04/10/2013 11:23AM

Dick Jerardi: Rick Pitino has real shot at NCAA championship-Kentucky Derby double

Benoit & Associates
Goldencents earned a 105 Beyer Speed Figure for his win in the Santa Anita Derby, stamping himself as a leading Kentucky Derby contender.

I watched Goldencents run the race of his life in the Santa Anita Derby on my laptop at halftime of the Louisville-Wichita State Final Four game last Saturday. I’m not sure what was going on around me in the Georgia Dome at that moment, but I was wondering if the colt’s part owner could continue his roll.

It had already been some week for University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino. He found out the previous Wednesday that he had been elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. While he was on that call, his son, Richard, was texting him to tell him that he had been named head coach at the University of Minnesota.

His horse could not win the Santa Anita Derby too, right? Actually, his horse could win and could get a 105 Beyer Speed Figure, the kind of figure that stamps him as a serious Kentucky Derby contender.

Pitino’s team trailed Wichita State for much of the night but commenced a rally behind its bench players at just the same time as a horse named Points Offthebench won the race after the Santa Anita Derby. When I told Kenny Klein, Louisville’s sports information director, that bit of news sometime after midnight, long after Louisville had completed its comeback and gotten to Monday’s championship game, he had an incredulous look on his face, like something a bit mystical was going on.

Pitino is one of my favorite people to cover because he is insightful and politically incorrect. And he really likes to hang out at the track.

When I saw him coming off the court after the semifinal game, I was thinking I might be breaking some news on Goldencents. He said: “Do you believe the horse was 6-1? You must have made a killing.”

He knew. He always knows.

I did not have the heart to tell him that I liked his team a lot more than I liked his horse. I had picked Louisville to win the NCAA tournament because it was clear to me that Pitino was about to do a Graham Motion. Like Motion with Animal Kingdom in the Dubai World Cup, Pitino was getting his team to peak at the right moment. And it seems that Pitino’s trainer, Doug O’Neill, may be doing the same thing with Goldencents.

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

Once Louisville completed another comeback to beat Michigan on Monday in an epic final and finish off a perfect week for Pitino, who became the first coach to win championships at different schools (archrivals Kentucky and Louisville), my thoughts turned from the team to the city and that race they run every year on the first Saturday in May.

Can Pitino win the NCAA championship and the Kentucky Derby? Well, the first half of that daily double is home. Given how well Goldencents ran, the second half appears possible.

When I told Pitino on Sunday that the colt got a 105 Beyer, he looked back as he was heading to an interview and said something about “bouncing.” I reminded him that the O’Neill-trained I’ll Have Another bounced right into the Derby winner’s circle a year ago.

When I got home Tuesday, I compared the past performances of the two horses and found remarkable similarities, except that Goldencents was faster sooner and is faster now.

I’ll Have Another won his maiden with an 83 Beyer before running second in the Best Pal Stakes with an 84. Goldencents won his maiden with a 93 before shipping across the country to run second in the Champagne Stakes to Shanghai Bobby and get an 85.

I’ll Have Another finished his 2-year-old season with a disastrous effort in the Hopeful, where it was clear that he hated the slop. Goldencents finished his 2-year-old season with a solid win in the Delta Downs Jackpot, getting a 91 Beyer.

I’ll Have Another began his 3-year-old season Feb. 4, 2012, with a 96 Beyer when he won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at 41-1. Goldencents’s 3-year-old debut was in the Jan. 5 Sham, which he won while getting a 98.

O’Neill chose to wait until the Santa Anita Derby with I’ll Have Another and was rewarded with a nose win and a 95 Beyer. The trainer did not want to wait three months with Goldencents, so he ran him back in the March 9 San Felipe. The colt chased sprinter Salutos Amigos and got tired, finishing fourth and getting just a 90 Beyer.

In the Santa Anita Derby, Goldencents chased Super Ninety Nine, another very fast horse, but he was much more relaxed even though he was just off quick fractions. When Goldencents took the lead, he did so emphatically. And even when the favored Flashback made a big move at him in the stretch, there never was a doubt that Goldencents would win. The third horse was 8 1/2 lengths back, suggesting a big figure. It was just as big as the suggestion.

I’ll Have Another went from that 95 Beyer to a 101 in the Derby and a 109 in the Preakness. If Goldencents has another forward move in the Derby, he is going to be hard to beat. If he just runs back to the Santa Anita Derby, that may be enough in a year in which none of the contenders has run all that fast yet.

So, the answer is that Pitino can win the NCAA championship and the Derby. He had a week that can’t be duplicated, but he could have a month with Louisville and in Louisville that really should be impossible.