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

 

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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