01/14/2011 6:52PM

Visits to track hard to come by for Pitino

Bob Coglianese
Soaring Empire, owned by Rick Pitino's Ol Memorial Stable, won his first graded stakes in the Hal's Hope.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. − About the time Soaring Empire was walking toward the starting gate for last Saturday’s Grade 3 Hal’s Hope, owner Rick Pitino was pulling into his son’s driveway in Gainesville, Fla. Pitino arrived just in time to watch on television as the star of his stable rallied to the first graded stakes win of his career.

Such is the life of a racehorse owner who happens to be the coach of one of the top college basketball teams in the country. Pitino and his Louisville Cardinals, who are ranked 18th on the Associated Press Top 25, were in Tampa last weekend to play the University of South Florida. He had the option of going to nearby Tampa Bay Downs to watch Soaring Empire but opted to make the trip to Gainesville to join his son, an assistant coach for the University of Florida, who had a game that evening against Ole Miss.

“That’s the hardest part of being a racehorse owner,” Pitino said. “I bet if we race 20 horses a year I never see more than one in person. I probably don’t get to watch half of them race at all, even on television because of my obligations with the team, which can be frustrating. About the only times I get to the track are during the Saratoga meet − I’ve been there every year for the last 35 years − for the Derby, and occasionally down in Florida during the off-season.”

Pitino campaigns Soaring Empire along with his longtime partner in Ol Memorial Stable, Chris Sullivan, and co-owner Clinton Glasscock. Of the three, only Sullivan was at Gulfstream on Saturday.

“Chris was one of the founding members of the Outback Steakhouse, and now he’s chairman of the board,” Pitino said. “I first met him when I gave a motivational speech at the first Outback meeting in the early 90s. There were 36 partners in attendance. When I spoke at their 10th anniversary, they had 15,000 people there.”

Pitino said trainer Cam Gambolati was high on Soaring Empire from the start.

“Trainers all get high on their horses, so we all kind of laughed when Cam told us back when this colt was still a youngster that he had the same type of talent and potential as Spend a Buck,” Pitino said.

Gambolati won the 1985 Kentucky Derby with Spend a Buck.

“His breeding suggested Soaring Empire should go long and run on turf,” Pitino said of the son of Empire Maker. “But after trying everything we realized he didn’t want to go more than a mile and that seven furlongs might actually be his best game.”

Pitino said he and his trainer believe the Hal’s Hope could be the tip of the iceberg for Soaring Empire.

“Cam thinks he still has plenty of growing and maturing to do, and there is really a lot of upside to him,” Pitino said.

Pitino said he believes the same about Louisville, which was 13-3 entering the weekend.

“We are doing well but are still a young team,” Pitino said. “We have a lot of prospects that look good for the future.”

Pitino said Soaring Empire has several options for his next start but would probably be pointed for the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap. It is one race Pitino is hoping to miss. The Gulfstream Park Handicap will be run March 12, just hours before the Big East championship game.

Gourmet Dinner works four furlongs

Delta Downs Jackpot winner Gourmet Dinner, who shipped here from his Calder base one week earlier, got his first real feel for the local track Friday, working an easy half-mile in 48.20 seconds with regular rider Sebastian Madrid aboard.

“We didn’t want to do anything serious with him today,” trainer Steve Standridge said. “Just let him have an easy half, and that’s what he got. Sebastian said he just floated over the track. He looked good, too. We were very happy.”

Standridge said Gourmet Dinner would do more in his next work, which is scheduled for Thursday.

“We’re going to let him run a little when he works next week,” Standridge said. “Then we’ll make a decision about where he’ll run next, although at the moment I’m pretty sure we’re going to the Holy Bull.”

The Grade 3 Holy Bull will be run at a mile Jan. 30.

* Next Saturday’s $100,000 Sweetest Chant attracted nominations from 34 3-year-old fillies, including R Heat Lightning, the BC Juvenile Fillies runner-up; Kathmanblu and Forest Legend, the third- and fourth-place finishers in the Juvenile Fillies Turf; Ruthenia, Rutherienne’s baby sister; Neversaidiwassweet, a Grade 3 turf winner; and Dynamic Holiday and Brilliant Idea, who finished a nose apart in Calder’s Tropical Park Oaks.