A day with the king of Kentucky


OUISVILLE, Ky. -- The small group with a literal vested interest in the racehorse gathered in the grandstand to watch the brief workout. Some stood, some sat, some sat on the railings. They made small talk and traded a few zingers, but mostly they were just waiting.

And then, finally, trainer Doug O'Neill called out to his minority owner, Rick Pitino, "Here he comes, Coach."

In a flash, Goldencents blazed by, to the unknowing eye just a horse going around a turn at Churchill Downs, but to the knowing eye an athlete in training for his big moment.

The ones in the know didn't say much. They never do. The fragile line between success and failure in horse racing tends to take the boast out of most people. The insiders instead simply nodded their heads, O'Neill offering a simple, "He looks good."

Finally, just as everyone made a move to head back downstairs, Pitino, the Pied Piper who brought together the crowd that included a 5-foot-6 jockey and a 6-11 Senegalese basketball player, quipped:

"OK. I'm convinced. He's a winner," Pitino said. "I'm going to the finish line. I'll see you all there on Saturday."

Everyone, especially Pitino, laughed at his bravado.

But bet against him at your own risk.

There is a new reigning monarch in the sport of kings, and his name is Rick Pitino. He might own only 5 percent of Goldencents, but he owns 100 percent of this Kentucky Derby's attention.

The 60-year-old Louisville coach has managed to unite the city's two greatest passions -- basketball and horse racing -- much to the dizzying delight of its denizens.

Three weeks ago, Pitino delivered a national title to a basketball-mad city that had starved 27 years without a title, and now he is knee-deep in the city's signature event, the Kentucky Derby.

His horse, winner of the Santa Anita Derby, likely will not come out of the No. 8 post position as the oddsmakers' favorite, but Goldencents no doubt will be the hometown pick.

On Wednesday morning, Barn 45, Goldencents' temporary home, was more like a circus tent, crawling with reporters, camera operators, horse people and hoops fans. For every horse T-shirt or cap, there were five pieces of Cardinals gear -- from the new Cut the Net T-shirts the players fashioned post-title, to an old-school Dr. Dunkenstein T favored by one fan.

O'Neill, trainer of last year's Derby winner, cut through the crowd unmolested. Jockey Kevin Krigger, who will ride Goldencents, walked around undisturbed.

The crowd was waiting for one man and one man only.

"Is Rick Pitino here?" a young boy in his Catholic school uniform whispered to his father.

Yes, son, he is here, there and everywhere.

• • • • • • •

The Derby King's day started at 8 a.m. with the barn show. The crowd started gathering around 7:15, growing to at least two and three rows deep by the time Pitino arrived. Even veteran turf writers were astounded at the number of people on hand, and Pitino himself was stunned by the media collection.

"I don't even remember it being like that at the Final Four," he said.

An attempt at a news conference fizzled into mayhem and instead Pitino made like a politician, posing for pictures and signing paraphernalia.

Had a baby been presented, he surely would have kissed it.

The attention spooked one of the horses in O'Neill's barn, but not badly enough to cause any problems.

"Obviously, the rumor got out that Coach was going to be there in the morning," O'Neill said. "Everyone and their brother was there. It was a good experience for the horse, too. That's how the paddock is going to be. We don't have to school him in the paddock. We can just bring Coach Pitino around."

By 8:30, Pitino, Dennis O'Neill -- Doug's older brother and Team O'Neill's talent scout, if you will -- Steve Rothblum, the team's racing manager; Jordan Sucher, Pitino's executive assistant; Vinny Tatum, the Cardinals' equipment manager; and Gorgui Dieng all piled into a car and headed over to watch Goldencents' workout.

On the way, the hoops coach wanted to talk horses -- Pitino asked what was the best hope for the upcoming draw -- but the horsemen wanted to talk hoops. Specifically, they wanted to know how Pitino could let Spike Albrecht score 17 points in the first half of the national title game.

"Well, at halftime I told them 'If he scores another f---ing point, you're all dead,'" Pitino said. "It wasn't exactly a great halftime speech, but it worked."

Of course, everything is working these days for the Derby King. Albrecht did not score another point in the title game, and now, well, here we are, with a horse that is third among the favorites but is considered the lone speed horse in a fairly wide-open field.

When he got to the grandstand, Pitino practically sprinted up the steps to join Doug O'Neill and his fellow owners, Dave Kenney, Glenn Sorgenstein and Josh Kaplan. He talked to Krigger about the art of free throw shooting and suggested perhaps he and Dieng trade spots. Dieng did, in fact, try on some jockey gear once they returned to the barns, offering a serious bit of sartorial slapstick comedy.

"This is just a hobby," Pitino said. "But it's a terrific hobby."

Pitino has been intrigued by horses for years. His father-in-law worked two jobs, the second as a mutuel clerk at Roosevelt Raceway in New York.

Years later, when he was coach of the New York Knicks, Pitino befriended John Parisella, a Belmont Park-based trainer who taught him the intricacies of the sport. And when he became the coach at Kentucky, he got to know Seth Hancock, a longtime UK booster. Pitino would take recruits and their families to Hancock's Claiborne Farm, where they could meet legendary Secretariat.

He claims not to know much about the game, but that is, quite frankly, horsefeathers. Pitino knows his horses well.

He's been an owner for years now, and Goldencents is his third Derby horse. In 1998, when he was coaching the Boston Celtics, his Halory Hunter finished fourth, and in 2001, a little more than a month after he was hired at Louisville, AP Valentine finished a disappointing seventh.

Nothing, however, is quite like this.

"He's a rock star," O'Neill said.

• • • • • • •

Kevin Drenth is head caddie at Valhalla Golf Club and, as such, usually doesn't do much actual caddying anymore.

"Not unless the really important people come out," he said.

He was working Wednesday, wearing a specially designed blue bib emblazoned with the words, "Goldencents, 2013 Winner Santa Anita Derby."

That's what happens when Valhalla member and Derby King Pitino sets up a foursome with Kenney, Dennis O'Neill and Doug O'Neill.

The first three, by the way, are golfers. The last is a horse trainer with a nice set of new clubs.

"Is there an ATM around here?" O'Neill asked when the $5 and $10 betting terms were laid out for the golf game.

The round at Valhalla offered the group a chance to get away from the madness for a bit -- although everyone at the course knew Pitino and stopped to say hello or congratulate him -- and to connect. These guys don't see each other much. Pitino has seen Goldencents more on his computer screen than live, a byproduct of his basketball schedule and O'Neill's California home base.

This cross-country marriage of horse and hoops works because of the people involved. Team O'Neill is not your stereotypical, blue-blooded horse crew, and Goldencents' other owners are an equally easygoing lot. There's not only no animosity toward the attention Pitino, a minority owner, is receiving this week -- there's gratitude.

"I love it," said Kenney, who admitted to becoming a Louisville fan this year despite his Saint Mary's alma mater allegiance. "It's great for the game, and I'd much rather they stick those cameras in his face than mine."

All of them take their horse racing seriously, but they are equally serious about enjoying themselves.

Which is where the golf came in.

They opted to play a game called Wolf, which essentially lets a golfer act as a captain on each hole. He can pick his partner, but the catch is he has to decide right after a tee shot, not after everyone plays.

The real object in this particular game of Wolf: to avoid Doug O'Neill as your partner. For a guy who plays twice a year, Valhalla is not the place to be. It's ridiculously hard -- the PGA Tour has made a stop there -- and not kind to the weekend duffer.

Pitino drew what looked to be the short straw on the second shot, but then O'Neill hit a surprisingly decent tee shot.

"Can I recruit or what?" Pitino said.

And so it went, with the traditional recipe for good golf -- a few cocktails, a little bit of money to make it interesting and plenty of trash talk. (Kenney, in fact, wanted to make sure this story reflected that he won a majority of the holes. Duly noted.)

Then, on the par-3 eighth, a miracle happened. O'Neill hit a perfect tee shot and followed it up with a sweet putt for birdie.

"I wasn't confident we could win the Derby before," Pitino said. "But now I am. If Doug O'Neill can get a birdie …"

• • • • • • •

Four boards hang on the walls inside the bar at Jeff Ruby's, an upscale steak restaurant in downtown Louisville. The boards list some of the most accomplished Thoroughbreds in racing history.

On the third board over from the left, the list begins with Affirmed, the last horse to win the Triple Crown, and ends with Secretariat, the greatest racehorse of all time. In between, it reads like this:

Alydar, Shuvee, Spectacular Bid, Goldencents, Ruffian, Forego, Riva Ridge, Seattle Slew.

Spot the outlier?

Pitino, friend of the owner and friend of the restaurant, pulled a few strings to have his horse's name sandwiched between Spectacular Bid, a winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and Ruffian, one of the greatest fillies of all time, for Derby week.

It's good to be King.

And here at dinner, Pitino is treated like one. Diners politely interrupt to say hello and offer congratulations, and, in the bar, at least a dozen people ask for a picture.

Even the restaurant's security guard (Jeff Ruby's is where O.J. Simpson was asked to leave before the 2007 Derby) stops by. He has a photograph of O'Neill and his team at the winners' circle, and he thought Pitino would like to have it. He says he's a UK fan but is happy for the coach nonetheless.

It goes on like that until about 11 p.m., when Pitino, a man one friend accurately describes as "perpetually double-parked," finally calls it a night.

He has glad-handed at the barns, golfed and glad-handed some more.

He even managed to squeeze in a midafternoon date with his young granddaughters, taking them for manicures.

One went with glittery gold nail polish, as in Goldencents, the other with bright red, as in Louisville red.

Horses and hoops, what could be better in the city of Louisville?

And who could marry them better than Rick Pitino, the Derby King?