It’s one of the most famous and respected pieces of writing — sports or otherwise — to ever appear in an American magazine. It’s the story that launched the world of first-person, objectivity-free “Gonzo” journalism.

Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” published in the June 1970 issue of Scanlan’s Monthly, was brilliant and insightful and hilarious. Also, kind of insane.

That’s who Thompson was. More to the point, that’s how he worked. There was no one else like him and there likely never will be. Most human beings wouldn’t be able to climb out of bed in the morning if they consumed half as many toxins as Thompson did during that blistering hot weekend in Louisville. Thompson managed to pen a rollicking masterpiece.

But that was 46 years ago. Thompson, who committed suicide in 2005 at the age of 67, is an unfamiliar name to many millennials, or at least that’s what the filmmaker Michael D. Ratner believed. His hope is that his film Gonzo @ The Derby, ESPN’s latest 30 For 30 short, changes that.

“He was a writing rock star who broke all sorts of norms that right now seem obvious but then were revolutionary,” Ratner said in a phone interview earlier this week. “I’m absolutely fascinated by him and wanted to introduce him to a new audience that might not know much about him.”

Ratner is the president of OBB Pictures, which has also produced documentaries for VICE Sports, Funny or Die and EPIX, among other outlets. At 26, he is now the youngest person to direct a 30 For 30 film.

The film, which is currently available for streaming online and will air during Friday’s 6 p.m. SportsCenter, the day before this year’s Kentucky Derby, centers on the story behind the story. Who Thompson was. How and why he garnered the assignment. The tale he initially sought out to tell and why he failed to do so.

“Who went to these damn things, the assignment was to forget about the horse race,” Scanlan’s editor Warren Hinckle says in the film, “to focus on the crowds, the type of horrible slobs they actually were.”

Several days of alcohol and partying derailed that mission, forcing Thompson to turn in a manic semi-exaggerated first-person account of his time at the Kentucky Derby.

As his longtime collaborator and illustrator Ralph Steadman, who met Thompson for the first time that week in Louisville, says, “We were the face of the Derby crowd we had gone to find.

“That was Gonzo Journalism. We don’t cover the story. We become the story.”


Gonzo @ The Derby also features numerous illustrations to accompany the narration of the story, as well as interviews with former Rolling Stone and ESPN editor John Walsh and Thompson’s longtime friend Sean Penn. Given Penn’s recent controversial foray into the world of “Gonzo Journalism” with his Rolling Stone piece on El Chapo, was Ratner concerned about including clips of Penn’s expounding the value and beauty of that style of reporting?

“Not at all,” said Ratner. “He knew Hunter well and that’s part of the story — how even someone like The Great Sean Penn was in awe of him.

“His voice helps bring Hunter to life. And that’s what we wanted to do.”

About Yaron Weitzman

Yaron Weitzman is a freelance writer based in New York whose work frequently appears on The Comeback, SB Nation and in SLAM Magazine. He's also been published on SB Nation Longform, The Cauldron, Tablet Magazine and in the Journal News. Yaron can be followed on Twitter @YaronWeitzman

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