News and Tribune

May 7, 2013

BEAM: Kentucky Oaks is opulent and obscene

Local columnist

— I got out of the truck around noon, the growing warmth of the day slowly becoming apparent. Broad-brimmed hats so big you could saddle one over a thoroughbred bobbed by over the fence line.

Local residents bellowed — an attempt to attract the party-goers to their makeshift parking lot lawns. Some charged fees for city street spaces that are normally free. All bets would be off what your car would look like if you didn’t pay the sum. Extortion knows no bounds around Derby time.

But this wasn’t the best two minutes in sports. If the WNBA is any precedent, this was the third or 10th or maybe even the 68th best. We had arrived at the edge of Churchill Downs ready for a day at the Kentucky Oaks.

Forty-three years ago, Louisville native Hunter S. Thompson tackled the Kentucky Derby and in the process created a new style of “gonzo” journalism. I didn’t want to remake the wheel, nor do I have the ability to even chisel a rounded piece of his creative corner. Somehow though, experiencing the Oaks through Hunter’s eyes seemed like a cool thing to do.

Not that his work didn’t talk about the Oaks. In “The Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” the out-of-control reporter does cover a little of the Friday before Derby, though he never calls it by the name we know it as now. Back then, the race wasn’t attended by 113,000 like it is today. At best, it reached 50,000. To him, this was a mere warm up to the main event.

Of course, Hunter cared little about the horses or the race. In that piece for Scanlan’s Monthly, he concentrated on the people and the spectacle, ultimately becoming one of the degeneracies he so desperately hoped to cover. He wanted to find a “symbol ... of the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is.”

 It wasn’t about the horses or the money or even the race. It was about interpreting society.

As I stepped out of the truck last Friday, I was already at a disadvantage. Hunter was unapologetically Hunter. He drank, cursed and bullied his way into many a situation, most of which he had created. With my perfect pink hat, strapless polka dot dress, stacked heels and contrite demeanor, I could barely walk let alone push my way through anything except perhaps a well-oiled ticket turnstile. With my husband’s firm grip, I at least did this.

Security is different now from Hunter’s time. Purses are sifted through by uniformed personnel with a long wooden prod, reminding us of terroristic threats a heck of a lot worse than some mace. Coolers are no longer allowed, and, at least at Derby, guards wand down ladies in tight dresses that ne’er a few drops of mint julep let along a pressure cooker could shimmy down.

When we entered, my friends and I hung by the paddock and watched the horses for an early race prance by. Men in seersucker and other brightly colored pants that most likely would get you assaulted in the neighborhood I grew up in also cavorted around the track with a European flair. The women strut too, some with dresses so short one wonders how they’ll sit in their boxed seats without different types of silks being shown.

And the hats. Oh the hats. Every color, every size, every shape sit atop the well-coiffed brows. Bonnets as big as some of the whiskey gentry’s egos, or as small as the meager pay of the migrant stable hands that care for the animals.

Gawkers remained placated. It’s too early in the morning for too much alcohol to have been consumed. Hunter used the exaggeration that he worked for Playboy magazine early in his career to obtain special favors. With this crowd, the Duck Dynasty Fan Club Newsletter might have just done the trick.

But I can’t. I’m a terrible liar, especially in heels. At best, I can try to get a reaction by announcing I’ve eaten raw horse meat while I lived in Japan. Most of these folks have probably done the same just noshing on American fast food. Plus, they are here to cheer on a horse being flogged for their own entertainment and pocket books. Not sure if equine health is at the top of their concerns.

By the time we picked up a racing form and found our seats, blisters had begun to form on my feet — a small price to pay for haughtiness. Well, heck. Thank heavens servers with fruity Lilies regularly patrolled the grounds. One costs $11 without tip though, so I only consumed two throughout the day. So much for pain relief. Posting photos for all our working friends on Facebook did help to remove some of the sting.

Here I stayed and watched the splendidly dressed get baked in the bright sun. The hotter it becomes, the more alcohol is consumed. Nothing got out of hand near our box except for a frightening couple who decided to make out to the sounds of the horses hoofs, and two seniors who tried to line jump in front of me while I waited for the bathroom.

As we left following the Oaks race, women and men both stumbled. Several were hunched over in their brilliance ready to use their hats as couture barf bags. In the parking lot, religious zealots preached death and damnation to the hordes while police on their mounts supervised the exodus.

“What would Hunter think of all this today?” I asked my husband. He didn’t hear. The true spectacle of the Kentucky Oaks commanded his attention, as did the many questionable puddles that dotted our walkway ahead.

— Amanda Beam is a Floyd County resident and Jeffersonville native. Contact her by email at