The telephone rang at Warren Hinckle’s San Francisco home at about 3:30 in the morning on Wednesday, April 29, 1970. When Hinckle picked up the receiver, he heard the unmistakable voice of Hunter S. Thompson, calling from Aspen, proclaiming, “Goddammit, Scanlan’s has to cover the Derby. It’s important.”
The pitch, even at the late hour and the late date (barely 72 hours before the race itself), was fairly irresistible.1 Send Thompson, still finding his distinctive voice in countercultural journalism, to his hometown of Louisville to cover the drunken, debauched scene at Churchill Downs for Scanlan‘s, the anti-establishment (some would say subversive) monthly magazine for which Hinckle was co-editor.
Hinckle agreed on the spot, booked Thompson a ticket, wired him expense money, and then set about finding an artist to provide illustrations for the story. Originally, he had hoped to send a photographer to shoot the event, but after haggling with Thompson, he instead hired the English illustrator Ralph Steadman.2
It would prove to be a memorable, historic weekend. And it began, as so many of Thompson’s adventures would, with drinks at a bar.