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.