The Kentucky Derby, a day of contradictions

There’s something to be said for Hunter S. Thompson’s iconic quote, and the title of his article featured in a 1970 issue of Scanlan’s Monthly, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” Over the years, as a Louisvillian, I’ve always simply thought he was talking about how debauched we all get in our pricey duds, often drunkenly wading through scattered trash and mud in our $100 heels. Upon further examination, though, it seems as though this juxtaposition has parallels to many others when it comes to the Kentucky Derby, and it got me wondering… is the most sacred, beloved tradition of our Old Kentucky Home perhaps a massive culmination of contradictions? I’ll try to avoid having a full-blown, Kentucky Derby existential crisis here after spending the weekend at the track, but what other notions of decadence meets depravity come to light? 

One of the most interesting incongruities of the Kentucky Derby is the location of Churchill Downs in itself. While the neighborhoods surrounding Churchill Downs clearly thrive during the celebrations, and residents surely depend on the surge of traffic and cash (many families will churn up a nice sum of revenue in parking fees alone), don’t the communities encircling the track go largely underserved the remainder of the year? Are tourists aware that when they descend upon Taylor Boulevard, they’re just a few miles but a far cry socioeconomically from the comforts of their suites at the Seelbach? 

The South End of Louisville and its various neighborhoods (Shively, Wyandotte, Taylor/Berry, etc.) have deep, historic ties to the Derby and all that the festivities bring to their streets, but when I lived off Winkler Avenue for three years, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of my neighbors had ever even penetrated the walls of Churchill, or gone higher than the infield upon arrival. Are the unattainable dining rooms and private clubs that loom over their homes 365 days a year a constant and stark reminder of this clear contradiction? It almost makes the decadence feel a bit depraved. 

Another issue that bothers many, and has even lead to protests or “anti-Derby” events, is the notion of celebrating animal cruelty through horse racing. There’s no arguing that a simple Google search on the subject can churn up some terrifying and cringeworthy articles and videos on cruel horse racing practices. And then there’s the conviction that exploiting animals for monetary gain is unethical in itself. Yet, one could also argue that the horses participating in the Derby (and Oaks, and Thurby, and now “Woaks”) are worth millions of dollars and are treated as such. Many horses receive massages, have their very own staffs and are fed the finest of foods and will go on to retire on luxurious farmlands whilst their sperm is sold off to the highest bidder. One might also suggest that these horses were bred to race – it’s in their DNA – and they thrive in such a setting. So which is it: a terribly atrocious bloodsport and exploitation, or an exemplary showcase of true equine athleticism paired with a billion-dollar industry? Or is it both? 

When I woke up on Derby day, after having attended Oaks the day before, I immediately reached for my blistered, aching feet and dramatically wailed in agony to my partner. I’d been jaunting around the track in six-inch, pink, iridescent, heeled boots for hours the day before, and I began to look at my bedroom floor at all my outfit accoutrements splayed about. There’s the dress I ordered online and then had to have altered (thank you to my angel of a tailor, Ace Custom Tailors), and my stellar, custom hat lying atop the colorful, striped Griffin Hatters hat box it came home in (thank you to the wonderful babes at the Mysterious Rack). It’s such an interesting moment to look around the room and think about all the planning and time and money that went into something we celebrate once a year, for a series of races that only last about two minutes each. Is it but an act of depravity to get so ridiculously decadent for 120-second horse race? Perhaps for us, sure, it’s a bit of a contradiction. But it’s not for those that have invested time and energy and money into these horses. Or for the bartenders and servers that train for months for the race to the end of Derby weekend in their own restaurants; a collection of shifts that’ll surely pay some bills. Or the community members that stand in the blistering sun or pelting rain, holding parking signs in the yards of Oleanda Avenue. I don’t know the answers to many of these questions I’ve been asking. But I know asking them is important.