Thurby @ Churchill Downs Goes Gonzo

On a gorgeous Thursday before the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby I had a choice to make. On one hand there was work. On the other hand there was venturing to Churchill Downs for Derby week festivities. The Thursday before Derby has become an official part of the Derby celebration, and is marketed as “Thurby.”

Most visitors arrive in Louisville on Thursday, but don’t make the track until Friday for the Kentucky Oaks, or Saturday for the Derby. This leaves Thursday as a locals day at Churchill. Those wanting a taste of the energy that surrounds Louisville leading up to the first Saturday in May, can put on their finery and hit Thurby, without enduring all the chaos of mega crowds or escalated ticket prices.

Ultimately, what swayed my decision was the planned anniversary celebration by Churhill Downs for Hunter S. Thompson’s essay, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.”

Churchill was going Gonzo. The good Doctor’s famed illustrator, Ralph Steadman, was returning to the track for the first time since his booze-filled escapades with Thompson 49 years prior. For the occasion the Welsh-born Steadman, 82, created a special edition print for sale at Churchill exclusively.

I mean come on, it’s Dr. Gonzo. I had to go pay my respects.

A 20-spot scored parking in the front yard of an apartment complex walking distance to the gates. A general admission grandstand ticket could be had for a paltry $22.

The scene inside Thurby was banging. It skewed considerably younger than Oaks or Derby. These attendees were immaculately groomed. Clearly the guys had gotten the memo that neatly trimmed facial hair was the way to go. The vest, tightly fitted, with a jacket or without, was the article of choice for wear by men. It was that dress accessory that allowed one’s flavor or personality to be expressed. One of my favorites was a faded blue suit/vest combo splashed with white Storm Trooper heads.

Now beg your pardon, but goodness to God, there was explosive cleavage as far as the eye could see! At times it was impossible to find anywhere to look away. Impending doom undulated around every turn, as enormous, gravity defying racks stretched their taffeta boundaries as golden orbs sought their escape from push-up bra subjugation.

This was an upwardly mobile population by and large, educated and conversant with belonging to a gym. The vast majority were trim and willowy. And let’s not forget hats, hats, hats (big, small and everywhere in-between), dotted the landscape. Even the guys donned chapeaus in large numbers, as they puffed on fat, hand rolled cigars.

The first order of business was cocktails. Old Forester was the sponsor of Thurby, and its Old Fashioned was the signature drink. Mint Juleps were infinitely available for sale, but the sugar content is vicious, and what does one do with a fragile souvenir glass after consuming the cocktail. Few sounds are more tragic than hearing a Derby glass shatter on concrete. It’s a distinct noise, and anyone in earshot lets out a heavy sigh of condolence for the downing of a lost compatriot.

Winning Splat | Ralph Steadman | Thurby 2019

The Old Fashioned was spirited and not cheap. One was sufficient in the steady heat. Besides I was running on Gonzo power this day. Speaking of, locating where Steadman’s Thurby print was for sale became my next task.

After a few twists and turns across the plaza, I located a row of white tents tucked away off the main drag. I plunked down my $25, and now had a cardboard tube to wag around the remainder of the day. Steadman was on-site signing items in the same area, but the queue began at 11AM. In this heat that was not a viable option.

I needed to sit a spell, preferably in shade. One of the inherent drawbacks to general admission tickets is one can get stuck on the long rows of metal benches spanning the grandstand level, either exposed to the blazing sun or without cover in case of rain. I anticipated Churchill would adhere to assigned seating, like at Oaks or Derby, but this was not the case. No ushers were staffing entranceways in the common areas for Thurby.

I started on the benches before exploring better confines upstairs. On level two my friends and I commandeered a box with folding chairs. Up the half-flight to a lofted level came another box, but with cushioned folding chairs, overlooking the homestretch near the finish line. It was a pristine view, and ultimately came included with my $22 general admission ticket.

While I entered the day with aspirations of laying down Derby wagers for Saturday’s race, that quickly became an unrecognizable dream. My brainpan was going in a million splintered directions. Far and away too many to hone in on what horses might finish in what order in a race two days from now. Besides it was way more fun to party out in the plaza. A stage was set up, where a DJ and full band were spinning tunes. This vantage point allowed a perfect view of the paddock area, where the horses paraded through on their way to the next race.

By 6PM the sun had taken its toll. With poster in hand I made a beeline for my vehicle and its soothing air conditioning.

Thurby exceeded all expectations. While horse racing was remotely involved, it was more of a social gathering, with heavy cocktails. A venue to see and be seen, and with a crowd of around 48,000, it was considerably more manageable to navigate than the 100,000 at Oaks or the more than 150,000 at the Kentucky Derby.

Hunter Thompson was spot on when he said, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” I’ll saddle up for Thurby again come next year.

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