The Greatest 26 Acres in Sports

Pop Culture
A jam-packed infield at the 2015 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. (Eclipse Sportswire)

“Total chaos, no way to see the race, not even the track … nobody cares. Big lines at the outdoor betting windows, then stand back to watch winning numbers flash on the big board, like a giant bingo game.

“Old blacks arguing about bets; ‘hold on there, I’ll handle this’ (waving pint of whiskey, fistful of dollar bills); girl riding piggyback, T-shirt says, ‘Stolen from Fort Lauderdale Jail.’ Thousands of teenagers, group singing ‘Let the Sun Shine In,’ 10 soldiers guarding the American flag, and a huge fat drunk wearing a blue football jersey (No. 80) reeling around with quart of beer in hand.

“No booze sold out here, too dangerous … no bathrooms either. Muscle Beach … Woodstock … many cops with riot sticks, but no sign of riot. Far across the track the clubhouse looks like a postcard from the Kentucky Derby.”

That’s how Hunter S. Thompson described his short visit to the Churchill Downs infield in his infamous 1970 piece for Scanlon’s Monthly, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” That year was a tumultuous one in the United States, with a counter-culture spreading among the youth that combined radical politics, sexual liberation, and experimentation with drugs. And in 1970, the counter-culture was on full display among the 70,000-plus people who paid $3 to enter the Churchill Downs infield on Derby day. It was a shocking scene, not only to Thompson, but to most of the Louisville old timers who may have thought they’d seen it all. The Louisville Courier-Journal ran a number of features the next day detailing the long-haired “hippies” cavorting, canoodling, and trying to climb the flagpole that day.

The usual scene of picnic blankets and lawn chairs was upended that year, and perhaps has never fully recovered. Today the Kentucky Derby infield is famous for being a scene like no other. And that scene bears slim relation to the equally memorable scene beneath the Twin Spires in the clubhouse and grandstands of Churchill Downs across the racetrack. While one side represents a bow-tied, seer-suckered, outrageous-hatted celebration of the old world of Kentucky horse racing, the infield is a loud, uninhibited, and free-spirited party very much rooted in modern times. There is less attention paid to the horses in the infield, which may have something to do with the fact that is nearly impossible to see the horses from most vantage points in the “boiling sea of people,” as Thompson put it. There are pockets along the rail, or from higher elevations, where early birds set down blankets and arrange their chairs so they can hog up the best views of the race. For most of the attendees, there is no hope, so why even try? Instead the main show is people watching, and there is plenty of that to do. Costumes, dancing, drunken revelry, music, and general merriment abound in the infield. A popular shirt reads “What horses?” And God help you if it rains. Whether you choose to wallow in it or not, mud finds its way onto you in places you’d never even think to look.

But while it’s often said that the Derby infield, with its tens of thousands of crowded partiers, is a wild place, the truth is it is also a very large place. There is a patch of grass somewhere on those 26 acres for everyone - young and old, wild and reserved, racing faithful and casual observer alike. You don’t have to be the life of the party to enjoy the Derby infield. You just have to be the kind of person who is patient, easy going, and loves being around people who are having a good time. The citizens of the infield may be lacking in reservedness, but they make up for it in abundant good cheer. Multiplied by 70,000, that can make for one hell of a nice day.

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