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Kentucky Decadent & Derby Depraved

Kentucky Decadent & Derby Depraved

“The Kentucky Derby is decadent and depraved.”_Hunter S. Thompson, 1970.

I’ll start off by saying the quotes I use in this, they’re all from Hunter S. Thompson’s piece in Scanlan’s Monthly, vol. 1, no. 4, June 1970, called “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” And in the piece, Thompson uses the N-word twice which came as absolutely no surprise to me because I have found that when I read about half of the things I read, the author has a found a way to use that word. Be it for “shock” value or general nastiness. Or simply because they hadn’t thought about it at all and it’s just a word they use because they are how and who they are.

I debated linking to it, using quotes from it because I just get tired of seeing the word. I get tired of giving it attention and I get tired of ignoring it, too. Both of them are exhausting to me. I decided to link it and use the quotes because I liked the other quotes. The other quotes had the Line Drive feel I was going for…words/quotes that lend themselves to a jumping off point.

And I’m not even a Hunter S. Thompson fan, to be honest. It’s okay. I think he could’ve handled me saying that. I know he has a lot of hardcore fans and it’s all right. Not everyone likes everything. I remember going to hear him read when he was in town promoting the film Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas but I only went because Johnny Depp was there. I only went because I got to sit like three rows from the stage and watch Johnny in a wine-red velvet jacket, playing guitar and smoking, letting his hair fall in his face. Hunter started spraying people with a fire extinguisher. I remember that. But mostly, I remember Johnny, who is a Kentucky boy himself…born in Owensboro.

“Just keep in mind for the next few days that we’re in Louisville, Kentucky. Not London. Not even New York. This is a weird place.”

I was born and raised in Kentucky. Lived here my whole life. There are things I love and there are things I don’t love. Kentucky can be super-racist, segregated. Louisville is no exception. Louisville is pretty danged segregated. Louisville can be horribly snobby. For the most part, black and white people don’t dine together or worship together. Sadly, I’m used to it. It’s always such a treat when I go to other cities and see black and white people doing normal things together. It really doesn’t happen that much here. It’s weird! I know!

And just in terms of weirdness/snobbiness/whatever we can call it: although I used to work for the local newspaper, I could get no connect there to even mention my short story collection back when it came out. This isn’t a boohoo how could they not put my book on the front page because I’m so great thing. But I’m a local author, reaching out. Several times. It’s not weird. It’s how things get done. I wrote several local people, received no responses. However, I was lucky enough to have mentions in USA Today, the Chicago Tribune…but not my local paper. I went to Chicago, Nashville, Champaign, Lexington, Madison, Atlanta…etc…on book tour and the local bookstores there were so welcoming and kind to me. I’ve gone to other cities, done the same thing. But not in Louisville. And I’m zero percent interested in the biggest local bookstore here in town. I don’t think I have ever encountered anyone working there who wasn’t just plain rude and at best, they’re taciturn. This town could have a sweet, smalltown feel about it and occasionally it does but a whole lot of the time, it doesn’t. *Kanye shrug*

I’m used to it. Louisville is Louisville. It’s weird, but it’s also home. I also specifically want to mention how kind Louisville Literary was to me. That’s prettymuch the only local-ish promo I did last year. *insert Kermit + tea meme*

There is a lot of old money here. There are people who don’t want anything to change. There is also a lot of awesome here. Cassius Clay/Muhammed Ali was born here. Seeing him hanging out was a normal thing for my parents growing up. Pee Wee Reese grew up/lived here. We graduated from the same high school! My granddaddy used to work for him. There is AAA minor league baseball and college basketball and art and culture and such good food. And also, there is the Derby. The Kentucky Derby: the first Saturday in May. On May 2, it was the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby and every year, Louisville celebrates for a good solid two weeks. There is a fireworks show, a parade, a boat race, a mini-marathon, a balloon race…and on Derby Eve (Oaks Day), school is cancelled. On Derby Eve and Derby Day, most bars stay open until six in the morning…two hours longer than the regular closing time of four.


“Now, looking down from the press box, I pointed to the huge grassy meadow enclosed by the track. “That whole thing,” I said, “will be jammed with people; fifty thousand or so, and most of them staggering drunk. It’s a fantastic scene– thousands of people fainting, crying, copulating, trampling each other and fighting with broken whiskey bottles. We’ll have to spend some time out there, but it’s hard to move around, too many bodies.”

If you know me even the tiniest bit, you know I’m not real big on crowds. If/when I see a huge crowd, I go the opposite direction. It’s a personality trait. So it will come as no big shocker that I’ve never been to Churchill Downs on Derby Day. In fact, I’d pretty much rather be anywhere else on Derby Day. The fancy people with the money for the sweet seats go sit on Millionaire’s Row. I have been, but not on Derby Day. I love the fanciness of going to the race track. I am a TERRIBLE gambler. I’ll sweet talk you out of $20 so I can go and bet it on the wrong horse and lose it all. I have never once won any money at the race track. But I still love it. But only if I can do it fancy-style and dress up and be inside in the fancy A/C and the beauty and glass and the food.

The other way to do it is the outfield, where it’s cheap(er) and dirtier and it’s out in the elements (this stuff happens, rain or shine and there is almost always mud.) It’s hot, there’s no shade and almost everyone is drunk and not just drunk but drunk-drunk where I’m talking piss and vomit drunk. My Old Kentucky Home.

So no, I haven’t been. I don’t go. One day when I’m super-rich from writing short stories (I’ll wait while you laugh.)…I’ll go and hang with the fancy people. But until then, I stay home. Or do something else equally pleasing.

“every half-mad dingbat who ever had any pretensions to anything at all within five hundred miles of Louisville will show up there to get strutting drunk and slap a lot of backs and generally make himself obvious.”

I have done lots of fun things instead of going to the Derby. Like once, my girlfriend and I went to a Derby party (because prettymuch literally everyone in this city has one)…and we ate food and went upstairs and hung out in an empty bathtub with this other kid who went to our high school. I have no idea how or why we ended up in the bathroom but it wasn’t because we were drinking anything harder than Mountain Dew. But I do remember seeing the kid at school the next week. We went to performing arts high school and he was a stage tech. And I remember thinking…we hung out in an empty bathtub together because Derby. Derby.

And another time, I’d spent the entire day drinking with my friends. We drank Early Times Mint Julep straight from the bottle all day. Like at one point we were dancing in a circle, just passing the bottle around. I think we all drew horse names but I don’t remember who won although I do remember it wasn’t me. After the Derby was over, only about half of us were fit to walk out into the night. I remember putting one of my best girlfriends to bed and going out. We went to a bar where some people from out of town were complaining about the whiskey drinks being too strong. I remember my friend Heather fussing at him that we’d been drinking straight whiskey all day and he was there complaining about a whiskey drink with Coke AND ice being “too strong.” We kept laughing and saying WHISKEY AAAND ICE. AAAND ICE. I also remember a man I’d never laid eyes on, trying to kiss me. He was wondering if my husband would care. He was drunk and dressed up, slurring his words to me when he was saying he would be running for mayor the next year. That I should vote for him.

There was another time when I was in a bar and this guy was wearing a horseshoe ring just like Elvis and I told him that. That Elvis had a ring just like it and he told me that’s why his daddy gave it to him. Because it was like Elvis’. (I really love Elvis. Like, really love.) I smiled at him and he told my husband that if I kept smiling at him like that he was gonna try and take me home. He told my husband to keep an eye on me.

There were other times, we stayed in. We watched the Derby on television from the comfort of our home. And although there were times when yes, I wanted to go hang outside the Barnstable Brown Party to see if I could peek at Justin Timberlake or some boy band guy or Locke from Lost or some other whoever celebrity, I mostly end up staying home and checking out the CELEBRITY SLIDESHOW the local new stations put up on Twitter. That’s my version of low-key excitement. Now we have kids, so we do kid-friendly things for Derby. Make Derby hats from anything we have around the house. Wear the creepy horse’s head around, wherever we go.


It’s kind of a big deal around here, the Derby. And always will be. And about half of the time the weather is perfect. Half the time it’s cold and rainy but when it’s perfect, it’s truly perfect. Like the flowers have just bloomed and Derby Day is an easy way to remember to plant things because it’s always right around the last frost and I have spent many a Derby Day, in the garden. Going back and forth from the garden shop to home, dirty and filthy with compost and mulch, eating sandwiches in the sunshine. Letting our babies plant seeds and dig and dig and dig.


This is my beautiful niece wearing the horse mask, reading my book last year. We grilled out and half-watched the Derby. This is who we are. This is what we do.

I have seen a grown woman pull down her pants and poop on the sidewalk. I have seen people so drunk and passed out, I was convinced they were dead. I have seen a guy go from standing up like normal to a dead fall, right there next to me because of Southern Comfort. This is our Southern Comfort. Kentucky doing what it does best. Carousing in a rough and tumble way, cruising up and down the streets just because. I have seen a grown man with a monkey on his shoulder at the White Castle. Sometimes there are shootings, people die, people go crazy, people fight. People wait all year to put on their biggest hats and best clothes with the sole purpose of drinking and then falling down in the mud.

This is my Old Kentucky Home and even when she annoys me, I love her madly, I do. When she’s sparkling with white-hot excitement, when her dirty panties are showing.

Leesa Cross-Smith
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About The Author

Leesa Cross-Smith

Leesa Cross-Smith is a homemaker and writer from Kentucky. She is the author of Every Kiss a War and Whiskey & Ribbons. She is also the editor of WhiskeyPaper.

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