LOS ANGELES - What an undreamed of invitation -- the Kentucky Derby! I had been to Kentucky many times before. My niece, Akemi Takei, the broadcast journalist in the family, had worked at a television station in Lexington. So I had visited her when she was there. And, of course, there had been many Star Trek conventions in Kentucky. I like the lush and gracious landscape and the warm hospitality of the people of Kentucky. But I'd never expected to actually be at the legendary Kentucky Derby at fabled Churchill Downs. This was fantastic!
Before departing L.A., on my way to the airport, I swung around to Twentieth Century Fox studios. I was squeezing in a quick voice-dubbing gig on another episode of "The Simpsons." It didn't take much time. I was off to the airport and Louisville, Kentucky, in about an hour.
On the flight, seated in the row just behind me, I recognized actor Bill Brochtrup from "NYPD Blue." In conversation with him, we discovered that we were guests of the same host, Michael Berry of the Kentucky Derby Festival. We would both be riding in the Kentucky Derby Festival's Pegasus Parade and going to the same Derby festivities. This was going to be great fun.
Immediately upon arrival, we were swept up into a whirlwind of activities - lunches, dinners, parties galore, and, on the Thursday before the Derby, the Pegasus Parade. The parade's Grand Marshal was none other than the second man to walk on the moon, astronaut Buzz Aldrin. I had met Buzz and his lovely wife Lois before -- at a charity fund-raising event at Paramount Studios. Our paths seem to have a way of crossing in the most interesting ways, in fiction as well as in fact.
In the parade, our vehicles were, unlike the futuristic crafts with which Buzz and I are associated, handsome treasures from the past. Buzz's car was an elegantly restored antique that I couldn't identify and mine was a classic red Corvette. The crowd was wildly enthusiastic and I shouted myself hoarse. That night, we recovered over dinner at Jicama Grill, a trendy restaurant that serves delectably exotic Latin American cuisine.
Kentucky Derby day was sunny and hot. But the dress, we were told, was sports coat and tie. As we boarded the air-conditioned luxury bus that was to transport us to Churchill Downs, I couldn't help but be taken by the elegantly dressed women who, almost without exception, wore enormous confections of feathers, flowers, silk or gossamer on their heads. The practicality of a large hat on a sun-scorched day was contradicted by the preposterous creations that almost covered their faces like some fantastical umbrella balanced over their heads. But as the bus approached Churchill Downs, I noticed that the mass of people surging toward the grandstand carrying their picnic baskets and aluminum lawn chairs, wore tank tops, halters and practical wide brimmed straw hats. There was clearly a two-tier dress code.
Indeed, when the bus parked, we were escorted directly to a bank of elevators that swiftly lifted us up to the sixth-floor clubhouse. It was air-conditioned, well provisioned with a beautiful buffet and a panoramic glass window that provided a spectacular view of the sun drenched racetrack below. In this cool and luxuriously coddled setting, the colossal hats seemed even more wacky. Friends greeting the behatted women couldn't reach them under those massive canopies - all they could do was blow friendly air kisses toward the faces hidden under the huge hats.
They told me that you have to have a strategy in the betting process. I had never bet on horses before. I knew nothing about racehorses. What was I to do? The Kentucky Derby itself was the eighth race of the afternoon. I decided to prepare by observing the betting process during the first race. People were talking about the lineage of each horse, their track records, how they looked in their warm up runs the morning before. They might as well have been speaking in Swahili. I knew then that I was on my own. I would have to depend on sheer luck. Nevertheless, I would try to craft a strategy.
I decided to dive in on the second race. I studied the list of horses on my program. The third horse on the list was named Lake Pontchartrain. It reminded me of the delicious Blackened Red Fish from Lake Pontchartrain that I enjoyed when I was in New Orleans. Aha! I had a connection with that horse. This strategy should be as good as any. I bet $2 on Lake Pontchartrain to win. The race began and the horses were off and running. They were all bunched together. I couldn't make out which horse was Lake Pontchartrain. A batch of horses came thundering in with one nosing out all the others. I couldn't tell which one that was. We all waited for the scoreboard to show the final result. At last, the board lit up with the name of the winner. It said Lake Pontchartrain! I had won on my first try! Astoundingly, my $2 bet won me $32!!! Lady Luck was definitely with this beginner horseplayer.
But she is a fickle lady. She left me for others for the next five races. My $32 was reduced to $22. Now the big one was on us - the Kentucky Derby. I studied my program. There it was - the twelfth horse - seductively beckoning out to me. Startac! This was such an obviously clear message. Could anything be closer to Star Trek? But there also was another horse with the word star in its name -- Balto Star. Not as close as Startac, but it still had the word star in it. And if you dropped the B from Balto, you would have alto, which in Spanish means "high." Star Trek soars high. This too could be telling me something a bit more subtly. I decided to bet $10 on both Startac and Balto Star.
The gates opened and horses were off and running. The announcer's booming voice narrated the race. "Balto Star is second," he intoned. The crowd and I cheered. "Come on Balto Star," I shouted. Thank goodness I covered my bet with two horses, I thought. But after the second bend, Balto Star began to fall behind. "Come on Balto Star! You can do it!" I urged. But that horse continued to fall back. Then the booming voice announced, "Startac is passing Balto Star." My gosh, I still have a chance! "Go Startac," I yelled. But Startac wouldn't move ahead. It continued to maintain its place in the pack. "Go Startac. Go," I pleaded. Suddenly, out from nowhere - literally from the back of the pack - came an incredible horse. It galloped past every one of the others and was thundering toward the finish all by itself. "Monarchos is ahead by four lengths," the announcer's voice bellowed excitedly. It was an awesome sight to see. A magnificent animal moving with powerful grace dashed across the finish line. "Monarchos has won the Kentucky Derby," the ecstatic voice announced. It was later declared that Monarchos' time, 1:59.97 minutes, was the second fastest in the Kentucky Derby's 127-year history. The fastest was Secretariat with l:59.4 minutes in 1973. This was an awe-inspiring experience - but I was poorer by $20. Startac came in tenth and Balto Star was fourteenth. My $32 winning from the second race was reduced now to $2 - the very amount I first bet on Lake Pontchartrain. At least I broke even. Thank you Michael Berry and all the wonderful people of Kentucky for an unforgettable - and not too costly - experience.
Two days after returning to Los Angeles, I dove into another major event - this one, a binational conference called the Japan-United States Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange at the Japanese American National Museum. As well as serving as the Chairman of the Board of the Museum, I am a member of the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission, a non-governmental federal agency. So I was doubly invested in this conference. It turned out a great success. Our panelists from throughout the U.S and senior officials from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Education, distinguished leaders from academia, business and culture were in accord that this conference in Los Angeles was one of the best ever held in its forty-year history.
I had another quick voiceover gig before flying off again. This one was the popular "Jackie Chan" Saturday morning animated series. I was the voice of a wise and benign Buddhist priest. Jackie Chan was voiced by a versatile young actor named James Tse. Then, I was off to Atlanta, Georgia, for Vulcon, another Star Trek convention.
The lucky bonus with this trip was that my good friend, gifted writer Peter David, was getting married to his love, Kathleen, a stage manager, puppeteer, editor and all around renaissance woman, in Atlanta on the same weekend as the convention. What blessed serendipity! I arranged with Joe Motes, the organizer of the convention, so that I could manage both the wedding and the convention. He was most cooperative.
Peter and Kathleen were married in a charming chapel on the picturesque campus of Emory University. It was a lovely ceremony. But it was the reception that really captured the spirit of the couple. The venue was a converted former warehouse now called the Shakespeare Tavern. It is a theater patterned after the old Globe Theater of Elizabethan London. So eminently appropriate. Both Peter and Kathleen are theatrical people - she literally and Peter in every sense of the word. His personality, if anything, is colorfully theatrical. His bountiful talent is of the theater as well as literature. Indeed, he even looks like he could play Shakespeare's Falstaff. To top off the theatricality of the reception, the best man at the wedding also became the master of the revels of the reception. He was none other than literary lion, incendiary raconteur and volcanically outspoken convention speaker - Harlan Ellison. He was touching in his fondness of the couple; he was hilarious with anecdotes about their relationship; he was ribald with his jokes; he was inexhaustible and never-ending. Finally, Peter broke in. Peter too is an expert raconteur. The afternoon became a bountiful banquet table of words, words, words as well as good food. Among the guests was Bill Mumy, who you might remember as young Will Robinson in the television series, "Lost In Space." We laughed, we ate and we drank - much too much. It was a fantastical wedding reception - as it should be for Peter and Kathleen. May this marriage live long and prosper.