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Post-Race All America
"This is retarded." I didn't know this drunken stranger in the blazer and whale-checkered shorts, but because we were both in the intractable line for the portable toilets, we had some common cause together, which was enough for him to share this unique insight with me. I don't like "retard" or its variants being used in the pejorative—more than anything, it reminds me of the way people spoke and thought in middle school—but didn't think that my sunburned companion in necessity was worth engaging on this point. If things got heated and came to blows, it would seriously risk my place in the port-o-potty line. A horse race, it seems, is no place for political correctness.
The spring's Foxfield Races, Albemarle County, Virginia's annual horse race that attracts thousands of young college students, mostly from the University of Virginia and its alumni such as myself, is first and foremost a tailgating event. The joke is for attendees to return and say "I saw a horse!" It is possible to stay inside the labyrinth of tents and parked trucks and eat and drink away the day without spying a single equine beauty. The horses are of minimal importance to most guests. The two most important features to the mostly pale horde: one, wearing the right costume, and two, starting to drink before noon.
The standard attire for women includes spectacularly colorful sundresses, large-brimmed sunhats, and a posse of your closest friends for copious photo ops. Men typically wear whatever they have in their closest, but peak Foxfield is the seersucker jacket, pastel cotton shirt, bowtie, colorful slacks, expensive sunglasses, and obligatory cigar. In our era where profile picture maintenance is generally understood as good social etiquette, Foxfield allows people to get a photograph outside, in decent lighting for a change, dressed well and surrounded by well-dressed friends. Most people are too self-conscious to arrange an event solely for this purpose, so the horse race is a nice cover for the fulfillment of a desire that didn't even exist 10 years ago.
Historical accuracy is not demanded or expected of the costumes. Once the uniform is assumed, there are plenty of joking references to antebellum speech, how one has always depended on the kahndness of strayngers, or is voting for Frank Undahwood in the upcoming eeelection, and so on. Some attendees show up in the attire of a more Northern bourgeoisie—you'll always see imitation yachting caps, for instance, or the conspicuous pink shorts on men. The pink shorts, I have been told, were an important fetish item of the New England aristocracy. Men would buy red shorts to wear on their sailboats; as those were exposed to more sun and salt, the shorts would fade over time. The faded pink was therefore a symbol of wealth, signifying one's membership in a gentry which had the patience and resources to earn such a look and the "old money" sense to not throw them away just because they showed signs of wear. Those shorts were the Protestant work ethic, the belief that the most rewarded in life are the most deserving, congealed into solid form. Needless to say, the boys in Indonesian-manufactured pink shorts they bought at an outlet are likely not aware of this history or its connotations, but have nonetheless adapted the behavior of long-gone elites. It isn't much of a stretch to suggest that dutiful replication of unknown histories is the defining quality of the whole horse race spectacle.
The French theorist Guy Debord observed in the 1960s that social relations were becoming increasingly mediated by images. First capitalism turned everything into commodities, then the commodity came to be represented by the images it projected. He referred to this system of relations as "the spectacle," a social condition where following the emphasis of being (such as being a king, or being a peasant) by having (lots of money or no money), having had been replaced by the appearance of having (living off credit). Though he was crafting this language while television was still the apex of media culture, the structure he described as "the spectacle" remains all around us despite now being diffused across social networks and the internet. The commodity of “you,” your personal brand, exists in spectacular form through your representations on Facebook and LinkedIn. You primarily exist in a reality twice removed.
Spending your Saturday morning getting drunk in a field is a mark of prestige. Like taking the sailboat out to bleach your pants, it says above all else that you can afford to give up the time. College students who are temporarily very low on liquid cash and call themselves "broke" in casual conversation dust off their finest clothes to partake in the simulation of an elite ritual. The confluence of privilege, individualism, and alcohol means a sense of entitlement dominates the field. In some cases, this ends in many future leaders of America's first and only arrest. In most, though, it leads to some minor embarrassments which receive no reflection.
I didn't intend to go to Foxfield this year, but I was a little drunk and suggestible the night before and purchased a ticket after midnight from someone who could no longer attend, just about 6 hours before I would have had to wake up and meet the carpool. I tagged along with the debating and literary society I was a part of while a student at UVA. One of the two such clubs that existed at the University, mine was the one without a reputation of pretentiousness (insofar as that’s a thing for a “literary society” to be). My lack of preparation was reflected in my patchwork costume. The decidedly non-uniform Chucks with scuffs and holes were only somewhat offset by the red shorts that marked me as laughably non-sailor. Fortunately, my companions weren’t sticklers for tradition, and were mostly eager to just drink in the sun.
We drank, laughed, and took in the pastel spectacle. In its early stages, it was quite attractive. Everywhere you walked in the tight grassy corridors between tailgates, you were surrounded by lovely sunhats and young people who still had their composure. The sunburns, dehydration, and handcuffs earned for public urination were yet to come.
As the race crept into the afternoon, the veneer of civilization gave way to its dark heart of entitlement. My club’s plot was perfectly planned by a lovely member to maximize shade under a large tent, serve heaping trays of fried chicken, and contain what would normally be too much beer. This made it a prime location for encroachment. At first, I was a little taken aback by how many strangers tried to walk away with a plate of fried chicken when the food vendors were just 20 feet behind them. As it happened more and more, though, it was made clear that this was an essential part of the race spectacle’s narrative: White people (they were all white) taking shit that wasn’t theirs. While most were easily shamed into walking away empty-handed by our cohort, one particularly obstinate stranger wouldn’t even back down when caught in the act.
“Come on. It’s Foxfield, everyone’s having a good time, and I just want to have some chicken.” He was tall, white going on pink, and slurring. If he really wanted chicken, I said, he should debate one of our members to earn it. It was on.
His opening speech was not particularly rousing. He ramblingly appealed to the spirit of generosity and his belonging to the vaunted fraternity St. Elmo Hall. I’d have hidden the name to protect an innocent nucleus of privilege, but he was quite insistent I take note of it. I can only pray that “The Hall” soon provides their poor, starving brothers with the food or financial security they seem to lack.
The member who arranged for the tent and food rebutted his argument briefly: "I paid for it!"
I shouted into the tent, “All those in favor of the resolution, being that this guy should not get any chicken, please raise your hands now!” Five or more of our members raised their hands. “All opposed, raise your hands!” The fratstar found himself alone. After a little debriefing on the intricacies of field debate and immediacy of verdicts rendered therein, he departed without food or apologies.
Perhaps the pitiable hungry boy was the most dutiful observer of Southern—no, American— tradition that I'd met all day. People lived in Virginia 17,000 years before the fateful ship that brought Europeans and all the horrors they'd learned in the "Old" World arrived on their land. The field on which we were maybe-watching a horse race was almost certainly hunted and prayed on by Native Americans. As victimized as my club may have felt by people taking our shit, we wouldn’t have had it without having been part of the system that robbed other human beings into near-extinction. Hell, horse racing was worked on and enjoyed by black slaves. Whether its reputation as a "thing white people like" is the cause or the effect of its prestige is unknown to me. The fratlord was doing honor to a long legacy of imperialism that defined his ancestors and mine. It was the very thing that made it possible for us to have a day of public intoxication, guarded by swarms of police ready to slap wrists and serve.
Hunter S. Thompson perfectly described the ugliness of the post-race condition in his splendid essay “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” I urge you to read the entire thing, but will borrow his observation that cynics won’t find the disgusting individual they’ve been looking for at the race until they see a mirror at the end. When we leave the race after having satisfied our horse quota (or not), we’re left with little more than burns, an unexpected 9 P.M. hangover, and some relatively nice photographs as our most tangible souvenir. The pictures from Foxfield, of course, are representations of a representation. We don't go for the horses, or to deliberately pay respects to our grisly traditions, but to play-act a ritual whose appearance we value with little regard for how that image came to exist. With the history so nearly forgotten, we are left with only spectacle: a dizzying, infinite field of beautiful sundresses and intoxicatingly colorful hats; a whirling, mass-produced spectacle covering someone’s land as far as the eye can see.
#HorseRaces #Foxfield #KentuckyDerby #SocialActivities