I woke up groggy on Sunday morning, about an hour before everyone else. 18 Indian Hills Drive was quiet, save for the snoring bodies that littered every room — which I tiptoed around as I made way for the kitchen. I splashed water in my face and strained my mind to recall the previous night’s events: we’d survived the race, that much was certain.
Beyond that, though, my recollection lost focus. There were flashes of drum circles and block parties, wisps of purple rain and some unfamiliar SUV trunk crammed with bodies. But it was nothing I could piece together coherently.
So, I made coffee. Then moved outside and sat on the porch to watch the muggy southern sunrise. As that first blissful sip touched my lips, my mind began turning backwards; the weekend reeling past like a roll of film.
I had arrived with my girlfriend, Rebel, on Friday from Costa Rica, jangled from the surreal cultural zap one gets leaping from the high Rockies, to the tropics of Central America, and then up to, of all places, Derby City — Louisville, Kentucky (locally pronounced Lou-uh-vul).
It had been an insane journey. And it felt as though it were culminating somehow — like this adventure was about to peak. For whatever reason, that scared the living hell out of me.
The next day was Saturday, May 7, a day that had been coming down the pipes for years. A day that had, finally, after countless nights spent fantasizing over bong bowls and beers, arrived.
It was the day of the Kentucky Derby.
My friend, Ed Crow, had finally finished school. And true to his word, in lieu of dawning cap and gown, he had invited eleven of 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, there was a lot of pre-gaming to do.
The mint juleps and hot toddies started flowing at eight. Shortly after that came shots of tequila. Around eleven, we pulled all the stops, and out came the truly interesting stuff.
“Yo, Brendza.” Ed called, waving me over. He was standing next to our reliable partner in crime, Giff McKall, beside a nearby pine tree. As I joined them, Ed produced 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 eyes.
I grinned and embraced the man. “Let the going get weird,” I said.
“Cheers gentlemen,” agreed Giff.
We all ate the acid together.
One warped car ride later and we were being shuffled through the front gates of Churchill Downs: a massive and unmistakable place, green and white and towering-towering over the excited foot traffic, crammed and bustling with dolled up twenty-somethings, doughy middle-aged gamblers, and the obscenely rich.
Security guards groped the race-goers as we passed, leering at us with jagged yellow teeth and beady black eyes. They tore through people’s bags, pawed cute women, and hassled the blacks. But they didn’t find my flask. Nor did they notice the strange slant in my step.
Then we were siphoned under the track and spewed out on the other side. In the infield, surrounded by madness I could have never imagined.
It was an ocean of bodies — squirming, ebbing and flowing in frothing tides of debauchery, drunkenly spewing gibberish into the thick air. Lunatics sprinted across the tops of porter-johns, laughing deliriously. Women climbed on top of trailers and tried to out-dance each other. Plastered men hollered lude encouragement at them from below.
There was no way to see the race from in there, but no one seemed to care. Hundreds stood eagerly in snaking lines, waiting for their turn to shove fistfuls of cash into dark and hungry betting windows.
When we finally found a spot, we held it like the Alamo. Ed sat cross-legged on the ground, giggling madly. Beneath him, the infield’s red bricks swelled and contracted, breathing like they might open up and swallow him whole. Giff and I marveled at this sight together, sipping on drinks we couldn’t recall buying.
Out of view from our encampment, the races raged on into the afternoon. Horses stormed the track in waves of twenty, making or breaking bets (and spirits) as they went.
Occasionally, nearby strangers would erupt in jubilation and melt into excited puddles of unbridled ecstasy. They were the winners. But they were rare compared to the many who wept, or to those who beat each other savagely out of frustration.
Were we safe in this circus? I began to wonder.
Behind me, someone screamed. I turned, and froze, dilated eyes the size saucers. Just over the clubhouse, above Millionaire’s row, a great and ominous storm cloud loomed, deeply blue and twisting angrily into itself.
The crowd fell silent as the sun disappeared. Things became dark. The air turned cold and wind began whipping through the infield with vindictive force, picking up garbage and loose debris.
There were more screams of terror. And then came the rain.
All at once, everyone panicked. What was a relatively calm sea of drunken undulation, quickly transformed into a violent, boiling ocean of pandemonium.
I started screaming, too. I couldn’t help it — The Fear had gripped me. The crowd had become something terrible and I watched my friends drift away from me, floating like fishermen gone overboard in the Baltic Sea. I grabbed instinctively for Rebel who wasn’t far off, and clung to her like a floatation device.
She looked into my eyes, at the evident alarm there. “Relax,” she told me, softly. “It’s only rain.” She smiled, and The Fear diminished — if only a little.
Then, I heard Giff’s voice to the left. He was shouting, “Jesus Christ, boys, shit’s gettin’ real! Get on over here! Come on in!”
He had taken refuge beside a trashcan, shielding himself from the arrow-like raindrops with its open lid. I plunged in his direction. Everywhere, wild-eyed animals howled in terror, vomiting on each other and fainting, tripping over bodies and sobbing hysterically. I’m certain I saw at least two people trampled to death in that frenzy.
With a final effort I tore myself from the fray, and collapsed beside my comrades. Rebel was somehow already there. We all huddled together under Griff’s shelter, squatting low and watching as the crowd seethed all around us; as people crammed into tents, jammed into porter johns, and slithered under hot dog tables.
That mayhem was violent, but, fortunately, it was also short lived.
After only several moments under our trash can lid, a ray of light beamed though the darkness above and cut through that chaos. The soaked infield became warm again. People stopped shrieking and started to cheer, dancing as the comfort of that buttery sunshine spilt once more over them.
Somehow, impossibly to my mind, the race had hardly paused through that maelstrom. And suddenly, I was palpably aware of some swelling anticipation. Churchill Downs was on the ascent — no doubt about it — climbing towards some long-awaited crescendo. I glanced at my watch for the first time that day, and realized why.
The big race was impending.
What had been, all day, a misaligned exposition of drunkenness and disorder, began to focus. The people stilled. Conversations tapered out. An excited buzz fell over the stadium. The moment was finally upon us. All heads turned to the towering LCD screen.
The horses were gated. The jockeys were ready.
And then, BANG!
The animals exploded forth from their gates, flying down the track, charging around the first curve of Churchill Downs at terminal velocity, the impossibly small jockeys bouncing like toys upon their backs, whipping the asses of those whinnying speed-demons, pushing their beasts to break ahead. They rounded the second curve and the crowd’s energy mounted tangibly. Then, in the final 200 yards, Nyquist, a dark American thoroughbred, burst out of third place, stealing the win with mere inches to spare.
The stadium erupted. Orgasming in an orchestra of emotion unlike anything I’d ever heard: cries of victory, shrieks of defeat, wails of sadness, and expulsions of happiness melded in an eerie cacophony.
Then, the most exciting two minutes in sports were over.
The bets were done. The losers had lost and the winners had won. Slowly, unwillingly, that fanatic crowd of 200,000 descended into entropy, and spilled out of Churchill Downs like water from a dam.
Things dissolved into a psychedelic blur after that — dismantled into a string of bizarre faces, strange places, and anarchy on the streets of Lou-uh-vul.
I danced in a drum circle, while our women helped a street vendor peddle drinks to thirsty drunks. At one point we were all sucked, as if by osmosis, into an adjacent neighborhood, where block parties raged for as far as the eye could see. Pillars of smoke rose into the pink sky from porches where locals sold ribs and chicken wings right off their family grills.
Then it was nighttime. And it was raining again. And everyone was crowded under a DJ’s tent, standing shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of strangers, all belting out Prince’s “Purple Rain” in chorus.
Realizing that the price of transportation was never going to drop, we eventually flagged down a random SUV, and offered its driver $100 to get our soaking group of twelve home. An offer he had apparently taken. Though, my memory fades to black as we crammed into trunk of that unfamiliar suburban.
Around eight, the other humans began to stir from their drunken slumbers. In ones and twos they joined me outside on the porch. The sun was fully risen and my cup of coffee long empty.
A discernable blue fog hung over us as we went about the morning; a gloomy afterglow that undercut our Waffle House breakfast and lingered even after we’d packed our bags and loaded the car.
Maybe I was just hungover. Or maybe that acid hadn’t fully worn off yet. But after Rebel and I had bid our friends goodbye, and piled into the car that would take us home to Colorado, as we pulled out of the driveway and down Indian Hills Drive, I realized why that weekend had loomed so large and frightening in my mind, during the weeks and days leading up to it.
Eddie had graduated. He was the last of our group to do so and we had all gathered to celebrate that achievement. But it had also been a celebration of something much deeper. We were all finished with school, now. We were certified graduates, with the pieces of paper to prove it, and this weekend had marked the end of an era. We had punctuated the college chapter of our lives with this wild exclamation mark, and that groggy morning was the very first page of a brand-new chapter.
So be it, I thought, watching the “Welcome to Indiana” sign sail past. If this one was going to be even half as thrilling as the last, we were all in for a strange and exhilarating ride.