10/02/2003 12:00AM

Pitino's forecast proves to be accurate

Email

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Last winter during a sports radio talk show, a fan asked University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino if any of his racehorses might compete in the Kentucky Derby. Pitino replied no. He said one horse, Della Francesca, could turn into a special horse on grass, and quipped that another, the struggling C.C. Minister, might soon be pulling a carriage in New York's Central Park.

His comments have proven prophetic. Although C.C. Minister is not toting tourists around New York City, he remains a maiden. And Della Francesca has risen to prominence following a win over Rouvres and Volponi in the Grade 2 Belmont Breeders' Cup.

Saturday, Della Francesca will seek to vault to an even higher level for Pitino and trainer Niall O'Callaghan when he races against Touch of the Blues, Trademark, Honor in War, and six others in the Grade 1, $600,000 Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland.

Della Francesca and other recent acquisitions by Pitino represent deviations from his initial horse racing ownership strategy. Previously he had been successful buying young horses such as A P Valentine and Halory Hunter, each of whom became graded stakes winners on dirt.

Della Francesca, owned by Pitino, Frank Justice, and other partners, was already a "made" horse when he was purchased toward the end of his 3-year-old season in 2002. A Group 3 winner in Ireland, he had been third to Rock of Gibraltar in the Irish 2000 Guineas.

Pitino similarly became a partner in the ownership of a couple of South American standouts that were acquired from Brazil by trainer Ken McPeek. "It's like how things are with my assistant coaches," said Pitino. "If they see a great player in Russia, that's where we need to go to get them."

In Della Francesca's case, it took him a while to learn the game. He was slow to adapt to American racing, and troubled trips and a broken jaw led to disappointing efforts earlier in the year. His luck finally changed in the Belmont Breeders' Cup, when O'Callaghan instructed jockey Jorge Chavez to rate the horse, based on suggestions that jockey Larry Melancon had made to him when the horse had faded to fourth in the Arlington Handicap.

Pitino will miss Saturday's race because he will be in Florida for the Louisville vs. South Florida football game. His wife, Joanne, who selected A P Valentine as a yearling, will be at Keeneland to support Della Francesca. "If he runs a good race, we'll head west" for the Breeders' Cup Mile, Pitino said.

Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who will saddle Trademark, is looking strictly at the $600,000 Shadwell. Because Trademark is a gelding and not Breeders' Cup eligible, "this is his Breeders' Cup," he said.

Purchased by Darley Stable after several promising South African campaigns, Trademark struggled over the winter and spring in Dubai, as Della Francesca did in the States. Once taken to America, he flourished. He finished second in the Poker Handicap, then won the Bernard Baruch and Fourstardave at Saratoga with 110 and 109 Beyer Speed Figures, respectively.

"My exercise riders have done a great job - he can be a difficult horse," said McLaughlin. "But the biggest reason for his progress has been the Lasix issue. He needs his Lasix."

He benefits from an inside draw in the Shadwell, which should allow jockey Richard Migliore the opportunity to "cover up" Trademark and save ground.

Presenting challenges for Della Francesca and Trademark will be Touch of the Blues, Soaring Free, and Perfect Soul - the top three finishers from the Grade 1 Atto Mile - and graded stakes winners Inesperado and Honor in War.