A race to the bottom

When did sport get so uppity? How did thugs chasing a ball or horses galloping in circles become matters of such breathless importance? The status of a footballer's groin can make the front page, and when a horse gets some pyjamas for a long-haul flight it does a fashion shoot.

It was not always so. In 1970, Hunter S. Thompson was packed off to cover the US's premier horse race, the Kentucky Derby, by a small-time mag called Scanlan's Monthly. Thompson being Thompson - mad, bad and dangerous to drink with - this was like sending Alan Jones to cover the Greens' national conference. Just to make absolutely sure blood would be spilt in a frenzy of vicious satire, Ralph Steadman flew in from London to create the story's accompanying illustrations. The pair had not met at this point. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas would soon follow.

The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved - the first piece to attract the term ''gonzo journalism'' - ripped apart the racegoers. Only the horses were spared. Officials, punters, owners and the shonky, self-appointed, bluegrass gentry were all shredded by the minds of two men clinging desperately to reality via vats of alcohol - in the absence of a pharmacy of drugs.

The story has now been made into the gonzo version of a radio play. Produced by Hal Willner, it has Tim Robbins playing Thompson and, in something of a coup, Steadman playing himself.

The supporting cast includes Dr John nailing a southern drunk and Annie Ross as a blowzy desk clerk.

Robbins delivers the prose at race-call pace, with a boozy gruffness that catches Thompson better than Johnny Depp did in the disappointing Fear and Loathing. He wrings every smile and laugh from prose dripping with acid. Steadman, meanwhile, still sounds like the bemused Englishman he was 40 years ago. The brilliantly versatile Bill Frisell has penned the incidental music: a charming collage of nostalgia and wry humour realised by a septet.

Some of the fun would have been tut-tutted into oblivion in our own PC-crazy era. For instance, Thompson heads for the track ''driving with a beer in one hand and a mind so muddled that I almost crushed a Volkswagen full of nuns''.

He is concerned that Steadman could suffer mortal culture shock landing in the mid-west from London, and offers the dubious reassurance that he has mace in case the Kentucky loonies run amok.

Miraculously, they gain access to the inner sanctum of the clubhouse. There they find a seething mass of politicians, society belles, captains of commerce and ''every half-mad dingbat who ever had any pretension to anything'', absorbed in the business of drinking themselves stupid.

That is also Thompson and Steadman's business, along with closely observing their fellow humanoids. ''We didn't give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track,'' Thompson declares. ''We'd come here to watch the real beasts perform.''

Steadman made the mistake of letting his subjects see his sketches or ''foul renderings''. ''Consequently,'' Thompson laments, ''he was regarded with fear and loathing by nearly everyone who'd seen or even heard about his work.''

Confused about whether they had hurriedly vacated a restaurant because of Steadman's drawing or Thompson's macing of the head waiter, they settle on a safe strategy for the future: ''You won't sketch them and I won't mace them.''

Thompson explains to Steadman that he can pick the ''Kentucky colonels'' by their white linen suits and their shoes. ''Most of them manage to avoid vomiting on their own clothes,'' he says, ''but they never miss their shoes.''

By the end, of course, the most decadent and depraved people of the lot are our two protagonists. Steadman's hands are shaking too violently to hold his drawings and Thompson's vision is too blurred to see them.

The recording is all over in 39 minutes and then there are four Steadman sketches on the CD cover to pore over - ideally with a whisky in one hand.

The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved is out now.

The story A race to the bottom first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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