you in a minute, knock you in the head and take every goddam cent you
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
"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?"
" 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."
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
The grin on his face had collapsed. "What the
are you talkin'
"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
"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!
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
Don't they respect
I shrugged again. "It's not just the Panthers. The FBI says busloads
of white crazies are coming in from all over the country--to mix with
the crowd and attack all at once, from every direction. They'll be
dressed like everybody else. You know--coats and ties and all that.
But when the trouble starts...well, that's why the cops are so
He sat for a moment, looking hurt and confused and not quite able to
digest all this terrible news. Then he cried out: "Oh...Jesus! What in
the name of God is happening in this country? Where can you get
"Not here," I said, picking up my bag. "Thanks for the drink...and
He grabbed my arm, urging me to have another, but I said I was overdue
at the Press Club and hustled off to get my act together for the awful
spectacle. At the airport newsstand I picked up a
scanned the front page headlines: "Nixon Sends GI's into Cambodia to
Hit Reds"... "B-52's Raid, then 20,000 GI's Advance 20 Miles"..."4,000
U.S. Troops Deployed Near Yale as Tension Grows Over Panther Protest."
At the bottom of the page was a photo of Diane Crump, soon to become
the first woman jockey ever to ride in the Kentucky Derby. The
photographer had snapped her "stopping in the barn area to fondle her
mount, Fathom." The rest of the paper was spotted with ugly war news
and stories of "student unrest." There was no mention of any trouble
brewing at a university in Ohio called Kent State.
I went to the Hertz desk to pick up my car, but the moon-faced young
swinger in charge said they didn't have any. "You can't rent one
anywhere," he assured me. "Our Derby reservations have been booked for
six weeks." I explained that my agent had confirmed a white Chrysler
convertible for me that very afternoon but he shook his head. "Maybe
we'll have a cancellation. Where are you staying?"
I shrugged. "Where's the Texas crowd staying? I want to be with my
He sighed. "My friend, you're in trouble. This town is flat
Always is, for the Derby."
I leaned closer to him, half-whispering: "Look, I'm from
would you like a job?"
He backed off quickly. "What? Come on, now. What kind of a job?"
"Never mind," I said. "You just blew it." I swept my bag off the
counter and went to find a cab. The bag is a valuable prop in this
kind of work; mine has a lot of baggage tags on it--SF, LA, NY, Lima,
Rome, Bangkok, that sort of thing--and the most prominent tag of all
is a very official, plastic-coated thing that says "Photog. Playboy
Mag." I bought it from a pimp in Vail, Colorado, and he told me how to
use it. "Never mention
until you're sure they've seen this
thing first," he said. "Then, when you see them notice it, that's the
time to strike. They'll go belly up every time. This thing is magic, I
tell you. Pure magic."
Well...maybe so. I'd used it on the poor geek in the bar, and now
humming along in a Yellow Cab toward town, I felt a little guilty
about jangling the poor bugger's brains with that evil fantasy. But
what the hell? Anybody who wanders around the world saying, "Hell yes,
I'm from Texas," deserves whatever happens to him. And he had, after
all, come here once again to make a nineteenth-century ass of himself
in the midst of some jaded, atavistic freakout with nothing to
recommend it except a very saleable "tradition." Early in our chat,
Jimbo had told me that he hadn't missed a Derby since 1954. "The
little lady won't come anymore," he said. "She grits her teeth and
turns me loose for this one. And when I say 'loose' I do mean
toss ten-dollar bills around like they were goin' out of style!
Horses, whiskey, women...shit, there's women in this town that'll do
Why not? Money is a good thing to have in these twisted times. Even
Richard Nixon is hungry for it. Only a few days before the Derby he
said, "If I had any money I'd invest it in the stock market." And the
market, meanwhile, continued its grim slide.
The next day was heavy. With only thirty hours until post time I had
no press credentials and--according to the sports editor of the
--no hope at all of getting any. Worse, I
sets: one for myself and another for Ralph Steadman, the
English illustrator who was coming from London to do some Derby
drawings. All I knew about him was that this was his first visit to
the United States. And the more I pondered the fact, the more it gave
me fear. How would he bear up under the heinous culture shock of being
lifted out of London and plunged into the drunken mob scene at the
Kentucky Derby? There was no way of knowing. Hopefully, he would
arrive at least a day or so ahead, and give himself time to get
acclimated. Maybe a few hours of peaceful sightseeing in the Bluegrass
country around Lexington. My plan was to pick him up at the airport in
the huge Pontiac Ballbuster I'd rented from a used-car salesman named
Colonel Quick, then whisk him off to some peaceful setting that might
remind him of England.
Colonel Quick had solved the car problem, and money (four times the
normal rate) had bought two rooms in a scumbox on the outskirts of
town. The only other kink was the task of convincing the moguls at
Churchill Downs that
was such a prestigious sporting journal
that common sense compelled them to give us two sets of the best press
tickets. This was not easily done. My first call to the publicity
office resulted in total failure. The press handler was shocked at the
idea that anyone would be stupid enough to apply for press credentials
two days before the Derby. "Hell, you can't be serious," he said. "The
deadline was two months ago. The press box is full; there's no more
room...and what the hell is
I uttered a painful groan. "Didn't the London office call you? They're
flying an artist over to do the paintings. Steadman. He's Irish. I
think. Very famous over there. Yes. I just got in from the Coast. The
San Francisco office told me we were all set."
He seemed interested, and even sympathetic, but there was nothing he
could do. I flattered him with more gibberish, and finally he offered
a compromise: he could get us two passes to the clubhouse grounds but
the clubhouse itself and especially the press box were out of the
"That sounds a little weird," I said. "It's unacceptable. We
access to everything.
of it. The spectacle, the people, the
pageantry and certainly the race. You don't think we came all this way
to watch the damn thing on television, do you? One way or another
we'll get inside. Maybe we'll have to bribe a guard--or even Mace
somebody." (I had picked up a spray can of Mace in a downtown
drugstore for $5.98 and suddenly, in the midst of that phone talk, I
was struck by the hideous possibilities of using it out at the track.
Macing ushers at the narrow gates to the clubhouse inner sanctum, then
slipping quickly inside, firing a huge load of Mace into the
governor's box, just as the race starts. Or Macing helpless drunks in
the clubhouse restroom, for their own good...)
By noon on Friday I was still without press credentials and still
unable to locate Steadman. For all I knew he'd changed his mind and
gone back to London. Finally, after giving up on Steadman and trying
unsuccessfully to reach my man in the press office, I decided my only
hope for credentials was to go out to the track and confront the man
in person, with no warning--demanding only one pass now, instead of
two, and talking very fast with a strange lilt in my voice, like a man
trying hard to control some inner frenzy. On the way out, I stopped at
the motel desk to cash a check. Then, as a useless afterthought, I
asked if by any wild chance a Mr. Steadman had checked in.
The lady on the desk was about fifty years old and very peculiar-
looking; when I mentioned Steadman's name she nodded, without looking
up from whatever she was writing, and said in a low voice, "You bet he
did." Then she favored me with a big smile. "Yes, indeed. Mr. Steadman
just left for the racetrack. Is he a friend of yours?"
I shook my head. "I'm supposed to be working with him, but I don't
even know what he looks like. Now, goddammit, I'll have to find him in
the mob at the track."
She chuckled. "You won't have any trouble finding him. You could pick
man out of any crowd."
"Why?" I asked. "What's wrong with him? What does he look like?"
"Well..." she said, still grinning, "he's the funniest looking thing
I've seen in a long time. He has this...ah...this
all over his
face. As a matter of fact it's all over his
." She nodded. "You'll
know him when you see him; don't worry about that."
Creeping Jesus, I thought. That screws the press credentials. I had a
vision of some nerve-rattling geek all covered with matted hair and
string-warts showing up in the press office and demanding
press packet. Well...what the hell? We could always load up on acid
and spend the day roaming around the clubhouse grounds with bit sketch
pads, laughing hysterically at the natives and swilling mint juleps so
the cops wouldn't think we're abnormal. Perhaps even make the act pay;
set up an easel with a big sign saying, "Let a Foreign Artist Paint
Your Portrait, $10 Each. Do It NOW!"
I took the expressway out to the track, driving very fast and jumping
the monster car back and forth between lanes, driving with a beer in
one hand and my mind so muddled that I almost crushed a Volkswagen
full of nuns when I swerved to catch the right exit. There was a slim
chance, I thought, that I might be able to catch the ugly Britisher
before he checked in.
But Steadman was already in the press box when I got there, a bearded
young Englishman wearing a tweed coat and RAF sunglasses. There was
nothing particularly odd about him. No facial veins or clumps of
bristly warts. I told him about the motel woman's description and he
seemed puzzled. "Don't let it bother you," I said. "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. You're lucky that mental
defective at the motel didn't jerk a pistol out of the cash register
and blow a big hole in you." I laughed, but he looked worried.
"Just pretend you're visiting a huge outdoor loony bin," I said. "If
the inmates get out of control we'll soak them down with Mace." I
showed him the can of "Chemical Billy," resisting the urge to fire it
across the room at a rat-faced man typing diligently in the Associated
Press section. We were standing at the bar, sipping the management's
Scotch and congratulating each other on our sudden, unexplained luck
in picking up two sets of fine press credentials. The lady at the desk
had been very friendly to him, he said. "I just told her my name and
she gave me the whole works."
By midafternoon we had everything under control. We had seats looking
down on the finish line, color TV and a free bar in the press room,
and a selection of passes that would take us anywhere from the
clubhouse roof to the jockey room. The only thing we lacked was
unlimited access to the clubhouse inner sanctum in sections
"F&G"...and I felt we needed that, to see the whiskey gentry in
action. The governor, a swinish neo-Nazi hack named Louis Nunn, would
be in "G," along with Barry Goldwater and Colonel Sanders. I felt we'd
be legal in a box in "G" where we could rest and sip juleps, soak up a
bit of atmosphere and the Derby's special vibrations.
The bars and dining rooms are also in "F&G," and
the clubhouse bars on
Derby Day are a very special kind of scene. Along with the
politicians, society belles and local captains of commerce, 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
. The Paddock bar is probably the best place in the track to
sit and watch faces. Nobody minds being stared at; that's what they're
in there for. Some people spend most of their time in the Paddock;
they can hunker down at one of the many wooden tables, lean back in a
comfortable chair and watch the ever-changing odds flash up and down
on the big tote board outside the window. Black waiters in white
serving jackets move through the crowd with trays of drinks, while the
experts ponder their racing forms and the hunch bettors pick lucky
numbers or scan the lineup for right-sounding names. There is a
constant flow of traffic to and from the pari-mutuel windows outside
in the wooden corridors. Then, as post time nears, the crowd thins out
as people go back to their boxes.
Clearly, we were going to have to figure out some way to spend more
time in the clubhouse tomorrow. But the "walkaround" press passes to
F&G were only good for thirty minutes at a time, presumably to allow
the newspaper types to rush in and out for photos or quick interviews,
but to prevent drifters like Steadman and me from spending all day in
the clubhouse, harassing the gentry and rifling the odd handbag or two
while cruising around the boxes. Or Macing the governor. The time
limit was no problem on Friday, but on Derby Day the walkaround passes
would be in heavy demand. And since it took about ten minutes to get
from the press box to the Paddock, and ten more minutes to get back,
that didn't leave much time for serious people-watching. And unlike
most of the others in the press box, we didn't give a hoot in hell
what was happening on the track. We had come there to watch the
Later Friday afternoon, we went out on the balcony of the press box
and I tried to describe the difference between what we were seeing
today and what would be happening tomorrow. This was the first time
I'd been to a Derby in ten years, but before that, when I lived in
Louisville, I used to go every year. 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."
"Is it safe out there?" Will we
"Sure," I said. "We'll just have to be careful not to step on
anybody's stomach and start a fight." I shrugged. "Hell, this
clubhouse scene right below us will be almost as bad as the infield.
Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks, getting angrier and angrier as
they lose more and more money. By midafternoon they'll be guzzling
mint juleps with both hands and vomitting on each other between races
The whole place will be jammed with bodies, shoulder to shoulder. It's
hard to move around. The aisles will be slick with vomit; people
falling down and grabbing at your legs to keep from being stomped.
Drunks pissing on themselves in the betting lines. Dropping handfuls
of money and fighting to stoop over and pick it up."
He looked so nervous that I laughed. "I'm just kidding," I said.
"Don't worry. At the first hint of trouble I'll start pumping this
'Chemical Billy' into the crowd."
He had done a few good sketches, but so far we hadn't seen that
special kind of face that I felt we would need for a lead drawing. It
was a face I'd seen a thousand times at every Derby I'd ever been to.
I saw it, in my head, as
the mask of the whiskey gentry--a pretentious
mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis
inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant
culture. One of the key genetic rules in breeding dogs, horses or any
other kind of thoroughbred is that close inbreeding tends to magnify
the weak points in a bloodline as well as the strong points. In horse
breeding, for instance, there is a definite risk in breeding two fast
horses who are both a little crazy. The offspring will likely be very
fast and also very crazy. So the trick in breeding thoroughbreds is to
retain the good traits and filter out the bad. But the breeding of
humans is not so wisely supervised, particularly in a narrow Southern
society where the closest kind of inbreeding is not only stylish and
acceptable, but far more convenient--to the parents--than setting
their offspring free to find their own mates, for their own reasons
and in their own ways. ("Goddam, did you hear about Smitty's daughter?
She went crazy in Boston last week and married a nigger!")
So the face I was trying to find in Churchill Downs that weekend was a
symbol, in my own mind, of the whole doomed atavistic culture that
makes the Kentucky Derby what it is.
On our way back to the motel after Friday's races I warned Steadman
about some of the other problems we'd have to cope with. Neither of us
had brought any strange illegal drugs, so we would have to get by on
booze. "You should keep in mind," I said, "that almost everybody you
talk to from now on will be drunk. People who seem very pleasant at
first might suddenly swing at you for no reason at all." He nodded,
staring straight ahead. He seemed to be getting a little numb and I
tried to cheer him up by inviting to dinner that night, with my
Back at the motel we talked for awhile about America, the South,
England--just relaxing a bit before dinner. There was no way either of
us could have known, at the time, that it would be the last normal
conversation we would have.
From that point on, the weekend became a
vicious, drunken nightmare
. We both went completely to pieces. The
main problem was my prior attachment to Louisville, which naturally
led to meetings with old friends, relatives, etc., many of whom were
in the process of falling apart, going mad, plotting divorces,
cracking up under the strain of terrible debts or recovering from bad
accidents. Right in the middle of the whole frenzied Derby action, a
member of my own family had to be institutionalized. This added a
certain amount of strain to the situation, and since poor Steadman had
no choice but to take whatever came his way, he was subjected to shock
Another problem was his habit of sketching people he met in the
various social situations I dragged him into--then giving them the
sketches. The results were always unfortunate. I warned him several
times about letting the subjects see his foul renderings, but for some
perverse reason he kept doing it. Consequently, he was regarded with
fear and loathing by nearly everyone who'd seen or even heard about
his work. He couldn't understand it. "It's sort of a joke," he kept
saying. "Why, in England it's quite normal. People don't take offense.
They understand that I'm just putting them on a bit."
"Fuck England," I said. "This is Middle America. These people regard
what you're doing to them as a brutal, bilious insult. Look what
happened last night. I thought my brother was going to tear your head
Steadman shook his head sadly. "But I liked him. He struck me as a
very decent, straightforward sort."
"Look, Ralph," I said. "Let's not kid ourselves. That was a very
horrible drawing you gave him. It was the face of a monster. It got on
his nerves very badly." I shrugged. "Why in hell do you think we left
the restaurant so fast?"
"I thought it was because of the Mace," he said.
He grinned. "When you shot it at the headwaiter, don't you remember?"
"Hell, that was nothing," I said. "I missed him...and we were leaving,
"But it got all over us," he said. "The room was full of that damn
gas. Your brother was sneezing was and his wife was crying. My eyes
hurt for two hours. I couldn't see to draw when we got back to the
"That's right," I said. "The stuff got on her leg, didn't it?"
"She was angry," he said.
"Yeah...well, okay...Let's just figure we fucked up about equally on
that one," I said. "But from now on let's try to be careful when we're
around people I know. You won't sketch them and I won't Mace them.
We'll just try to relax and get drunk."
"Right," he said. "We'll go native."
It was Saturday morning, the day of the Big Race, and we were having
breakfast in a plastic hamburger palace called the Fish-Meat Village.
Our rooms were just across the road in the Brown Suburban Hotel. They
had a dining room, but the food was so bad that we couldn't handle it
anymore. The waitresses seemed to be suffering from shin splints; they
moved around very slowly, moaning and cursing the "darkies" in the
Steadman liked the Fish-Meat place because it had fish and chips. I
preferred the "French toast," which was really pancake batter, fried
to the proper thickness and then chopped out with a sort of cookie
cutter to resemble pieces of toast.
Beyond drink and lack of sleep, our only real problem at that point
was the question of access to the clubhouse. Finally, we decided to go
ahead and steal two passes, if necessary, rather than miss that part
of the action. 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
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. To wit:
Rain all nite until dawn. No sleep. Christ, here we go, a nightmare of
mud and madness...But no. By noon the sun burns through--perfect day,
not even humid.
Steadman is now worried about fire. Somebody told him about the
clubhouse catching on fire two years ago. Could it happen again?
Horrible. Trapped in the press box. Holocaust. A hundred thousand
people fighting to get out. Drunks screaming in the flames and the
mud, crazed horses running wild. Blind in the smoke. Grandstand
collapsing into the flames with us on the roof. Poor Ralph is about to
crack. Drinking heavily, into the Haig & Haig.
Out to the track in a cab, avoid that terrible parking in people's
front yards, $25 each, toothless old men on the street with big signs:
PARK HERE, flagging cars in the yard. "That's fine, boy, never mind
the tulips." Wild hair on his head, straight up like a clump of reeds.
Sidewalks full of people all moving in the same direction, towards
Churchill Downs. Kids hauling coolers and blankets, teenyboppers in
tight pink shorts, many blacks...black dudes in white felt hats with
leopard-skin bands, cops waving traffic along.
The mob was thick for many blocks around the track; very slow going in
the crowd, very hot. On the way to the press box elevator, just inside
the clubhouse, we came on a row of soldiers all carrying long white
riot sticks. About two platoons, with helmets. A man walking next to
us said they were waiting for the governor and his party. Steadman
eyed them nervously. "Why do they have those clubs?"
"Black Panthers," I said. Then I remembered good old "Jimbo" at the
airport and I wondered what he was thinking right now. Probably very
nervous; the place was teeming with cops and soldiers. We pressed on
through the crowd, through many gates, past the paddock where the
jockeys bring the horses out and parade around for a while before each
race so the bettors can get a good look. Five million dollars will be
bet today. Many winners, more losers. What the hell. The press gate
was jammed up with people trying to get in, shouting at the guards,
waving strange press badges: Chicago Sporting Times, Pittsburgh Police
Athletic League...they were all turned away. "Move on, fella, make way
for the working press." We shoved through the crowd and into the
elevator, then quickly up to the free bar. Why not? Get it on. Very
hot today, not feeling well, must be this rotten climate. The press
box was cool and airy, plenty of room to walk around and balcony seats
for watching the race or looking down at the crowd. We got a betting
sheet and went outside.
Pink faces with a stylish Southern sag, old Ivy styles, seersucker
coats and buttondown collars. "Mayblossom Senility" (Steadman's
phrase)...burnt out early or maybe just not much to burn in the first
place. Not much energy in the faces, not much
. Suffering in
silence, nowhere to go after thirty in this life, just hang on and
humor the children. Let the young enjoy themselves while they can. Why
The grim reaper comes early in this league...banshees on the lawn at
night, screaming out there beside that little iron nigger in jockey
clothes. Maybe he's the one who's screaming. Bad DT's and too many
snarls at the bridge club. Going down with the stock market. Oh Jesus,
the kid has wrecked the new car, wrapped it around the big stone
pillar at the bottom of the driveway. Broken leg? Twisted eye? Send
him off to Yale, they can cure anything up there.
Yale? Did you see today's paper? New Haven is under siege. Yale is
swarming with Black Panthers...I tell you, Colonel, the world has gone
mad, stone mad. Why, they tell me a goddam woman jockey might ride in
the Derby today.
I left Steadman sketching in the Paddock bar and went off to place our
bets on the fourth race. When I came back he was staring intently at a
group of young men around a table not far away. "Jesus, look at the
corruption in that face!" he whispered. "Look at the madness, the
fear, the greed!" I looked, then quickly turned my back on the table
he was sketching. The face he'd picked out to draw was the face of an
old friend of mine, a prep school football star in the good old days
with a sleek red Chevy convertible and a very quick hand, it was said,
with the snaps of a 32 B brassiere. They called him "Cat Man."
But now, a dozen years later, I wouldn't have recognized him anywhere "