Derby Sober

Derby Sober

(LOUISVILLE, Ky.) – Truth be told, the Kentucky Derby really isn’t about the horse race. What really captures one’s imagination is the spectacle of the entire Derby Day experience. Oh sure, history will note that Country House won the 145th annual “Run for the Roses” after Maximum Security was disqualified for interference. But the real memories of the first Saturday in May always fall back to the pageantry, the traditions, and the pomp and ceremony taking place in and around the race itself.

“It’s a great moment,” said winning jockey Flavien Prat. “It’s a dream come true…it’s amazing. I mean, there’s no race like the Kentucky Derby. And I was hoping to ride it, ride the Derby, and to win it.”

Few venues in the sporting world dare to rival the iconic twin spires of Churchill Downs. The ivy at Wrigley Field, Notre Dame’s Touchdown Jesus, or the Green Monster at Fenway you say? Those are decent choices, but they usually conjure up images of specific teams or season-long events. You show anyone a picture of those quintessential Churchill steeples, however, and all thoughts zoom directly to the Kentucky Derby. For one specific day out of the year, the entire sporting world focuses on our little corner of the Bluegrass State—our ultimate claim to fame. For you see, it’s not the regal, four-legged, three-year-old thoroughbreds that make for the most exciting two minutes in sports—but rather the bourbon, the burgoo, and the big hats that end up capturing our fanciful imaginations.

I grew up in the Commonwealth, but this is only my second official Kentucky Derby—my first as a credentialed media member. Like your first dog, your first car, or your first wife, it’ll forever be hard to top the sentimentality of that initial experience.

https://huangswhinings.com/2016/04/21/kentucky-fried-derby

But being part of the press corps this time around definitely has its advantages. As a scribe for Sports View America, I’m getting in for free.

According to StubHub, the Derby’s not cheap. A general admission ticket for a spot in the infield usually runs you eighty bucks—an option I wouldn’t recommend, unless you’re someone under thirty with a bon-a-fide death wish. Want to upgrade? A decent seat in the grandstand will likely set you back three to four hundred dollars. If you really want to waste your money, try Millionaires Row—where for a cool six grand, you’ll likely rub elbows with celebrities like Tom Brady, Jennifer Lawrence, or one of the Kardashians.

Speaking of celebrities, the Derby’s really just a glorified fashion show. Both sexes dressed to the nines—or tens for that matter. Seersucker suits, oversized fascinators, and hideous hats grace the walkways. It’s at events like the Derby when you suddenly realize that one man’s fashion is another man’s clown suit. Regardless of perspective, you can dress like a bum if you’re a member of the media. No need to spring for outlandish suspenders or Gucci shoes. Faded jeans, a flannel shirt, and that prized credentialed lanyard hanging around your neck will get you up close and personal to the horseflesh at hand.

Parking, food, and accessible toilets are additional media perks for me this year. Unlike before, I’m not paying thirty bucks for a two-mile hike to the track with porta potty privileges along the way. Instead, I’ve got a reserved spot in the media lot, just a short jaunt to the hallowed front gates. Once inside, I’m treated to quite the spread at the Derby day media buffet. Meats, salads, and desserts all laid out for you to grab and go. No alcohol, though. If you want a sip of that $15 mint julep, you’re on your own. Which begs the question: Can you really enjoy the Kentucky Derby if you’re completely sober? I’m about to find out.

Everyone at this Derby appears just a tad bit tipsy. It’s one big party—and who doesn’t enjoy being the life of the party? Even so, there are two lines of inebriation you simply can’t cross. Don’t get sick, and don’t get naked. Abstaining from liquid courage, I wisely avoided both—leaving the cookie tossing and wardrobe malfunctions to those far less inhibited.

You’d think bad weather would have discouraged some of the crowds today. That wasn’t the case as 150,729 filed in despite the chilly and messy rain. It made for some long and soggy lines at the betting windows—and even longer ones for the food kiosks and bathrooms. Often times, just walking around became a challenge. The pungency of the spilled liquor, grilled meats, body odor, damp air, and ubiquitous cigar smoke became noticeably more unpleasant as the day wore on. Looking around, trash piled up everywhere. The only thing messier was the postrace traffic—horrifically long shuttle waits, Uber lines, and jumbled backups tripling the usual time needed to get home.

Can you enjoy the Derby while sober? If you don’t like crowds, gambling, long lines, drunk people, sick people, loud people, bad traffic, bad weather, bad smells, bad internet, and bad steward rulings, then the answer is a resounding “NO!” But not all events in life are meant to be pleasant. It’s the unique experiences that we so often covet, and many aspects of the Kentucky Derby remain distinguishingly unique. The pre-Derby singing of My Old Kentucky Home is still one of the most sentimental and memorable experiences in all of sports.

When I asked winning trainer Bill Mott what the most memorable aspect of his Kentucky Derby experience was, here’s what he told me. “You know what I enjoy the most is just training the horses. I mean, that’s what I live for—get up in the morning, come out and see the horses…I woke up this morning and said “Oh (bleep), this is here. It’s finally here…When you finally reach a point when the training goes well, it’s actually very memorable. That part of it means the most to me.”

“…walking into that circle at Churchill Downs, it’s a pretty special event,” Mott continued. “Why do it the easy way, you know what I mean?”

Having just covered my first Kentucky Derby and seeing history being made, I know exactly what he means.

Dr. John Huang is lead writer for Sports View America. This column was featured in the Apr/May print edition of Sports View America Publications. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

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Crazy Rich Asians

I’ve always been fascinated with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. In fact, when I was a kid, my dream was to move to Los Angeles and become a movie star. Unfortunately, I was susceptible to stage fright, I was too ugly, and I had bad teeth—so I became a dentist instead. I guess things worked out OK, but I always wondered how different my life would have been as an Asian Tom Cruise.

So, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians, the first Hollywood movie to feature an all Asian cast, writer, and director since the Joy Luck Club debuted a quarter of a century earlier. It’s a romantic comedy about an ordinary Asian-American woman (Constance Wu) who gets thrust into the glamorous world of the super-rich Chinese when she travels to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s (Henry Golding) family.

Normally, I prefer action movies to chick flicks on the big screen, but given my Asian heritage, I felt this groundbreaking film would be worth a couple of matinee priced tickets and an overpriced bucket of buttered popcorn. Besides, the film had gotten positive reviews by fans and critics alike, so I was looking forward to the experience.

What happened next is kind of difficult to explain. As I approached the box office, I suddenly became acutely aware of me being Asian. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve felt that way. As a first generation Chinese, I moved to the U.S. when I was four years old and have always accepted the fact that I was different than everyone else. There weren’t many Asians (we were called Orientals) living in Lexington, Kentucky back in the sixties, so I was subject to all the slurs, prejudices, and insults hurled my way by adults who knew better and nasty kids who didn’t.

“John Huang went to Hong Kong to play ping pong with King Kong’s ding dong,” they would chant as they slanted their eyes and bucked their teeth out. “We’re going to get you for Pearl Harbor, Chink!” they shouted at me. They didn’t care if I was Chinese, Japanese, or Siamese—to them I was a nerdy foreigner with thick glasses, good math skills, and small hands.

OK, I’ll admit I’m still somewhat scarred by it all, but you really couldn’t blame anybody for all the negative stereotypes—propagated pervasively through the Hollywood film industry. For years, roles for Asians consisted of bit parts playing enemy soldiers in battle scenes or comic sidekicks in a kung fu movie. Caricatures like Long Duk Dong became more of the norm. Rarely did we see an Asian man in a leading role outside of a Harold and Kumar series or a Jackie Chan sequel. Just as the yellow-face portrayal by a squinting David Carradine in the hit 1970s TV series Kung Fu seemed grossly off kilter, the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the beloved manga and anime character Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell set off a backlash of furor within the Asian movie-going community. After all, couldn’t they have just gotten an Asian actress to play the part?

Anyway, as I purchase my tickets and walk into the multiplex, I feel strangely out of place. It’s 2018, and Asians are now everywhere in central Kentucky, but for this particular showing, my wife and I are the only Asians in the theater. As we round the corner and stare up at the multiple rows of stadium seating, I feel as if all eyes are on us, as if WE’RE the show. I’m sure it was my imagination, but I even thought I heard some snickering as we took our seats. Great–I’m suffering from a cultural identity crisis in late-middle age even before the previews come on the screen.

When the opening credits finally begin to roll, I settle a bit more into a comfort zone. The movie itself reminds me of a marriage between The Hangover, Part 2 and the original Meet the Parents, only with Asians playing all the parts. It’s clever, well written and directed, and the shots of Singapore are Travel Channel worthy. The plot picks up quickly once you quit thinking about Wu as the mom in the TV sitcom Fresh off the Boat. The characters are unique, mostly likeable and believable—even with their scholarly British accents—with Ken Jeong and Akwafina stealing a couple of laugh-out-loud scenes with their endearing facial expressions and crazy antics.

For me, though, the way director Jon M. Chu addresses the age old theme of love, money, and family is what makes Crazy Rich Asians a must see movie in my book. Those themes are universal in any culture, but an understanding of underlying Asian traditions and familial piety added exponentially to my enjoyment. I won’t spoil it for you, but I didn’t really like the ending. Otherwise, it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while. You don’t have to be crazy, rich, and Asian to enjoy the movie—but being at least one out of the three probably helps.

John Huang, a retired orthodontist, is a wannabe movie star. He currently is a columnist for Nolan Media Group, Bluegrass Sports Nation, and Sports View America. Follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Keeneland Anyone?

“Hey John, are you heading to Keeneland?” I’ve been asked that question numerous times over the past five decades. After years of hemming and hawing, it’s time to finally come clean.

For those of you not familiar with this beautiful part of horse country, Keeneland represents everything that is true and noble and right and pure about the bluegrass region. Every April and October, this renowned thoroughbred racecourse welcomes thousands of visitors to its semi-annual meets with a healthy dose of southern hospitality. A national historic landmark, its timeless beauty in an idyllic setting provides for a tantalizing glimpse of heaven on earth.

I’ll confess, I’ve only been to Keeneland a handful of times in my lifetime. My first foray into the hallowed grounds happened when I was ten years old. I tagged along with a friend’s family and we promptly won $22 on a $2 wager on horse #2 in the #2 race of the day. In glorious celebration, we took that winning ticket and splurged on chopped steak dinners at the now defunct Mr. Jim’s Steakhouse on Nicholasville Road later that evening.

Fast forward a decade and I’m in dental school. On Wednesday afternoons, the student clinics were closed and many of my classmates spent that time soaking up the Keeneland sunshine. While I sequestered myself in the dental school laboratory setting denture teeth in wax, they waxed eloquently about exacta wins, bourbon shots, and encounters with fast horses and beautiful women. I vowed that if I ever became a real dentist, I’d spend all my Wednesday afternoons making up for lost time.

Upon finishing my military service, I moved back to Lexington and took my mother-in-law to Keeneland. She’s opposed to large crowds, gambling, traffic, rich people, drunk people, and all forms of animal cruelty so I didn’t think she would enjoy it. To my surprise, she loved it. To this day, the image of Grandma Jenny with my daughter, Katie—perched delicately on her shoulders—dressed to the nines, cheering on their favorites past the finish line, still never fails to bring a broad, joyful smile to my all too brooding lips.

About ten years ago, a good buddy of mine from Georgia came up for a visit and I invited him to Keeneland. He’s kind of a highfalutin big wig with a nose for the finer things in life, and he equated Keeneland with the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National. Now that he mentioned it, I can certainly see the similarity. The graceful elegance, the grand tradition, the regal hospitality, the “je ne sais quoi” of top venues in their respective industries. I’ve witnessed first-hand the beauty of Santa Anita Racetrack in Southern California. Keeneland takes a back seat to no none.

The Keeneland Track Kitchen also has no rival when it comes to sunrise breakfasts. Bacon, eggs, and, hash brown potatoes never tasted so good as on a cool crisp fall morning right as the horses are finishing their early morning workouts. On a related note, I’ve also been to Keeneland many times for my own personal workouts–but participating in the annual Thanksgiving 5K runs held on the racecourse grounds, picnicking with the pops, or attending boring seminars and endless business lunches probably shouldn’t really count when adding up all my true Keeneland experiences.

So that’s it. You’re probably surprised. Even more so when you discover that I only live a stone’s throw away from the track itself. I’ve missed out on all those pari-mutuel winners, derby prep races, Phoenix Room buffets, and On-The-Hill tailgating experiences on the bucket list of native Kentuckians and Saudi sheiks alike. My brother, Michael, has spent more afternoons at Keeneland than you can shake a stick at. He’s even become famous for taking those colorful, jaw-dropping prints of all the racing action.

But not me. As you can see, I’ve rarely made an appearance and I’m trying to figure out why. Perhaps I’m just too darn anti-social. Maybe I don’t like the thought of losing my hard-earned money on the whims of temperamental four-legged hacks. It could be that I’d just prefer to walk my dog. Or it’s possible that I’m just too ignorant, or stupid, or, lazy, or ugly to take advantage of a unique opportunity to enjoy myself and have the time of my life with people I like being with. You tell me. Opening day at Keeneland begins now.  Anyone else want to join me?

John Huang is thoroughly enjoying life as a retired orthodontist. He currently works as a columnist for Nolan Media Group and Bluegrass Sports Nation. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.

Check out his most recent UK Sports coverage at http://www.themanchesterenterprise.com/category/uk-live-breathe-blue/

Check out his most recent Cincinnati Bengals and other professional sports coverage at http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/category/writers/john-huang

 

Still Awesome After All These Years

I mentioned in a previous post that there are currently only two musical acts I would still pay good money to see. John Mellencamp was the first and I proactively checked him off the list last October.

Just the other night, I finally got to attend my first Paul Simon concert and thus, cashed in my musical bucket list exacta ticket. Unless Michael Jackson miraculously comes back from the dead, I’m now perfectly content from here on in to get my musical fix solely through ipod downloads and YouTube videos. I’m two and done. I’m too old to fight unruly crowds and too picky to settle for bad venues. There will be no more live concerts for me.

I still haven’t fully recovered from my last PNC Pavilion experience where I was forced to endure ninety minutes of Backstreet Boys hell. Listening to boy bands are demeaning enough but just getting in and out of the parking lot* at Riverbend in Cincinnati is usually an ordeal in itself. Doing it while short on time is downright asking for trouble.

That was my predicament as I sped down I-71 from the River City after attending the Kentucky versus Louisville baseball game earlier that day. Stinking to high heaven while lathered in stale sunscreen and sweating profusely from covering a season-ending defeat, I slid into my reserved floor-level seat just seconds before Simon popped onto the stage. Despite being sandwiched between two people the size of sumo wrestlers, I was ready to kick back, relax, and groove to five decades of music from one half of a musical duo that never should have split up.

Sure, Garfunkel was missing tonight, but Paul Simon can still hold his own as a solo songwriter, artist, and on-stage performer any day of the week. The guy is 75 years old, has a bit of a paunch, and looks like your grandfather with a bad back-to-front combover, but he can still rock the house. Wearing a jacket in 83-degree weather and backed by his talented band, he opened with the beautifully rhythmical Boy in the Bubble from the award-winning Graceland album, and finished up with a solo acoustic version of the hauntingly iconic The Sounds of Silence that could put your dog down. In between, he dazzled the audience with an array of familiar tunes such as Homeward Bound, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, Obvious Child, and Graceland. At one point in the evening, the crowd became so energized with Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard that he even volunteered to play it twice. When he broke out with back-to-back strains of Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes and You Can Call Me Al during the latter part of his set, I thought the Skyline Chili Vision video boards bordering the stage would literally explode with excitement.

Even during the obligatory newer and lesser known songs, the audience responded with much more than the usual polite and tepid applause. Likewise, Paul Frederic Simon seemed genuinely thankful and appreciative of all the cheers, salutes, and accolades thrown his way. During one of his numerous standing ovations, he looked directly my way and nodded, as if personally acknowledging the one hundred and sixty-three bucks I had surrendered to Ticketmaster for my seat in the pit. As I looked to my left and right, I noticed that many of the fans in attendance were a bit younger than I had envisioned (younger meaning younger than me), but good music is timeless and Paul Simon’s music continues to mesmerize multiple generations. After nearly two and a half hours and two and a half encores, Simon finally sauntered off the Cincy stage for a well-deserved slice of LaRosa’s, a mug of Hudepohl, and a scoop of Graeter’s. Whether composing the soundtrack to The Graduate, or performing with Garfunkel in Central Park, or marrying Carrie Fisher, the guy’s still awesome after all these years.

*It took me a good 50 minutes to clear the parking lot even though I was parked near the Belterra Casino.

If you enjoy my writing, please continue to visit me at http://www.huangswhinings.com and follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs

Hurt So Good

I’m the last person in the world qualified to report on concert performances. Don’t get me wrong, I listen frequently to recorded music but just have minimal interest in attending live events in actual venues. Fighting unruly crowds and breathing tainted air while catching the next great act on their next great tour just wasn’t my cup of tea. I didn’t see my first band in person until I was in my mid-twenties (The Who when they played at Rupp Arena), and I can probably count the number of concerts I have attended since then on the fingers of one hand.

I’m certainly no music guru. Currently I wouldn’t recognize Kanye if I saw him in Kroger and I can’t name you one single Taylor Swift song. I don’t know the difference between Adele versus Bieber and I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that I don’t remember whether Willie Nelson is alive or dead. Let me just say that I enjoy listening to certain familiar tunes that I grew up with and I can be easily entertained with a good set of headphones by a few artists I like. But when it comes to live concerts, there are probably only two acts I would currently pay to see. One is Paul Simon and the other is John Mellencamp. Well, guess what—Mellencamp’s coming to town.

He’s actually coming to Richmond for the EKU Center for the Arts series.  Believe it or not, I’ve always secretly identified with this long-haired, cigarette smoking rebel, fighting authority in America’s heartland while still professing loyalty to his hometown roots. It’s a feel-good sound with a definite bad-boy edge, somewhat similar to a midwestern version of Bruce Springsteen—only less full of himself and with a better beat.

The venue here holds about 2000 people and it’s entirely full tonight. I’m seated about 15 rows back in the center orchestra section—still a bit too cheap to spring for the premium VIP seating up close I guess. Just on looks alone, the other people here are a variable lot, a selected few coming in rather formal attire but the rest are like me dressed in jeans and a casual shirt. There are equal number of males and females, with the median age being on the sunset side of 50. The few inebriated individuals and the love birds on Cialis sitting in front of me remind me of why I don’t attend concerts.

After Carlene Carter’s 40-minute opening act, another 40-minutes goes by before Mellencamp finally comes out on stage in a white shirt, dark vest, black jacket and jeans. He’s sniffing like Donald Trump and looks like he hasn’t slept in a week. He appears wrinkled and weathered, not totally unexpected from a 65-year old exposed to the rigors of a life in rock music. At this point, he’s not totally washed up yet but his days of filling large arenas are long past and you’re not going to hear any of his stuff crack the Top 40. I know he’s a Hoosier at heart with political views leaning left of Lenin, but this dude’s music still resonates with me.

For the next 100 minutes, Mellencamp regales the audience with a progression of old and familiar melodies such as Small Town, Pink Houses, Paper in Fire and Authority Song while mixing in a few of his more recent ballads like Troubled Man. When he breaks out an acoustic, sing-along version of the little ditty about Jack and Diane, the crowd goes nuts and there’s absolutely no question that these hits from those John Cougar days are what most of his fans want to hear. Every time Mellencamp rocks out a familiar tune, knees pop and necks crane as the geriatric crowd struggles to rise to its feet. I’m most impressed by how engaged Mellencamp and the band appear throughout the evening, knowing that this performance is just another weary, non-descript stop on a long and monotonous cross country tour.

As I’m watching the performers on stage, I’m magically transported back to my wilder college days—celebrating another successful round of killer final exams with a big bag of Cheetos, a Fresca, and some Mellencamp. Or how about those rowdy Saturday nights spent in the dental school lab, waxing up a set of deluxe dentures to a Scarecrow cassette. Whether at the library or disco, chess club or night club, there’s just something about music that transcends our physical being and sucks at our cosmic souls. It speaks to us in ways that words and actions and even thoughts can never do. Music is almost spiritual in nature and yet music remains completely tangible to our senses. It is both seen and unseen–notes on a page, fingers on guitar strings, Mellencamp performing on stage. I’m giving this magical evening a five-star review. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

If you enjoy my writing, please continue to visit me at http://www.huangswhinings.com and follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs