Derby Degeneracy – “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” on Acid

The Kentucky Oaks was a classy affair, there’s nothing else to call it. Everyone was dressed to the nines, the ladies were looking gorgeous, we all had 3rd floor clubhouse access tickets and a couple of boxes up in the shade underneath millionaires row to swill our juleps and smoke cigars. It was a fine day – but a strange one.

Rebel and I had only arrived in Louisville at 7:30AM from San Jose, Costa Rica. A succession of surreal events that led us from one plane to the next, and one airport after another until we finally arrived in Kentucky. We dashed off the plane, shouldering through shuffling passengers and nearly bowling over a couple of 13-year-old girls passing out bourbon cake pops.

Welcome to Kentucky.

If I thought our journey so far had been jangled, this was to be a rude awaking: the Louisville Airport on Derby weekend.

The place was a zoo. Every bar was packed with hollering patrons guzzling whisky, eagerly leaning over each other and staring into the flat screen televisions that were soon to air the race we were supposed to be at. Great crowds of people stampeded all around, trying desperately to make their way against the muddled rip tide of Kentucky titillation. Derby bedlam.

I’m sure I saw at least three people trampled to death in that tumult. But such casualties aren’t uncommon on this particular weekend in this particular state. 

We made it … if only just. After fighting our way out of the L.I.A. menagerie we secured a ride to our next destination, which was to be our home for the next two evenings: the residence of one Mr. Eduardo Sanchez, the man of the hour, the reason this was all happening in the first place.

Captain Eddie (as most knew him) is a certifiably mad delinquent born and raised in Kentucky, schooled in the dark arts of computer sciences, and according to rumors (which I believe to be true) hiked the entire Appellation Trail on a strict diet of magic mushrooms, grits and whisky. In lieu of actually dawning a cap and gown and marching into CU’s Football Stadium for graduation, Captain Eddie had graciously invited his closest college friends to join him in his home state, in his home, to attend what is known to the world as, “The most exciting two minutes in sports.

We would see about that… But first, the Oaks! The fillies’ race on the Friday before the Derby. 

When at last we arrived at 18 Indian Hills Drive the house was freshly deserted – warm brunch still sat on the dining room table, Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” poured from some forgotten speaker, and empty mimosas were scattered across all available surfaces. The signs were everywhere: we had just missed them.

Scarfing down some brunch, Rebel and I leapt into our fancy-clothes, helping to finish a few wounded mimosas along the way. Ms. Sanchez (Eduardo’s wonderfully accommodating mother) screeched into the driveway soon after and threw open her car door.

“Get in! I’ll drive you to the stadium.”

I felt like a military grunt. So I followed orders and leapt in without question, Rebel right behind me, Ms. Sanchez bravely at the wheel. Our destination was closer than ever…

Churchill Downs – the legendary racetrack. All around it, Louisville was choking on foot traffic, asphyxiated by streets full of cars.  Including ours. Vehicle movement was ground to halt for miles in every direction. When we were finally within ten blocks, we thanked our gracious driver and deployed like paratroopers. 

The sidewalks were packed with people selling their yards for parking spots:

“Park in the garden, ain’t no trouble!”

“$70 for the day. Fairest deal you’ll find.”

“Get cho’ water! Get cho’ beer! Park your car and get it all right hea’!”

As we neared the track, the scale of this event began to sink in. There were 100,000 people inside Churchill Downs; tomorrow it would be 120,000. What if we lost ourselves in that crowd? What if we never made it out?

Well … we made it in. And after only a few moments of disoriented misdirection and re-correction we managed to locate our crew up in the 3rd floor boxes.

The reunion was ecstatic. Everyone was there – and a few strangers, too: Captain Eduardo Sanchez himself, Gryph Kelly and his girlfriend Kay Rissa, Jay Joseph and Klara, Adam Soskul, Teddy Preze, Shawn McBeard, Japhie Stower, and JZ and his girl Shelly. Judging by the general lack of sobriety amongst the company, Rebel and I had some serious catching up to do.

Luckily, finding drinks at Churchill Downs is like looking for sand on a beach. As soon as I traded that first $13 for my first mint julep I started slipping helplessly into a whirl of misplaced bets, wins, loses, alcohol, Kentucky culture and race after race after race.

***

 I woke up groggy, and about two hours before everyone else. 18 Indian Hills Drive was quiet, save the snoring bodies that littered every room. I splashed water in my face and tried to recall the previous night’s events over a lonely cup of coffee: we’d definitely paid a stranger to drive all 12 of us home in his 1990 Toyota Corolla. But after that I could only recall fragments – bonfires, packed Louisville bars, Uber rides, and white wine in an unfamiliar parking lot. 

Slowly, the other humans began to emerge from their respective holes. And before I was halfway through my second cup of coffee, Adam was handing me a hot toddy.

“Fuck – for real?” I asked.

 He smiled and winked. Adam knows best. Always has.

“Do you remember casually throwing up all that wine in front of the bar last night?” Asked Kay Rissa. “You didn’t even break stride.”

We were sitting outside, enjoying the humid morning air and a hardy Kentucky breakfast.

“I was hoping that was a dream...” I replied truthfully, “But there’s a big part of me that blames you for bringing that entire bottle in the first place, Kay.” Then, “I also vaguely remember Gryph kicking the hell out of a mob of angry motherfuckers because one of them was hitting on you.”

Kay blushed. Gryph chuckled and raised his drink.

“Wanna’throw a Frisbee?” He asked. 

Captain Eddie’s backyard is a magnificent place – there is almost an acre of grassy area for general fucking-around and a pool at the far end. The neighbors are all blocked by thick, ancient trees. It is, indeed, the perfect yard for Frisbee.  

It is difficult to describe the anticipation that occupied that corner of space and time – the air was filled with a rare electricity that crackled and hummed, charring moments into memory. There was tequila, bourbon, fresh mint and julep mixer all before 10am – but that was only the start.

“Yo, Wilder.” Captain Eddie called. He and Gryph were standing beneath a willow nearby. As I joined them, he handed me a small white square of blotter paper – something I recognized with fondness. 

“You tryna’ to get your Fear and Loathing on today?” He asked, mischief in his voice.

I was overwhelmed, and embraced him. “You’re a goddamned saint, Eduardo Sanchez!”  

We ate the acid together. 

Within the hour, weird vibrations were beginning to creep into my reality. And I could tell by the strange lilt in Gryph and Eddie’s voices, they too were feeling peculiar.

I grinned. Let the going get weird… 

*** 

Before I knew it, we were walking through the legendary tunnel that burrows beneath Churchill Downs’ track, surfacing on the other side, in the infield, in the madness.

Nothing could have prepared me for the level of mayhem I found on the other side. A dull roar filled the stadium. All around us bodies squirmed past one another, drunkenly spewing gibberish at each other and screaming into the muggy air.

I glanced over, wild eyed at Gryph and Eddie, who were experiencing similar culture shocks. I must have had the same frenzied and confused expression smeared across my face that they did – because they burst into laughter. We had arrived – this was it: the Kentucky fucking Derby.  Pura vida.

It took us a little while to find a good spot out there in that turmoil, but once we did we held it like the Alamo. I remember watching Eddie sit down cross-legged in the middle of our group, giggling. Beneath him, red bricks swelled and contracted, breathing, undulating with a life of their own. Drunks staggered about, shifting and wobbling one way and the next, jostling past each other in crosshatched currents that pushed and mumbled, “Excuse me”, “Pardon me”, “Fuck you.”  

Insanity. Can it be described in any other way? I think not. Not from my memory at least. The rattling one gets with a head full of acid and veins pumping whisky, at an event like the Kentucky Derby is unparalleled.

Jay Joseph suddenly slapped me on the back, smiling.

“How are you feeling, bro?”

I considered the question.

“Like I shouldn’t be trusted to bet money on these beasts.” It was the most honest answer I could come up with.

He laughed and winked at me. “Don’t worry my man, leave that to me. I’ll be walking out of here a rich man, Wilder. Mark my words.”

So I did mark them. But that didn’t stop a hail of paranoid questions from peppering my perception. I was bewildered and amazed, terrified and thrilled all at once:

How long had this crowd been waiting to get tanked and throw money at these betting windows? How much would the owners of this racetrack make this weekend? Was there any sober soul left in all of Kentucky?

They were questions I would never learn the answers to. 

Around 2:00pm I turned to discover an impending menace: Behind the famed clubhouse, just over millionaires row, a great and ominous storm cloud loomed. Like retribution released upon Louisville by the gods (who’d surely been watching all this debauchery with contempt and disapproval).

The crowd fell silent as the storm cloud rose. Things became dark. Things became cold. And the wind began whipping through that mass of drunken madness with vindictive force.

Someone screamed.

Garbage and other debris began flying up into the air and hurtling in dangerous circles. 

More screams.

Quite suddenly, and all at once, the crowd burst into wild panic. Rain began to fall. The ship had flipped, and the potential energy of that storm was released in a furious explosion of frenzied humans and pelting rain. Pandemonium on the infield.  

My screams joined the others. I must have sounded like a lunatic – searching for my friends, fearful I might be swept away and lost in that chaos. To my relief, I found the faces of Jay, Eddie and Gryph floating like fishermen gone overboard in the Baltic Sea, drifting away from me – lost and unreachable. I grabbed instinctively for Rebel who wasn’t far away. Lunacy was all around us, and I clutched my girlfriend for dear life like a floatation device.

“Relax.” She looked into my eyes, at the evident fear there. “It’s only rain. It will pass.” She smiled, and I did feel better.

Then, Gryph broke free of the crowd and took cover beneath the lid of a nearby trashcan, shielding himself from the arrow-like raindrops.  It was a fine idea, and I began swimming in his direction. To my left, I watched as Teddy Preze crawled beneath the tablecloth of a nearby hotdog table. God speed, I thought. Who knew what kind of horrors were lurking in that filthy darkness… 

I could hear Gryph shouting: “Jesus Christ, boys! Shit’s gettin’ real! Come on in! Get on under here!”

I wanted to! But I was swimming upstream, against the current.

And the acid was working at full capacity – as I thrashed through the throng, I nearly bowled straight into an authentic, bonafide Kentucky ogre – something out of a Ralph Steadman illustration. Her chapped and hairy lips loosely gripped a half smoked cigarette. She was short and squat, with greenish colored skin, warts everywhere and a great, hooked nose.

The beast ambled past, unafflicted by the disarray, pointed ears darting this way and that. Her razor sharp teeth flashed as she eyed me, grinning – smoke seeped from the corners of her mouth…

I stood there frozen in that moment, while hysteria raged all around. Where had that monster come from? I wondered. How many of them were in here?

After a weird moment processing the impossible thing I’d just witnessed, I remembered where I was, what I was doing and why … it was still raining, and the wind was still whipping anything it could carry in hurricane-like orbits. I rushed towards Gryph, and with a final effort, I squeezed out of that mess and collapsed next to my comrade. Rebel was somehow already there. 

“Mother of twelve bastards! An ogre! A troll? I saw something in there! Did you see something?” No one had. “Dear god! Who let a creature like that in here? We’ll never make it out alive.”

But as fast as that tempest had arrived, an unexpected ray of sunlight beamed though the darkness above, cutting swiftly through the frenzied scene.  The maelstrom was over … and somehow, against impossible odds, the race had never even paused.

People started hollering with delight, cheering the re-emergence of our sacred star and the light that keeps us living. Warmth flooded the infield.

What must that have looked like from the clubhouse? Frantic people screaming and sprinting around like trapped animals. Hell, for everyone in the stands, that may have been more entertaining than the races…

Despite the sopping wet infield and all the soggy tents, I was palpably aware of a swelling anticipation. Churchill Downs was on the ascent, building towards some breathtaking crescendo.

The big race was impending. We were on track.

Only those who have personally been in a crowd of that size, watching an event of that magnitude, can understand the odd collective passion that manifests in such a situation. I don’t know how to explain it: it’s like a hive-mind phenomena – a type of common consciousness that we aren’t tapped into in our day-to-day lives. A connection that always exists but is only perceptible when we’re together in great numbers, emotional to a deep extent.  

What had been, all day, a misaligned exposition of drunkenness and disorder, began to fall silent. The people stilled and everyone focused. The moment of the big race was upon us, and all had turned to the giant LCD screen towering overhead. 

The horses were bridled. They were gated. They were ready. And then, time froze.

BANG!

As if in slow motion, the horses burst forth from the gate, charging down the track in great long gaits, bending around the first curve of Churchill Downs at terminal velocity. The crowd grew louder. Those impossibly small jockey’s bounced upon the backs of their whinnying speed-demons, whipping their asses with riding crops, pushing, striving, competing to break out of the group and sprint ahead on the second straightaway. The crowd grew louder, still. Danzing Candy, running at a pace of 37 mph took the initial lead … But Nyquist, who had been in third place until about halfway around, sprinted ahead in the last 200 yards to steal the win from his opponents.

The crowd erupted.

That collective scream sent a shiver down my spine. I saw every shade of emotion in the faces that surrounded me: from delighted wonderment to the deepest regret. There were cries of victory, and shrieks of defeat, wails of sadness, and expulsions of happiness.

And then the most exciting two minutes in sports were past.

The race was over. The bets were done. The losers had lost and the winners had won. Slowly, unwillingly that fanatic crowd descended into entropy. They started to shuffle off in different directions, mumbling, chatting, boasting.

Which left me standing there – mind still fully distorted – wondering, what the hell was coming next. Where would we go from here 

I looked to Captain Eddie, who had a blissful smile etched across his stubbled face.

“Get ready… for the aftermath.” Was all he had to say.

It is at this point, my memory of events blurs into a psychedelic string of warped scenes, bizarre faces, and anarchy on the streets of Louisville. The drunken turmoil spilled out of Churchill Downs, choking the streets with inebriated men and women. Every taxi for miles was full. Uber and Lift prices skyrocketed to an insane 600% of the normal cost. There was no escaping.  We were trapped.

But, one thing acid will teach you (regardless of what kind of trip you have), is that a flexible mind never breaks – roll with the punches, drift with the current, ride the tide wherever it may take you. Fixed points in time will work themselves out, everything else can be improvised – everything else is subject to change. And when a person lets go of their expectations, to engage fully in the slipstream of their own free will, adventure blossoms like a lotus.

So we followed the crowd. Unsure of what our goal was or our where our destination lay. With the Captain at our head, we plunged spontaneously into the unknown.

There was a drum circle, and for a short period of time Rebel, Klara and Kay helped a street vendor peddle drinks to thirsty drunks. We were then sucked, as if by osmosis, into a nearby ghetto where tents had been set up in the street and a neighborhood DJ was hard at work. Grills poured smoke from porches where they sold ribs and chicken wings, fresh, hot, and au-then-tic. The crowd was, by vast majority, black locals who likely lived right there, but as the music pushed on and into the night, the demographic became more and more diverse.

At some point it began raining again and everyone crowded together beneath the cover of those tents, amidst the comfort of that music. The DJ (who knew exactly what he was doing) played Prince’s, Purple Rain.

Within moments, everyone was singing along, laughing, dancing, and enjoying the moment as it was, as it happened. The only human figure I noticed still standing out in the rain was Adam, who was so fully engaged in devouring a plateful of ribs that he seemed to have not noticed the deluge at all.

The plan was to wait out the crowd. Bide our time at that raging block party for as long as was necessary, until transportation prices mellowed out. But by 11:30pm, the group was becoming restless. The rain was still pounding from above, our legs were tired, our women were soaked, and the cost of getting a ride was still insurmountable.

With haste, the troops were rallied and we set off into the night, once more, in search of some way of getting home. We found one – but it wasn’t ideal… nor was it technically “legal”. Shelly and Klara flagged down the first SUV that passed by, and with wonderfully practiced pouty eyes and desperate voices, the ladies convinced the driver that his 8 seat GMC could easily fit all 12 of us.

Of course, if a cop were to pull us over and we piled out like shit faced clowns, the driver would absolutely go to jail, and we would all probably follow right behind him. The stakes were high. But what other options did we have?

So, excitedly, we all piled into the car. Rebel sat on Shawn in the front, seven people were crammed into the back seats, and Kay, Japhie, Teddy and I climbed into the trunk. Unfortunately, space was in short supply back there, and I ended up resting squarely in the crotch of one Japhie Stower (with no wiggle room whatsoever) for the entire ride. Which, ended up taking far longer than anticipated. 

Because, as we probably could have predicted, the cops were out in force on this particular evening, and our brave and selfless driver had to circumvent three different police checkpoints. He was working hard to keep us safe. But, in the way back of that car, isolated as I was, I had no idea what was going on.

My twisted perception was reminding me how short of a ride it had been from Captain Eddie’s house that morning, and how long it was taking us to get back… I started worrying – which is dangerous. LSD is no drug for fear. I was immediately convinced that this man, who had randomly picked up 12 drunk, soggy crackers off the street, wasn’t taking us home at all – he was taking us deeper into the ghetto, where he could exact revenge on the white man, who constantly treated him and his brothers subserviently. Had he taken offense to our request for a ride? Did he think we were ignorant privileged white assholes who thought they could hire any black man off the street for valet? Where were we going? Something was wrong. From my vantage crammed up against Stower’s dick, I was sure we were in danger.

But after two hours we arrived, finally, at our destination and all my fears were absolved.

Our kindly driver was paid well – as he should have been for what he went through. Most of the crew went straight to sleep. In fact, almost everyone who wasn’t tripping pretty much crashed upon entry. The rest of us indulged ourselves in a friendly (although, intensely competitive) round of mine-pool-B-ball.  

Somehow, somewhere in the depths of that evening, Jay, Japhie, Shawn, Gryph, Eddie and I ended up at a late-night diner, miles from Eddie’s home. My beer was confiscated at the door, and we all sat down to enjoy what will be remembered as the most outlandish 2:30am breakfast experience I have ever had.

*** 

Our car departed at noon the next day. It was a very sad goodbye. Leaving that picturesque house, watching some of my best friends wave bon voyage as JZ’s jeep rumbled out of the driveway and off down Indian Hills Drive, was overwhelming.

None of us had struck it rich (not even Jay Joseph). But that wasn’t the source of Sunday’s melancholy vibe. I think everyone was just really sad it was coming to an end. It had all happened so fast, and every moment had been worth remembering (though, some were beyond anyone’s recollection). It had been extraordinary. And as I watched the faces of Shawn, Jay, Eddie, Teddy, Japhie, Klara and Shelly shrink into the distance, I felt a sharp pang of the same dull gloom one gets when they’ve just turned the last and final page of a book that changed their life forever.

 

Will Brendza