Authors Note: In 2014, I was sent by High Times to cover the 140th Kentucky Derby. The tale was never published, until now!
There were threats of violence long before the big race even began. On the evening before arriving in Louisville to report on the stoner presence at the Kentucky Derby, I received a bizarre message from a close friend of mine, warning that it would be in my best interest to leave anything marijuana-related behind. Instead, he told me to pack a weapon deadlier than the devil himself. He then went on to explain that a violent gang of hooligan anarchists recently moved from Chicago into Bluegrass territory and had started terrorizing the city by rioting in the streets and randomly beating innocent people within an inch of their lives.
To make things worse, someone from the Federal Bureau of Investigation leaked a memo on social media indicating the potential for a domestic terrorist attack during Derby events, explicitly naming the Pegasus Parade as the primary target. This information, however, was never intended to be released to the general public. It was only meant for the eyes of the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department, who did, in fact, later confirm that they were in possession of some concerning intelligence regarding a pack of young thugs and their cutthroat ploy to swoop in and put the kibosh on the Kentucky Derby.
At first, I thought the story was a rouse, just something to get my anxiety up to a dangerous level. But upon further investigation, I soon discovered I was about to step into a warzone.
“Anyone with information this frightening would be a fool even to consider stopping off in Louisville for lunch, much less diving head first into the middle of it to cover one of the most highly anticipated sporting events in America,” I thought to myself, as the front tires of my rental car rolled across the Sherman Minton bridge into Kentucky. However, the car doors were locked — I double-checked — so what could possibly happen between the interstate and the downtown hotel room that was waiting for me? Perhaps a lot. The racial tensions were still reverberating throughout the entire city due to an incident involving a white man by the name of Anthony Allen, who was recently cleared in the murder of a 14-year-old black gang recruit named Me'Quale Offutt. Reports indicated that as part of an initiation, Offutt pulled a knife on Allen while in transit on a public bus, but Allen retaliated, gaining control of the blade and stabbing the kid to death. A grand jury ruled that Allen acted in self-defense and shortly after that, mob violence ensued – turning Derby week into a potential gangland bullwhip against white America.
No one was safe.
Yet, nothing could stop the Kentucky Derby, and everyone knew it, even those plotting destruction in the background. Perhaps this is the reason that once the Pegasus Parade was over on Thursday, without resulting in any suicide bombings and public lynchings, the black and white lines that had divided Louisville for the past month intersected, at least for the weekend, in a collective attempt to wreak a special kind of havoc inside the hellish arena of Churchill Downs -- the Thunderdome of the Midwest.
Friday Night: Desperately Seeking Stoners
My friend, Brandon, who had warned me not to come to Louisville without at least arming myself with a 12-inch rubber hose, showed up at the hotel just after 9 p.m. with a twelve pack of Red Stripe and a twisted look in his eye that told me he had seen trouble. “Goddamn, man,” he shouted. “I hate the Derby.” This attitude was, by and large, a common sentiment among the locals. Everyone who called Louisville home seemed either annoyed or outright disgusted by the fact that outsiders and scoundrels were invading their city in the name of “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.” In reality, the consensus understood that these fiends were really looking to go on a buck wild booze bender, chock full of every indiscretion imaginable, as long as it did not resort in lengthy prison sentences or herpes.
“Thanks for the beer,” I said. “Were you able to get any weed?”
“No, man,” he replied, opening a couple of beers using the bottle opener on his keychain. “None of my friends are big pot smokers… they’re drinkers.”
“Well, son of a bitch. How in the hell am I supposed to handle being down at the Derby all day without the ability to get stoned?”
“Man, you’ll run into all kinds of people there to get high with,” Brandon replied. “Don’t you have a High Times pass or something to give you an in with the potheads?”
The unfortunate truth of the matter was, not only did I not have a pass from the magazine to show that I was a journalist on a mission to report on the stoner culture at the Derby, but my many attempts at obtaining press credentials from the powers-that-be had failed, as well. It was apparent; they didn’t want us there. So, while the Derby’s chosen elite wrote their version of the day’s events from the air-conditioned confines of the Churchill Downs media center, where rumor has it that not only do they serve complimentary beverages but also relatively inexpensive prostitutes, I was somehow expected to cover the festivities from the infield… and without a buzz.
After we finished the beer, I decided it might be a good idea to scour the hotel lounge for someone in possession of the elusive Kentucky Doobie. I had a feeling if we dug deep enough, we could at least find a busboy or a maid with a cousin that knows a guy with a brother who has a friend with a serious street connection. “Man, you just can’t go down to the bar asking people for pot,” Brandon shouted. “You’ll be writing about the Derby from jail.”
“No one would dare call the cops on a fellow Derby patron tonight,” I replied. “Besides, there aren’t any laws that say I can’t ask the concierge for a weed hookup. And he won’t rat me out… I’m a good tipper.”
“The concierge,” he shouted back. “You might as well call the Louisville Police Department and ask them to sell you a joint from the evidence room. Hotel management will put up with a lot of shit during the Derby, but there ain’t no goddamn way they’re going to tolerate some asshole in the lobby trying to score pot.”
“Calm your ass down,” I snapped back. “It’s not like I’m asking them for heroin. Weed is legal in parts of the country.”
“Yeah, well not this part of the country.”
Despite the apparent controversy involved with setting out on a quest for a weed dealer in the middle of four-star accommodations, I knew someone in the hotel was holding a fat sack of marijuana and I intended to find them. It wasn’t long before we were standing in a crowded bar located on the second floor of the hotel; a well-dressed scene full of drunken socialites, where getting the bartender’s attention was going to prove to be a daunting enough task without the added agenda of slipping him a twenty in hopes of scoring some smoke. Yet, when it was finally our turn to order at the bar, that is precisely what I did.
“What can I get you?” the bartender asked, coming in close to ensure he could hear our order over the noise in the room.
“Get us two Heinekens,” I replied, handing the man forty dollars -- twenty to cover the drinks, and the rest to ensure I had his undivided attention when I leaned in to ask the question of the hour. Do you know where I can get some weed?”
The bartender shook his head and that was that; the bastard took the money without offering me any insight into the black market marijuana commerce that I knew goddamn well was being flexed right there in the hotel. “He thinks the bribe is a tip,” Brandon shouted, doubling over with laughter.
My initial reaction was to jump over the bar and deliver a beat down vicious enough to make the front page of the weekend edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal, but I decided, instead, to take a passive-aggressive approach to the humiliation by turning my angst on Brandon. “You owe me $7.50 for the beer, you son of a bitch,” I screamed, fidgeting in my front pants pocket for God knows what. “This is all your fault.”
“My fault,” he fired back. “You’re the dumbass trying to bribe a bartender for fuckin’ pot.”
We spent the rest of the night down at the bar, drinking beer and sucking on shots of Kentucky bourbon. What can I say: when in Rome. Truth be told, I needed to get some sleep. The gates at Churchill Downs were set to open early on Saturday and I wanted to make damn sure I was there when they did so that I could watch the whole scene unfold from the very beginning. Not another word was mentioned about marijuana for the rest of the evening… at least none I can remember.
Saturday: Fuck The Kentucky Derby
On Saturday, I crawled out of bed with only one functional eye and the vile taste of whiskey vomit grudge humping the inside of my mouth. My head was pounding too, and vibrations were coming from deep inside my guts that told me that perhaps I had gotten a bit overzealous down at the bar. Friday evening was, for the most part, a blur, but the memories were still solid enough to trigger my gag reflex while examining myself for stab wounds in the bathroom mirror. “Good lord, what have I done,” I thought to myself. Hangovers were hard enough to handle these days without being forced to spend twelve or more hours in an open field, watching the mangy and wild lose their life savings and dignity on a horse. What was worse is there was no time to have breakfast and get coffee or anything else that might get me straight – the gates were opening in 15 minutes.
Soon we were on the road. And although Brandon said he was still too drunk to join me at the race, he offered to drop me off as close to the track as possible so that I could avoid the hassle of trying to rustle up a cab. This was good, especially since I spent the majority of my money the night before on bribes and overpriced liquor.
The road to Churchill Downs was an impressive display of American capitalism at work. The neighborhood folks were already up, pimping out parking spots on their lawns for $20, as well as setting up curbside food stands where the welfare community planned to supplement their monthly income by selling lip and asshole dogs for $5 a piece. Yet, even though I was in no shape to fully appreciate the sights and sounds of the community’s pre-debaucherous affairs, there was something about the part I was able to process that warned me I was about to step into the gateway to hell.
Brandon dropped me off near the entrance, where I managed to make my way through Gate Three without being searched or violated by an overzealous cop holding a magnetic wand. Not that I was carrying anything illegal, but in light of recent street violence, I had prepared myself for a shakedown. But no, the woman at the turnstile scanned my ticket and sent me into an underground tunnel surrounded by at least 100 people, where I popped out on the other side at the edge of the infield. Inside, there were already tent side booze hustlers hard at work, schlepping $9 beer and $11 Mint Juleps. “Kentucky is the only state where it is okay to drink before noon,” one of them shouted. Further, into the pit, a television reporter mingled with the crowd in search of Derby enthusiasts dressed in ridiculous costumes and eccentric headwear hoping to get their fifteen minutes of fame. This level of useless pageantry would continue for hours…
There was no way of knowing that arriving just as the gates opened was pointless and boring. Only those looking to claim a permanent spot in the infield to watch the day’s races on a giant television screen showed up that early. The real tyrants of the event, as I would soon find out, were lying dormant in some drunken sleeper cell, waiting patiently to swoop in and pounce on everything remotely civilized about the event. In a biblical sense, the Kentucky Derby would prove to be a modern day interpretation of Revelation… a lost part of the scripture where, in the end, all the corpses that had been laid to waste still feared for their eternal souls.
As the day progressed, the crowd transformed into what I can only describe as Technicolor carnage. The men were all dressed in brightly colored suits and shorts, while the women strutted around like deranged peacocks, cloaked in hats that eclipsed the sun and nothing less than a 6-inch heel on their feet. Appearances were everything, at least until the booze grabbed hold. That’s when it got personal. By the sixth race, it was nothing to see someone slumped over a trash can for their first puke of the day. By the eighth race, there were just too many sickos to mess with the hassle of locating a proper receptacle, so they simply used the lawn.
Unfortunately, there was no sign of a stoner class anywhere to be found. If there was, they had shown up masquerading as foul mouth drunkards, perhaps in hopes that the scam would shield them from the possibility of sustaining a beat down by a degenerate pack of fraternity brothers decorated in pink slacks and golf shoes. No one, from what I could tell, was high on anything other than the medicine of the day — Montecristo Churchill cigars and mint leaves covered in Kentucky whiskey. I was officially outnumbered… and starting to consider the possibility of not making it out alive.
In the afternoon, I was overcome with feelings of claustrophobia – the air was getting thick – because no matter how much the crowd continued to multiply like horny rabbits, the bastards at the gates kept shuttling them in. There was no longer any possible way for law enforcement to maintain order the moment someone decided to fire shots into the stands. With over 100,000 people in attendance, the stampede would be catastrophic. And by God, I sensed it was coming.
By the tenth race, the madness was in full swing… the Kentucky Derby was next. Being a sucker for a long shot, I began pushing my way through the crowd in a feeble attempt to get to the wagering booth in enough time to slap a hundred bucks on Uncle Sigh at 30-to-1. But the mob scene had rendered it virtually impossible for anyone to get close enough to place a bet. It was apparent; the social climate was going mad. Armed National Guardsmen were positioned on the rooftops staring down at the infield, prepared to plug the first person who dared get out of line. Strangely, no one seemed concerned about armed military men being there. However, I understood… it was riot control. The Big Race was the perfect opportunity for the terrorist attack that the FBI had predicted earlier in the week, and the slightest implication of anything life-threatening, like someone screaming “bomb,” would undoubtedly inject this clan with enough panic to cause them to storm the fence. That’s when these people would start to die because there was no way in hell armed forces would allow anyone from the infield to cross over the dirt separating them from the elitists in the stands. It would be a bloodbath.
The possibility of this playing out exactly as it had manifested in my head was enough to nearly give me a panic attack and send me running for dear life which, by definition, was impossible. The crowd was impenetrable at this point. I would have to belly-crawl through puddles of spit, vomit, dirty underwear and aluminum beer bottles if I expected to have any chance of making it to an emergency exit on the other side of the infield. There was no choice but to try to leave the same way I came in: through the underground tunnel and back out through Gate Three. Yet, I had no way of knowing that in doing so I was entering the mouth of more madness. Once inside the tunnel, I was again outnumbered by hundreds of roaring fans still trying to get in. The sounds of their drunken screams were so loud, I could actually feel the concrete beneath my feet rumble, and I watched people go down and never get back up. Somehow, I managed to avoid being trampled by the incoming bodies by doing a wallflower side, but somewhere near the halfway mark, I was swept off my feet and carried back the way I had come. “Put me down you animals,” I screamed while attempting to kick and punch my way out of the death ride. Eventually, my feet touched down just enough to gain the traction I needed to move forward, continuing nearly all the way out by shoulder grinding the wall. By the time I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, I had started to consider the possibility that I just might make it out of Churchill Downs without becoming a statistic. Oddly enough, even though twenty horses had already officially started running for the roses, the ticket takers were still letting people in – hundreds of them. There was literally no end in sight. To the right, I spotted a man with shoulder-length dreadlocks guarding the exit, handing out wristbands to select people as they made their way out of the gate. This was it, I thought… Satan’s fur… the way out.
“You coming back in?” the man asked, tearing off a paper bracelet that would allow me to gain re-entry into the track.
“No,” I replied. “Not ever. Fuck the Kentucky Derby.”
As I prepared to pass through the gates and back into the streets of Louisville, I thought about why I had come to this godforsaken event in the first place: to find stoners in the midst of the drunkest day inside the armpit of America. “Hey man,” I shouted, turning towards the dreadlocked man to get his attention. “You wouldn’t happen to have any weed, would you?”
In the end, the 140th annual Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs reported its second largest attendance in history — 164,906 people — and never once did I get the opportunity to see an actual horse or anything even remotely close to a Kentucky Doobie.
Special thanks to Ellen Holland for editing this piece.