Friday, May 04, 2001

Pitino lets others do his Derby work

        LOUISVILLE — Rick Pitino is in charge of the quips this week at the Kentucky Derby. He owns a piece of A P Valentine, which means he can laugh while others labor.

        Basketball is Pitino's vocation. Racing is his recreation.

        “My admiration for horse trainers is off the charts,” the University of Louisville's celebrated coach said Thursday morning. “I don't know how they do it. They work 365 days a year. They get up at 4:30 (a.m.), quarter to 5. They don't have a social life.

        “I believe in people with a strong work ethic, and horse trainers have an incredible work ethic.”

Rick Pitino, owner of Derby hopeful A P Valentine, shares a laugh and cap with the horse's trainer, Nick Zito. The cap bears the horse's name and the University of Louisville insignia.
(Gary Landers photo)
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        Pitino prowled the backside at Churchill Downs on Thursday in a Cardinal red Masters golf shirt and an air of offseason serenity. Basketball coaches know something of long hours and temperamental athletes, but they are goldbricks compared to the guys who train horses for the racetrack.

        While Pitino has invested his money in A P Valentine, he has not invested his soul. That's Nick Zito's job.

        “Our job is to have fun,” Pitino said. “His job is to worry, get sick, get nauseous each night.”

        Pitino is wise not to get emotionally attached, for A P Valentine is a horse who induces heartbreak. This grandson of Seattle Slew
is a thoroughbred tease, alternately terrific and terrible, utterly maddening. Corey Nakatani is his fourth jockey since November, a span in which the bay colt has finished 14th, third, first and fifth.

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        He won the Champagne Stakes at Belmont last October, then finished last in the Breeder's Cup Juvenile three weeks later. He set a track record at Hialeah in March, only to stagger through the Blue Grass Stakes as if pulling a plow.

        “The horse is mad, furious and upset that he didn't get a chance to run,” Zito said from Keeneland.

        “We are not going to the Derby,” Pitino said puckishly. “If Nick is now talking to the horse, we need to go to Hollywood.”

        Pitino can afford to laugh because he already has hedged his bet in the horse and banked a big profit. He and his partners paid $475,000 for A P Valentine in 1999, and they sold half their interest last fall for a reported $15 million.

        Even if Pitino loses Saturday, then, he already has won. Not since Hillary Clinton was trading commodities has so much money been made with so little apparent effort.

        Pitino grew up less than a mile from New York's Belmont Park, but he never set foot inside the Triple Crown track until his late 20s. His early interest in the races consisted primarily of taking tips from his future father-in-law, a mutuel clerk at Roosevelt Raceway.

        While restoring the dilapidated basketball dynasty at the University of Kentucky, Pitino's passing interest in the races became more passionate. Several of UK's wealthiest boosters are prominent horsemen and were only too eager to include the coach of the Wildcats in their social circle.

        Seth Hancock, of fabled Claiborne Farm, counseled Pitino on the breeding business and shared ownership of a filly called Aces. Pitino's Celtic Pride Stable — since renamed Ol Memorial — later bought 65 percent of Halory Hunter, who ran fourth in the 1998 Derby.

        A P Valentine is rated a 15-1 shot at Saturday's race. Were it not for Pitino's popularity, the odds might be longer.

        “He has talent,” Zito said. “He isn't supposed to be in the Derby, but he is. His record doesn't look pretty, but he's here. Maybe it's our turn to have one of those days.”

        Rick Pitino says he has no expectations other than being entertained. To win his heart, A P Valentine may have to win the race.

        “I'm sure I'd have a different feeling it it happened,” Pitino said. “(But) I've sort of talked myself out of it, like there's no shot. I don't expect anything. I just want to have some fun and try to sound intelligent if we should win it.”

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