The Thurby Diary: A Colorful Take on Horse Racing's Most Eccentric Day

By Miranda McDonald
Original Artwork by Grant Goodwine

"Use both hands to hold onto the side of the basket, bend your knees and brace for impact. We will be touching down in less than a minute. You may also want to secure your hat," explained the man who was piloting the hot air balloon I was currently riding in. He was pointing to the beret that was adorning my head. His name was Dan and I had just met him and Paul – a witty real estate agent from Southern Indiana – two hours before our 10-mile hot air balloon ride across Louisville. We were one of 20 balloons participating in the Great Balloon Race that morning and only briefly made introductions at Bowman Field before taking off.

As I peered over the side of our floating vessel to help locate any power lines that may give us trouble during our descent, I began to wonder why I had thought riding in a hot air balloon would be the best way to kick off my Derby week. I woke up that morning almost giddy about the idea of checking this venture off my bucket list. For years, I told anyone who would listen that I was going to ride in a hot air balloon one day. Now, I was basically standing in a bucket that was plummeting towards a driveway that split the back of a property owned by of one of the most prominent individuals in the city.

"Bend your knees! Bend your knees!" the pilot instructed as we came closer to the ground below us.

See, the thing they don't tell you about landing a hot air balloon is that the initial impact with the ground isn't the most difficult part to withstand as a passenger. The hard part actually comes directly after, when your basket is skimming the ground, serving as an anchor to the large balloon that's still being carried by the wind enclosed in its mast. And at this very moment, the apparatus we were standing in was skidding uncontrollably through the backyard of what I would later find out was John Schnatter's gated property.

Once our balloon came to a complete stop, and we acclimated to not being 2,000 feet in the air, Dan pulled out a walkie talkie and contacted his team. They trailed us for several miles but fell behind once we flew past our initial landing spot.

"What now?" I asked our pilot.

"Right now, we wait," he explained. You could tell he was a bit anxious about where we had landed. He looked around for a brief moment and settled his gaze on the house located to our right.

I followed his gaze and imagined the owner was standing by the large window that overlooked the back of his property. I pictured him abruptly abandoning his first cup of coffee on the kitchen table in order to get a better look at the three individuals who had just unexpectedly fallen out of the sky in their multi-colored air craft.

"So, are you going to Derby this year?" Paul asked. His smile effortlessly pushed up both sides of his cheeks. He seemed completed unaffected by our turbulent landing.

"No, I am actually not going to Derby this time. I can only deal with that crowd once every few years," I responded.

"What about Oaks?"

"No. No Oaks for me either. I'm only going to Thurby this year," I explained.

"Have you been to Thurby before?" Paul inquired further. There must have been something about the exhilaration of landing safely after falling quickly to the ground without the protection of any safety apparatus that made him especially chatty at this juncture.

"I hear Thurby is the way to go. You get the horse racing and booze without the long lines and hassle," Dan chimed in.

"Yeah. Thurby is Gonzo-themed this year. GonzoFest is sending me and a local a visual artist named Grant Goodwine there to document our experience like Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman did 50 years ago for the Kentucky Derby. Ralph is even going to be there that day signing posters and mingling. I really want to meet him,“ I further explained.

A loud beep, followed by a brief moment of static on Dan's walkie talkie interrupted our post-landing banter. "We can't get on the property. There is a very large gate," a voice stated.

After a moment of complete silence, our attention shifted to the two balloons that were now peeking over the treeline to our immediate left. They too needed a safe place to land after the race. "It looks like we have company," Dan stated.

"Oh, they aren't our only company," Paul replied. I then noticed a young man had emerged from the house and was now standing on the back patio. A look of complete bewilderment framed his face. "You should go talk to him since we just landed our hot air balloon, unannounced I might add, in his backyard. Plus, you are wearing a beret. No one can be upset with a pretty girl in a beret."

"Haha," I belted out sarcastically. I thought Paul was joking but soon realized he was being completely serious.

After stumbling out of the basket, I made eye contact with the young man. He was slowly making his way towards our fallen vessel.

"Excuse me!" I yelled. I used one hand to readjust my beret and the other to wave at him. "Can we land our hot air balloon. I mean, can we land our hot air BALLOONS in your backyard?"

"Umm, sure?" he responded. His eyes only briefly catching mine before he fixed them back on the small fleet of hot air balloons that were landing one by one behind me.

"Hello," I extended my hand fully in front of me in hopes of a handshake and proper introduction. "My name is Miranda. I'm a writer. We are part of the Great Balloon Race."

"Andrew. My name is Andrew. I am the property manager here," he finally responded. His eyes were now on me.

"Nice to meet you, Andrew. I hope our landing here doesn't put you in a bind with your employer."

"No, not at all.” he assured me.

"Good.”

"This is great!” His confusion turned into amusement at this point. “I actually woke up this morning annoyed about having to work on a Saturday. I never would have thought that my morning would be so eventful."

"Yeah. After this, I may just have to start every Derby week off with a hot air balloon ride," I declared with a sarcastic tone in my voice and a smile on my face.  



**********



"Miranda, do you have any questions or concerns about Thursday? I just emailed you your ticket to the event and a parking pass as well. You will have to print both out before you arrive at Churchill Downs." It was Monday, and I was wrapping up a call with my contact from GonzoFest. Her name was Lauren Hendricks. She was a close friend, local marketing powerhouse and also the liaison between me and Churchill Downs for Thurby.

"Will I get to meet Ralph Steadman?" I inquired.

"I am sure Grant will introduce you," said Hendricks.

"Okay. I know there is a task at hand, but I really want to meet Mr. Steadman," I replied quickly before we ended our call.

 

**********

 

It was finally the day of Thurby. Dark, heavy clouds hung overhead. I looked out the window of my Uber and noticed patches of people walking towards the track.

"Sorry. It looks like this is as close as I can get," my driver announced as he came to a complete stop in front of the barricades and the line of police officers blocking off Central Avenue.

"No worries," I replied as I opened the door and stepped out of his car. I then readjusted the red, floral dress I decided to wear for the day's festivities and quickly put on my aviators even though the sun was still hiding behind a sea of grey. I wanted to get into the true spirit of all things Gonzo, and dressing the part felt like a requirement to me.

"Wish me luck," I said right before closing the door behind me. I told the driver my plans for writing about the day while we waited in traffic.

 

*********

 

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As I entered the paddock area at Churchill Downs, I immediately noticed the Thurby attendees donning brightly-colored confections and what had to be some of their finest garb. Women topped off their fanciful frocks with embellished hats and feather fascinators. The men let their cigars hang lazily from the side of their mouths as they held betting slips in one hand and bourbon-filled glasses in the other. I thought to myself, “Where are the Gonzo fans?” However, the further I ventured into the swarm of people, the more impressed I became with the eclectic nature of the crowd. As I walked closer to the tent that I was informed Goodwine was in, I noticed a small group of men in white bucket hats, casual boat shoes and Hawaiian shirts. They were dancing close to the stage where a band was playing.

Goodwine was splattering paint on a large canvas when I approached him. His supplies were stacked in one corner. The opposite corner housed a large pile of bins filled with the posters Steadman would be signing for fans that day. I looked down at the canvas and noticed he had drawn a group of characters in black ink before adding the pops of color that were currently rolling off of his paintbrush. I assumed the artist took note of the method Steadman employed during his time at the track in 1970, and that each character staring up at me was inspired by actual people he had encountered that day. He was there to create the visual half of our piece for GonzoFest. However, Churchill Downs also commissioned him to create a piece of live art for Thurby as well.

As he walked from one side of the canvas to the other, his arms moved in a multitude of directions. His hands orchestrated the placement of every splatter. His brush became his wand. Each drop of paint was a musical note. Spectators couldn't help but stop and watch him as he conducted his highly-saturated melody, his song being created and simultaneously played every time the colorful substance hit the canvas.

“Hey, Grant,” I said with a shy tone. I felt bad interrupting his process to make my presence known. “I’m Miranda.”

His hands were completely covered by the materials he had been working with all day. As I reached out to shake one of them, I thought about how sad it was that writers no longer got messy during their creation process. With the invention of laptops and electronic devices, ink-covered hands were simply a thing of the past. That felt a bit unfortunate to me.

"Nice to meet you," Grant said. His words immediately refocused my train of thought. "Will you be betting on any ponies today?"

"No, I don't gamble when I come to the track. I only put my money on one sure thing," I replied.

"What's that?"

"Alcohol,” I stated. A big smile snuck across my face as I made my declaration.

 

**********

We soon left the Clubhouse. We initially ventured there to acquire our desired libations, but ended up stopping by a photo booth and mingling a bit with the crowd. The sun finally peeked out from behind the clouds, illuminating everything it touched. Hendricks told us to join her at the stage located in the Paddock area. Steadman was there speaking.

“Life is awkward. Life is sublime. But, we always have hope. We need to take care of each other. We all need to take care of each other,” Steadman said as we walked to the middle of the crowd that surrounded him. Since we had missed the majority of his speech, Steadman only spoke for a few more seconds, and then he was rushed away by his entourage.

“Am I ever going to meet Steadman?” I wondered as I watched a woman in a lime green top hat and striped suit lead him to some unknown destination away from the crowd.

“What should we do next?” Goodwine asked.

“I don’t know if we should seek out some depravity or simply make our own?” I replied, only half joking.

Goodwine lifted a cup of bourbon to his mouth, took a small swig and stated, “They say the infield is the place to go for that.”

 

**********

 

After venturing out to the infield and realizing there was no depravity to be found there on that particular day, we decided to sneak into the new rooftop bar that was said to have the best views of the track. Goodwine would be fine. As an official artist of Churchill Downs, he had a wristband that basically granted him access to any part of the track. However, I wasn't so lucky with my general admission ticket. He told me to simply keep my head down while he flashed his fancy wristband to security, and we would walk right in. His confidence in this plan was contagious, so I quickly agreed.

As we stepped towards the lady guarding the entrance to the elevator, I made the mistake of smiling and then making eye contact with her. She wasn't amused.

“No. I am sorry, but she can’t go upstairs,” she said as she pointed a finger at me and shook her head from side to side. I guess I wasn’t going to get a chance to see those amazing rooftop views after all.

“I didn’t keep my head down,” I said to Goodwine as we stood there while people with their own wristbands walked right past us.

“Grant!” a voice cried from behind. It was the famous artist, Ralph Steadman. He was standing with his wife and a small group of people. “Grant, I seem to have suffered a serious injury.”

“From what?” Goodwine inquired as we walked up to Steadman.

Steadman then grabbed his right arm, let it fall lifelessly to his side and declared, “From too much signing!” At this point, small bursts of laughter broke up his words.

“I guess we’ll have to cut it off,” Goodwine responded. Steadman raised his eyebrows in amusement at this statement and then turned to me. “Who are you?” he asked as he took hold of my hand in a polite manner and kissed it.

“My name is Miranda. I’m the writer on the Thurby and GonzoFest project,” I stated. You could tell he was tired and possibly a bit intoxicated – both byproducts of a fun day at the track.

After a few more minutes of talking, we all began to walk towards the front gate. Steadman was leaving for the day. His wife Anna and the rest of his entourage followed dutifully behind him.

“It was lovely meeting you,” Steadman said as he kissed my hand a second and final time.

“It was lovely meeting you as well,” I choked out. I had never had a man kiss my hand before, and right now THE Ralph Steadman was doing just that while telling me how lovely it was to meet me.

And just like that, he walked away from us as abruptly as he had initially approached.

 

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**********

 

Before we left the track, Goodwine and I walked back to his tent.

“I need to add some finishing touches to my piece before I leave,” he stated as we stood in front of his work. I studied the different faces he presented on the canvas. Their clothing, appearance and expressions were unique and varied.

“This is a good representation of today’s crowd. It is definitely more diverse than any Derby crowd I have ever encountered,” I declared. “I also like that the different hues of paint you used for each individual character run together. Every face may be different, but the unintentional melding of the watercolors between each makes them look like they are all one entity when you take a step back."

It was in that very moment that I truly understood the genius behind Goodwine’s work and subsequently Thurby’s true identity. Whether people were here for the local bourbon, to celebrate the life of the eccentric Hunter S. Thompson or to simply add another day of horse racing to their Derby schedule, they were all here. Their reasons may seem vastly different on the surface. However, they actually all came together to celebrate one very important thing, and that was Kentucky's rich heritage.