Updated on 05/01/2013 7:15PM

Kentucky Derby: Pitino hopes run continues with Goldencents


In the midst of a year filled with career-defining accomplishments, University of Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino is prepared to extend his remarkable spring in Kentucky Derby 139, in which he has a live contender in Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents.

Pitino, who first became enamored with racing during the 1990s when he was the head coach of Kentucky, owns 5 percent of Goldencents, who looked sharp in his morning gallop over Churchill Downs’s main track Wednesday morning.

Before Goldencents took to the track, Pitino met with a small army of reporters at trainer Doug O’Neill’s Barn 45 on the backstretch and seemed enthusiastic about the Into Mischief colt’s Derby chances. Still, Pitino was careful to temper his optimism despite his professional hot streak.

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“Obviously, we’re rooting for Goldencents, but the Derby is something that, well, you never know with the traffic problems,” he said. The Derby “is anybody’s ballgame − it’s not like basketball, when you can look at a team and say, ‘Well, they’ve got a little more firepower.’ You just don’t know in the Derby, because you don’t know who is going to get the racing trip.”

Pitino, 60, has experienced the Derby whirlwind twice previously as a co-owner.

In 1998, shortly after he left the Kentucky job to coach the Boston Celtics, Pitino’s aptly named Celtic Pride Stable − in partnership with Rick Avare, Tom Healy, and Abrahim Moubarak − sent Blue Grass winner Halory Hunter to a fourth-place finish in Real Quiet’s classic. Halory Hunter, who missed third by a head in the Derby, broke his left front leg before the Preakness and was retired to Lane’s End.

In May 2001, a little more than a month after Pitino was announced as the Louisville basketball coach, he returned to Churchill along with Avare and Healy as Ol Memorial Stable, owners of A P Valentine. Winner of the Champagne as a juvenile, A P Valentine finished a rough-trip seventh in Monarchos’s runaway Derby, but then took second in the Preakness and Belmont before retiring that fall to Coolmore Stud, who paid a reported $15 million for his stallion rights.

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Returning to the Derby this week after a 12-year hiatus, Pitino strolled through the media throng Wednesday with Louisville center Gorgui Dieng, an early entrant to the upcoming NBA draft. Pitino arrived on the heels of an epochal college basketball season. Highly ranked from the outset, his Louisville Cardinals finished in a three-way tie for the regular-season Big East Conference championship and then defeated Syracuse in the Big East tournament championship game at Madison Square Garden. As the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, Pitino’s squad finished the season with a 16-game winning streak en route to claiming the school’s third title. The Cardinals’ championship victory over Michigan came April 8, the same day Pitino was announced as a 2013 inductee to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

A New York City native, Pitino first came to the Bluegrass in 1989 after being head coach of the New York Knicks for two seasons. He was a somewhat out-of-the box hire as head basketball coach of the storied Kentucky program, which was then under NCAA probation because of a slew of violations. Pitino won his first title at Kentucky in 1996 during an eight-year run that made him an iconic figure in the state, and he said Wednesday that he first came to fully appreciate the Thoroughbred industry after he began scheduling trips to historic Claiborne Farm as a regular part of recruits’ visits to Lexington. There, under the guidance of Claiborne owner Seth Hancock, Pitino and Kentucky recruits would encounter some of the 20th century’s legendary racehorses and sires − including, for a short time, Secretariat, whose 1973 Triple Crown came while Pitino was playing point guard at the University of Massachusetts.

“I learned [the sport] from Seth Hancock,” Pitino said. “It sounds strange, but every recruit that we would bring in early on at Kentucky, we made a trip to Claiborne Farm, and Mr. Prospector and a few other horses would come out, and then the one everybody wanted to see, the mighty Secretariat, would come out. And all the recruits and their families would say hello to Secretariat and take some pictures. But I’ll never forget those moments with Secretariat. They were quite exciting.

“So Seth Hancock really introduced me to the game, formally,” he said. “I knew it a little in New York, but not like I do now.”

Despite his knowledge of the game, Pitino said he will leave the last-minute fine-tuning and prerace strategy up to Team O’Neill.

“I’ve seen Goldencents out on the West Coast, work against another horse,” he said, but “I don’t know what the hell I’m looking at.”

Saturday, Pitino is hoping for a “Goldencents-Orb exacta” because of his friendship with Orb’s Hall of Fame trainer, Shug McGaughey. Goldencents, one of the most consistent and battle-tested Derby contenders with wins in the Sham and Delta Downs Jackpot in addition to his Santa Anita Derby victory, has O’Neill’s credentials as a Derby-winning trainer in his corner. His minority owner’s string of incredibly good fortune certainly can’t hurt his chances.