Updated: March 11, 2013, 2:23 PM ET


Rick Pitino in running for unusual double

By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

Rick Pitino has the "horses." In Russ Smith, Chane Behanan, Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng, he has the type of strong, athletic players that could take his Louisville Cardinals all the way to an NCAA championship.

And he has a horse, a real horse. Goldencents is bigger than Dieng, faster than Siva, completely incapable of making a jump shot but quite possibly good enough to win the Kentucky Derby.

Pitino says he is locked in on his basketball team, which goes into Saturday's game against Seton Hall 21-5 on the season and was briefly ranked No. 1 in the nation. But even this ultra-focused coach can't help spending a moment here and there following his 3-year-old colt and dreaming that Goldencents will take Pitino to the Kentucky Derby winner's circle.

Pitino is among a good-sized group of notable sports figures that dabble in horse racing; to them it's a fun but rewarding escape from their high-pressure on-court or on-field pursuits. Bill Parcells operates a small stable in New York, and Joe Torre is the part owner of Game On Dude, maybe the best older male horse in the country. George Steinbrenner won many major horse races. Houston Texans owner Bob McNair has been a major player in racing, and the New England Patriots' Vince Wilfork is a huge (literally and figuratively) fan of racing and owns harness horses.

Pitino's interest in racing intensified when he was hired to coach Kentucky in 1989. The university is in the heart of horse country, Lexington, and the sport tends to infiltrate all parts of the community. One of Pitino's recruiting strategies in his earliest days on the UK job was to take prospective players to see Secretariat.

With a big paycheck coming in each week, Pitino built a small stable that concentrates on quality horses. He finished fourth in the 1998 Kentucky Derby with Halory Hunter and was seventh in the 2001 Derby with A P Valentine. He's twice won Belmont Park's Champagne Stakes, among the most prestigious races in the country for 2-year-olds.

"I have had about as much luck in the horse business as any small stable can have," he said. "Two Derby starters, two Champagne winners, and all with a stable of about six."

Goldencents, No. 9 in the initial ESPN.com Top 10 poll and winner of the Delta Jackpot and Sham Stakes, was bought for $62,000 last year at an auction of 2-year-olds. That's a modest price, and there is nothing special about his breeding, but trainer Doug O'Neill soon figured out that he had a top prospect on his hands. Pitino wasn't in on the horse at the start, but stumbled upon him while visiting O'Neill's stable in California last summer.

"I fell into Goldencents by luck," he said. "I was out there looking at my horses with Doug O'Neill and saw Goldencents work out against my horses. I saw firsthand that he was a really good horse. I wished them luck with the horse and Doug said, 'Do you want to get in on this one?' I asked how much and he said, 'We bought him for $62,000, we'll value him now at $100,000 and he's probably worth a lot more than that, but you're a good guy and we think you'd be a good partner.' I wrote him a check on the spot."

Pitino is one of four owners, with the list also including David Kenney, Glenn Sorgenstein and Joshua Kaplan. He has particularly enjoyed his relationship with O'Neill, who won last year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness with I'll Have Another. Personable, well-spoken and far from camera-shy, O'Neill defies the stereotype of the gruff, hardboot horse trainer.

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• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com

Flight of the thoroughbreds

By Amanda Duckworth | Special to ESPN.com

Air Horse One
For ESPN.com For some horses, there's no better way to travel. (Trainers and owners beware: This ride ain't cheap.)
Over the next few months, the phrase "Kentucky Derby Trail" will be spoken and written more times than is worth counting. The races run by a popular horse to make his way into the starting gate on the first Saturday in May will be discussed, analyzed and debated.

As a horse goes from track to track, it is more than likely he has had to hop a plane or two to get there. Luckily for horses, when they fly, they get to skip some of the headaches we humans face. For instance, they get to leave their shoes on during the security check. All in all, flying is not a bad way to travel if you are a horse.

That said, they each must appear at the airport with the equine version of a doctor's note. If they appear without a valid coggins and health certificate, they are not allowed to board. Additionally, the vans in which the horses travel to the airport are searched by TSA or TSA-regulated security, and all persons entering the area are subject to search as well.

For horses looking for the first-class experience, most of the perks come before and after the flight, rather than during the flight. A classic example of that came in the form of 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Big Brown.

"The real VIP treatment is when the plane is chartered for a specific horse at a specific time," explained H.E. "Tex" Sutton Forwarding Co.'s Larry Ulrich. "For example, when Big Brown trained at Palm Meadows right up until the Kentucky Derby, his connections chartered the plane to fly him up there.

"While there ended up being about six or eight other horses on that flight, we did load everybody but Big Brown first. Then they brought him to the airport at the last minute, we closed the doors, and took off. And naturally, because he was last on, logistics dictated that he was the first off."

Given that Tex Sutton has been flying equines for five decades and was one of the first horse transportation companies to provide the service, it is not surprising the operation has flown its fair share of champions like Big Brown.

Once on board, horses are offered refreshments -- no peanuts here, just hay and water -- and settle in for the flight. Since entertainment systems are not exactly high priorities for horses, they usually decide to chat up their neighbors. According to Ryan Starley, a flight supervisor for Tex Sutton, most horses view flying as an adventure.

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