LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Rick Pitino takes two vacations every summer and, like any rational individual, takes them at Saratoga, the upstate New York site of America's most historic racetrack, and Del Mar, the country's most scenic track, just north of San Diego, with the Pacific Ocean in view from the grandstand.
A native New Yorker, Pitino knew a little about horse racing, but it was not until he came to coach at Kentucky a quarter century ago that he really got into it. Now the Louisville basketball coach, fresh off that national championship, is all the way in.
When word of his imminent arrival at Churchill Downs spread through the backstretch Wednesday morning, you would have thought a head of state was coming to Barn 45 to see Goldencents. Masses of humanity gathered, fighting for any available space to see the man who fell into a five percent ownership interest of a Kentucky Derby contender last summer when he was at Del Mar to see some other horses he owns.
Goldencents, then an unraced two-year-old, was in a workout with Avare, one of Pitino's horses. One of the owners of Goldencents said how impressed he was with Pitino's horse. Pitino said how much he liked Goldencents.
"Good luck with it," Pitino told him.
"You want in on it?" the owner said.
"The New York came out in me, I said, 'Uh, oh,'" Pitino remembered. "He said, 'We value it much more than he's worth,' and I bought five percent. It may be the best investment I've made in my life."
A few weeks later, Goldencents, with Pitino watching on a computer, won his first start by more than seven lengths. The colt has now won three stakes, $1.25 million and has a real chance to win Saturday's Derby. Avare was tried in some Triple Crown preps and was not competitive. He has earned $80,000.
"I can read a Racing Form very well, but I don't know what I'm seeing on the track," Pitino said after watching Goldencents gallop from the grandstand.
The common denominator between basketball and horse racing is athleticism.
"In basketball, we start with athleticism," Pitino said. "You've got to have a great eye in this business."
Pitino obviously has it for basketball players. And he puts himself around people who can look at horses and imagine what they could be.
Pitino used to send his recruits and their families to Claiborne Farm to visit Secretariat when he was coaching Kentucky. Coaches try any way possible to impress recruits. Only Pitino had Secretariat a few miles from campus.
"I'll never forget those moments with Secretariat," Pitino said. "I knew the game a little bit in New York, but not like I do now."
But he also has it in its proper perspective.
"I call it a meaningful distraction to a tough game of life," Pitino said. "I got that line many years ago from Woody Allen, who called going to Knick games 'a meaningless distraction to the tough game of life.'"
When Louisville lost to Notre Dame in that five-overtime game on Feb. 9, Pitino mapped out a plan for the Cardinals, telling them that if they won the final seven regular-season games and the Big East Tournament, they would be the No. 1 overall seed. They did that and then won six more in the NCAA, finishing on a 16-game winning streak, just as the coach planned. Horse racing does not lend itself to such neat plans.
"If we win it, I'll be excited for Doug (O'Neill, trainer) and the other owners, but basketball is your life," Pitino said. "You die with every possession. When you're an owner, whether it's a basketball team, football team or a horse, you realize you're not doing a whole lot. You're just enjoying yourself."
Pitino was not enjoying himself at halftime of the national semifinal when Wichita State was clearly outplaying his team. On the way back to the court, he stopped to do a two-question interview with the always-insightful Jim Gray, who told him Goldencents had just won the Santa Anita Derby.
"I'm really upset, it's not going well," Pitino said.
And Gray tells him about his horse.
"I said, 'How about this guy, we're fighting for our lives to win a national championship, he talks about a horse race,'" Pitino said.
The coach started to walk away and then said, "Wait a second, I bet that horse."
And got 6-1.
Pitino and his players have been celebrating their championship for nearly a month. Saturday, the coach will celebrate his love of horse racing with a Derby horse that could bring him an exacta that can't be topped.