Pitino’s Run Rolls On, Eyes Derby Roses

What could possibly improve on the three weeks in the life of Rick Pitino?

During the span of those days, the University of Louisville basketball coach has (in timeline order):

• Watched his University of Louisville Cardinals basketball team justify high season-long expectations by winning the final post-season tournament of the Big East Conference (as we know it), completing the deal in Madison Square Garden – one of Pitino’s favorite stages.

• Coached his team through a bruising NCAA regional and a final game romp into the Final Four past Duke, a game that avenged his 1992 regional final loss with the University of Kentucky’s “Unforgettables” but made more dramatic by the staggering on-court injury suffered by Cardinal guard Kevin Ware.

• Celebrated as son Richard, who had completed a remarkable first season as head coach of Florida International University in the Sun Belt Conference (my WKU Hilltopper brethren can testify on the turnaround the younger Pitino engineered there), was named head coach of the University of Minnesota.

• Scored a rugged victory over Wichita State in the Final Four opener on Saturday.

• Watched Goldencents, a 3-year-old colt in by the elder Pitino in partnership, score an emphatic victory in the Santa Anita Derby to enter the short list of horses considered major threats to win the Kentucky Derby;

• Induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame

• And continue the otherworldly run with Monday’s victory of Michigan in one of the most entertaining NCAA championship games ever, a win that provided Pitino with his second national championship and made him the first coach to earn NCAA titles at different school. And, need you be reminded, he won those titles at schools in the same state. Perhaps most remarkable, that state is Kentucky.

• His NCAA victory pulled him into a tie with UCLA legend John Wooden for career victories.

“He needs to play the lottery,” said Luke Hancock, the sharp-shooting Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four of Pitino’s recent fortunes. “I mean, he doesn’t need any more money, but he needs to play the lottery.”

All that good fortune brings us back to Goldencents, the gifted Throroughbred who has the chance to earn a Kentucky that is nearly incomprehensible in its scope. Most Kentuckians, at one time or another, dream of winning an NCAA title or earning a victory in the Kentucky Derby. But who could imagine both things happening to one person? And could anyone have imagined achieving both nearly impossible dreams the same year, separated by fewer than 30 days?

To borrow an adage: You can’t make this stuff up.

This is not Pitino’s first run at Kentucky Derby glory. His affection for racing grew with his move to the University of Kentucky, where he won his first national championship at UK in 1996 with a remarkable collection of talented future pros and draft picks.

Over those years his stables have been small, but high on quality. His runners have included Halory Hunter, who won Keeneland’s Toyota Blue Grass Stakes before a solid fourth-place finish to Real Quiet in the 1998 Kentucky Derby, and A P Valentine, who won the prestigious Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park at two. The latter finished a disappointing seventh to Monarchos in the 2001 Kentucky Derby, but completed a good Triple Crown series with runner-up with runner-up finishes in both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

The Santa Anita Derby victory by Goldencents came on the heels of a disappointing fourth-place finish in the San Felipe at Santa Anita, a race in which the colt was engaged in a surprising early duel with the well-regarded Flashback and faded to fourth in the stretch. But he relaxed perfectly in the Santa Anita Derby, took the lead on the far turn and pulled away from Flashback in upper stretch to win comfortably under jockey Kevin Krigger.

The rider brings some sizzle of his own into the Derby. An African-American from the Virgin Islands, Krigger was aboard Goldencents in the colt’s successful debut in September at Del Mar and has been in the saddle for trainer Doug O’Neill in all six of the colt’s starts.

African-American riders dominated the early years of the Kentucky Derby, but none has won since Hall of Fame jockey Jimmy Winkfield got Alan-a-Dale up to win by a nose in 1902. If Krigger and Goldencents make it into the starting gate on May 4, he will be the first African-American to ride in the Derby since Marlon St. Julien finished seventh aboard Curule in 2000. Before St. Julien, one had to go all the way back to 1921 to find an African-American rider in the Derby. That was Harry King aboard Planet, who finished 10th to Behave Yourself.

O’Neill, many will recall, saddled I’ll Have Another to win last year’s Derby and Preakness and two of Pitino’s co-owners with Goldencents were along for that ride.

Six trainers have won back-to-back Derbys. They are (from earliest to most recent): H.J. “Derby Dick” Thompson (1932-33), Ben Jones (1948-1949), Jimmy Jones (1957-1958), Lucien Laurin (1972-1973), D. Wayne Lukas (1995-1996) and Bob Baffert (1997-1998).

Yup, all six are in racing’s Hall of Fame. O’Neill will be working a very tough room as he tries to pull off back-to-back Derby wins.

In review, Goldencents will attempt to win the Derby for a trainer seeking rare, Hall of Fame quality successive wins; with a rider bidding to become the first African-American jockey in 111 years to win the race and just the second in 92 years to ride in the race; and an owner who is trying to win the Kentucky Derby and an NCAA hoops championship in the same month and year.

The odds of those things coming together with the result of Goldencents wearing a mantle of roses while standing in infield winner’s circle reserved only for the winner of the Kentucky Derby cannot be calculated. Lottery-style numbers, just as Luke Hancock said.

But it’s Rick Pitino at the center of this improbable journey and he’s pretty far down the road, with just three weeks remaining until Derby Day. As we have all learned in the last few weeks, the coach – in this magical year – is very tough to bet against.

Here’s the updated personal Kentucky Derby poll that can be found at the top of the Power Rankings at www.KentuckyDerby.com. The new top-ranked horse has only one win in his career, but looks like the most dangerous one-win horse in the Kentucky Derby since Alysheba in 1987. Things worked out pretty well for him that year.

1. Normandy Invasion
2. Orb
3. Revolutionary
4. Verrazano
5. Goldencents
6. Itsmyluckyday
7. Oxbow
8. Vyjack
9. Will Take Charge
10. Rydilluc