Back when Rick Pitino was rebuilding the foundation of Kentucky basketball, it wasn't uncommon for visiting recruits and their families to ask if they could go see Secretariat, the massive chestnut colt whose record-shattering Triple Crown triumph in 1973 captivated the nation.
So Pitino would drive them out to the emerald-green idyll of Claiborne Farm, where Big Red stood at stud following his retirement and delighted in receiving a steady stream of admirers.
It's unclear whether Secretariat's majestic aura sealed any recruit's decision, but it had a transformational effect on Pitino.
"That was the start of it for me," recalls Pitino, who says he visited Secretariat 30 or 40 times before the great horse was euthanized in October 1989.
Nearly 25 years later, Pitino has a thoroughbred of his own in the Kentucky Derby.
It's a small stake, just 5 percent, in a relatively small bay colt with a modest pedigree. Goldencents isn't expected to draw the favorable odds of Verrazano, the unbeaten Wood Memorial winner, or Florida Derby victor Orb for Saturday's 139th running of the Kentucky Derby. But after winning the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 6, the overlooked colt has emerged as a top-10 contender, or possibly top five, in a field that lacks a clear favorite.
And given Pitino's charmed run the past month — with his Louisville Cardinals winning the NCAA championship on the heels of his election to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and his son Richard's appointment as head coach of Minnesota — Goldencents may prove the next thing that Pitino, the coach with the Midas touch, turns to gold.
If so, the coach will take none of the credit despite more than a decade of owning horses. Instead, he'll but raise a glass to the horse's trainer, Doug O'Neill, who won last year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes with I'll Have Another; bloodstock agent Dennis O'Neill, who scooped up Goldencents at auction; and the fellow owners who invited him into their partnership.
Asked to grade himself as an evaluator of thoroughbreds, Pitino replied in a telephone interview: "C-minus. And that's being kind!
"I do it for fun, with people I like," he added, counting the O'Neill brothers among them. "It's a hobby and a meaningful distraction from a job that takes so much time. I get a chance two weeks a year to watch horses run in person: I take a vacation to Saratoga, and I go to Del Mar."
The first Saturday in May, which marks the annual running of the Kentucky Derby, represents a joyful addition to the sliver of time Pitino allots for indulging his passion for the game.
Pitino got his first taste of horse racing while coaching the New York Knicks, when he was invited to Belmont Park by thoroughbred owner Joe Taub, who also had a stake in the New Jersey Nets.
"Joe Taub was trying to get him to coach the Nets," recalls veteran Belmont-based trainer John Parisella, who became a close friend of Pitino's, walking him through the basics of horse ownership.
After taking Kentucky's top job, Pitino's interest in the sport deepened, and he cultivated a friendship with Claiborne Farm's Seth Hancock, a fourth-generation horseman, from whom he learned the basics of breeding.
Goldencents is Pitino's third Derby contender and first since 2001, when AP Valentine finished a distant seventh at Churchill Downs but ran second in the Preakness Stakes. Halory Hunter was fourth in the 1998 Kentucky Derby.
"That horse didn't have great breeding, but he was such a hard-working horse," Pitino said of Halory Hunter, his all-time favorite. "He was the type of athlete that, as a coach, you really appreciate because he gives so much."
Since taking over at Louisville in 2001, Pitino has paid homage to his hardest-working Cardinals by naming horses after them. Recently he has campaigned Siva (for point guard Peyton Siva), Gorgui (for 6-foot-11 Gorgui Dieng) and Russdiculous (for Russ Smith), all members of his most recent title-winning team. In 2003, he and ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale co-owned a 2-year-old named — what else? — Awesome Baby.
Despite what he insists is an unschooled eye, Pitino was mesmerized when he first saw Goldencents work last August. He was watching one of his own horses, Avare, go through his paces at Del Mar alongside California trucking executive Dave Kenney, whom he had recently met through Doug O'Neill's assistant trainer, Jack Sisterson, a Louisville graduate. Avare and Kenney's horse, Goldencents, were galloping side by side.
"We were hanging over the rail, watching them work, and Goldencents passed up Avare," Kenney recalled. "I said, 'Coach, you've got a nice horse there with Avare!' And he said, 'Dave, Dave, Dave! Your horse is a heck of a horse!' "
Dennis O'Neill felt exactly that when he watched Goldencents breeze just before the Ocala Breeders' Sales Co. auction of two-year-olds in June. Though the workout was just one-eighth of a mile, O'Neill fell in love with Goldencents' long, fluid stride that repeated over and over. He loved the perfect positioning of his head, which conveyed a professional athlete's confidence. And upon closer inspection, O'Neill couldn't find a flaw. The horse had enough size. He was symmetrical, erect and alert. And because he was a late addition, put up for bid after many buyers had left, he went for the bargain price of $62,000.
Next, it was Doug O'Neill's job to school Goldencents for distance. After less than two months, Sisterson, the assistant trainer, was convinced the colt was Team O'Neill's next Kentucky Derby entrant. So he suggested selling a share to Pitino, given the coach's obvious admiration for the colt that day at Del Mar.
Kenney, who owned 25 percent, thought it was a terrific idea and volunteered to part with 5 percent.
"It was a match made in heaven," Kenney said of the synergy among Pitino, himself, fellow owners W.C. Racing and the O'Neills. Pitino "liked playing golf and having a good time. And I thought, 'Wow! He's kind of like us!' Before you know it, I had a check from Rick Pitino for 5 percent of the horse."
Goldencents proceeded to win his Del Mar debut on Sept. 2.
The first coach to lead two programs to the NCAA title, Pitino said he's often asked which would mean more: Winning another basketball championship or the Kentucky Derby.
"It's not even close!" Pitino said. "I share the NCAA title with my team, the state, the city. As an owner, I have no skill in the game at all! All I'm doing is having a mint julep and rooting."
Pitino intends to do both Saturday. He has no sweat equity in Goldencents — just passion, appreciation for the moment and admiration for the skill of others.
"All these trainers have my incredible respect because they work seven days a week, getting up at 4:30 in the morning, and they only win 20 to 25 percent of the time — if they're doing great!" Pitino said. "I could never handle that."