Louisville coach Pitino chasing Kentucky Derby win as a co-owner

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Rick Pitino became a Hall of Famer and an NCAA champion on the same day. Now the Louisville basketball coach is positioned to become a Kentucky Derby-winning owner if Goldencents wins on Saturday.

Talk about the greatest four weeks ever.

Despite attempts to downplay his hot streak, Pitino’s appearance for Wednesday’s workout at Churchill Downs showed how much people like being around a winner. He looked every bit the rock star wearing sunglasses as he walked through a throng of Cardinals and race fans who had waited patiently outside the barn.

And to think, Pitino owns just 5 percent of the horse that is a 5-1 choice to win the Derby from the No. 8 post. But given his current roll, it’s hard to bet against him.

“Obviously, we’re rooting for Goldencents, but the Derby is something that you never know” how it will evolve, Pitino said. “If we don’t win it, I’d like to see someone like (trainer) Shug McGaughey win it. He’s never won the Derby, he’s a great trainer and a friend of mine. I’d like to see a Goldencents-Orb exacta, that would be awesome.

“It’s anybody’s ball game. It’s not like basketball, where you can look at a team and say they’ve got a little bit more firepower. You just don’t know in the Derby because you don’t know who’s going to get into racing trouble.”

Perhaps, but Pitino is an active participant in thoroughbred racing’s crown jewel because Goldencents overcame adversity to win last month’s Santa Anita Derby and earn his way into the 139th Run for the Roses.

After moving outside to surge past pacesetter Super Ninety Nine on the final turn, the brown colt held off Flashback for a one-length victory that came just hours before Louisville rallied past Wichita State 72-68 in a national semifinal in Atlanta. Goldencents instantly became part of a phenomenal roll for Pitino, the school and the city, boosting local rooting interest for the Derby.

Two days later, Pitino was elected to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame and the Cardinals went on to beat Michigan 82-76 for their first national championship since 1986. Louisville’s women’s team reached the NCAA final before their amazing run ended with a blowout loss to Connecticut.

Euphoria remains evident nearly a month later with Goldencents T-shirts joining the sea of Cardinals red championship gear. Many are hoping the karma is just as strong on Saturday when the horse battles morning line favorite Orb (7-2) and unbeaten Verrazano (4-1), the second choice.

“Coach has been on a tremendous run, and we just keep thinking that it’s going to continue,” said Goldencents trainer Doug O’Neill, seeking his second consecutive Derby win following I’ll Have Another’s last May. “Watching him win that championship, especially after the injury to (guard) Kevin (Ware), has been very inspirational for all of us and we’re all feeling it. Hopefully, we can keep the roll going.”

However, the possibility of winning the Derby has the 60-year-old Pitino wondering if the odds have been too good to him. Asked last week what he’d do if Goldencents won the Derby, the coach joked, “I’d be walking around looking for lightning to hit me.”

Figuratively speaking, Pitino’s racing associates want to make sure that happens.

Nobody seems to have a big problem with Pitino getting the attention this week despite his small stake in Goldencents, co-owned by Josh Kaplan, Glen Sorgenstein and Dave Kenney. At the very least, Pitino has created a buzz around Barn 45 that might otherwise be missing — though Kevin Krigger’s quest to become the first African-American jockey to win the Derby since 1902 is another interesting subplot.

“I feel bad for Josh and Glen because they own 75 percent of the horse and they’re overwhelmed with coach Pitino owning 5 percent,” said O’Neill’s brother Dennis, who found the horse that Kaplan and Sorgenstein bought for $62,000. “But it’s great for them. It’s given the horse so much publicity that he would never get. And coach is a great guy on top of it. It would be different if you were dealing with someone you didn’t really care for. …

“He’s been so good about taking pressure off, so to speak. He wants to win, but he really knows the business and how hard it is to win the Kentucky Derby.”

Pitino refers to it as a “hobby,” but is engaged in the partnership, naming several horses after Cardinals players such as guards Russ Smith (Russdiculous, since sold) and Peyton Siva (Siva, who finished 11th in Wednesday’s eighth race at Churchill Downs), and center Gorgui Dieng (Gorgui).

With Goldencents running for glory in Pitino’s backyard, the coach’s minority stake in the horse doesn’t matter with him benefiting from the majority of luck right now.

“You have just as much fun in the racing business whether you own 5, 10, 15, 20 or 80 percent,” he said.

———

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Josh Abner contributed to this report.

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