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 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 have had about as much luck in the horse business as any small stable can have. Two Derby starters, two Champagne winners, and all with a stable of about six.
”-- Rick Pitino, Louisville basketball coach and horse owner
"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.
"With this horse, this is the greatest collection of guys," Pitino said. "After it's over and if we lose, no one blames the trainer or jockey. They say, 'Let's go out and have a beer.' I have really enjoyed my relationship with Doug. He is hysterical; he really makes it fun."
Pitino has had less luck this year with most of his other horses, a handful of which he named after Louisville players. The colt Gorgui has run just once, finishing a distant third in a race in Florida. Siva was last of nine in his only start. Named for Smith, Russdiculous is winless in four tries.
"The players feel very honored by it," Pitino said. "The trainer tells me what kind of horse it is and that's when I name it. They told me Gorgui is gigantic and a smart horse, so I named him Gorgui. The other one they said is very quick, so I named him Siva. They told me Russdiculous could be anything, a stakes winner, a total bust, so that's why I named him."
Pitino has never seen Goldencents race in person, which is typical. Louisville basketball comes first, and the horse's races have all come during the season or while Pitino was preparing his team. He's missed a pretty good show. After winning his first race at Del Mar in California, Goldencents finished second in the Champagne, won the $1 million Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs and kicked off his 3-year-old year with a win in the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita. He is scheduled to race next in the March 9 San Felipe, also at Santa Anita.
He is tied with a horse named Shanghai Bobby atop the official Kentucky Derby point standings with 24. Churchill Downs changed the eligibility this year for the Kentucky Derby, which is limited to 20 horses, awarding starting points to the top horses in the point standings. Points are accumulated in a series of Kentucky Derby "prep" races, with the most points being handed out in the major races run in late March and April.
Goldencents could run in the April 6 Santa Anita Derby, but Pitino is hoping that he has something more important to do that day. That's the day of the national semifinals of the NCAA tournament.
But come May 4, Kentucky Derby Day, Pitino's schedule includes only one thing, a trip to Churchill Downs.
"I don't pay that much attention to the horse during the basketball season," he said." I spend my week at Saratoga and my week at Del Mar in the summer and I start to catch up about a week before the Derby. That's when my horses come to the tracks in Kentucky, to Keeneland or Churchill, and then I start to get really into it."
The Kentucky Derby will be run just 26 days after the national championship game. Both are extremely difficult to win, but the basketball coach of Louisville has a shot to take both. It is up to his horses.