Friday, May 4, 2001

LOUISVILLE, Ky. Although his office overlooks Churchill Downs, new Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino was ready to bypass tomorrow’s 127th Kentucky Derby when he was told that A P Valentine was “mad, furious and upset” after a recent loss.

“We’re not going to the Derby,” Pitino told trainer Nick Zito. “We’re going to Hollywood and write to Paramount. Nick is going to star with A P Valentine in the remake of ‘Mr. Ed.’ Our trainer is now communicating one-on-one with the horse.”

If Kentuckians love anything more than college basketball, it’s thoroughbred racing. Success in one creates legends. Combining the two brings immortality. Pitino won the 1996 NCAA championship with the University of Kentucky. Now he’s trying to smell the roses as an owner.

Pitino won’t equate a Triple Crown with a college crown, though. He enjoys racing, but it’s not the same as roundball. At least, that’s what he believes now.

“Basketball is my passion, my vocation. I’m in [horse racing] for pleasure,” Pitino said. “I’m sure I would have a different feeling if [a Derby victory] happens. I’ve talked myself out of it. Don’t expect anything. Have some fun. Win or lose, it’s a unique experience.”

Coincidentally, horse racing played a part in Pitino’s recent return to the state after he left to coach the Boston Celtics in 1996. Pitino wanted one last job where he could ease into retirement. He remembered Kentuckians fondly and chose Louisville after considering Southern Cal and Nevada-Las Vegas. That’s why Pitino is bemused that Kentucky fans are upset over his coaching rival Louisville.

“I didn’t leave Kentucky to go to Louisville. I left to go Boston and it didn’t work out,” he said. “My choices were go to another SEC rival and compete with Kentucky, go to a place I’ve never been in my life or come back to a state I love. My closest friends in life are here. My family is happy.

“I know the effort I put forth at the University of Kentucky. It was probably the lowest point in its history. I was part of the magic ‘90s at Kentucky, so for them to be upset is a tremendous compliment to me. There are going to be a certain portion of people who cannot root for Louisville, and I respect that. For one game a year it will be very difficult, but the other 364 days it will be a tremendous experience for my family.”

Although he is the son of a mutuel clerk, Pitino never went to the racetrack as a youth despite living a half-mile away from Belmont Park. But he started Celtic Pride Stables in 1997, and Halory Hunter finished fourth in the 1998 Derby, with partnerships also producing two Breeders’ Cup runners. After leaving Boston, Pitino renamed the stable “Ol Memorial” after a Tampa golf course. A P Valentine was Pitino’s biggest risk as a $475,000 yearling in 1999 who has since been syndicated.

A P Valentine won two straight races before suffering shin problems in a dismal Breeders’ Cup Juvenile loss on Nov. 4 at Churchill that forced a three-month layoff. The colt then set a Hialeah Park 1 1/16-mile record in 1:40 1/5 on March 24 to revive his Derby hopes.

Although A P Valentine finished fifth in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 14, it meant little to Zito. The colt didn’t like the deep track and was wide on the turn. That A P Valentine was still bouncing around in his stall afterward like a boxer awaiting a fight was what Zito meant when saying the colt was mad.

“This is the horse we thought he was,” Zito said. “He does have the ability. What better race to show it than [the Derby]?”

Pitino will face an old nemesis in former Duke guard Bobby Hurley, who enters Songandaprayer. Hurley played on the Blue Devils’ 1990 and ‘92 national championship teams. Pitino doesn’t begrudge Hurley for Duke’s dramatic last-second victory over Kentucky in the 1992 regionals, but Christian Laettner is another matter after hitting the winning shot.

“As long as Christian Laettner didn’t buy the horse, I’m all for it,” Pitino said jokingly. “I like Bobby a lot. I’d have a major problem with Christian Laettner. He’s not allowed to set foot in this state.”

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