, and it was hard for me to watch.

  2. Him being unable to talk clearly is most likely from the boozing and the smoking. All the coke didn’t help things either…

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