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Kentucky still golden for Pitino

Rick Pitino watched. No kibitzing. Just hobbying. In his job as Boston Celtics coach, Pitino was a horse or two shy of qualifying for the NBA playoffs.

Now, a different challenge.

"I'd sooner be battling the Heat, Bulls, Jazz and Lakers for a championship," he said, "but, to again prove that Rick Pitino is one the world's luckier people, here I am back in Kentucky, experiencing another of the great thrills in sports."

Being a $7-million-a-year basketball talent, the handsome 45-year-old New Yorker can afford mansions, yachts, jewels and exotic motorcars. But none of those investment indulgences can deliver the competitive buzz Pitino now feels as owner of a Kentucky Derby horse.

In a big-ego commonwealth known for its thoroughbred racing, bluegrass, bourbon, Fort Knox gold and fried chicken, Pitino spent eight years nourishing what may be the state's most pulsating passion, University of Kentucky hoops.

"This is a delightful return to My Blue Heaven," he said. "There's been nothing bigger in my coaching life than winning the 1996 national championship at UK. Then, after going to the Celtics, it was fun to be a Wildcats cheerleader last month, when Tubby Smith brought home another NCAA trophy to Lexington."

Now, for Pitino, there was different role playing. "I have great team owners with the Celtics," he said. "They allow me full clout in running the basketball operation. No interference. At the Kentucky Derby, it's a story of reversal for me, trying to be a good horse owner by not getting into Nick Zito's hair as he trains Halory Hunter."

Pitino, just for fun, became chief benefactor of Celtic Pride Stable. "My prime role as a horseman is to pay the bills," he said with a grin. Rick owns nine thoroughbreds. Halory Hunter came in a two-horse package, but the other animal has been a bust.

Rick's share is 51 percent, costing $330,000. Already, H.H. has grossed $668,230. Six months ago, Pitino had a chance to make a whopping profit. There was a $2.8-million offer for Halory Hunter.

Intriguing timing.

A decision was due the morning the Celtics upset the NBA champion Bulls in Pitino's first season opener. During UK seasons, he enjoyed the Kentucky Derby as guest of renowned Lexington breeder Seth Hancock on "Millionaires Row," glitzy seventh floor of the Churchill Downs clubhouse.

Pitino called Hancock for advice. Seth would drawl, "Rick, if you were still in your early coaching career at Boston College, it'd be sensible to sell your horse. But, these days, you're not so needy of $2.8-million. Why not hold on to Halory Hunter and see how he runs?"

Heady advice.

So there Pitino was, three days before the 124th Derby, joyously slopping through the morning mud of Churchill's backside. Rick was working at not playing coach in a vastly different game.

"If we're playing basketball in Boston and Nick Zito comes whispering strategy in my ear," he said, "I'd be pretty foolish to listen. I mean, just because he has experience as a New York Knicks fan.

"It's wrong in any sport when an owner begins to get the idea that he or she knows enough to start having Xs-and-Os input with a hired professional who's supposed to be in charge."

Ah, ownership passiveness.

"Halory Hunter is the star of this show," said Zito, trainer of Derby winners Strike the Gold (1991) and Go for Gin (1994). "He's got the look of Strike the Gold.

"Halory didn't do much in the Florida winter; no wins in three starts at Gulfstream. I never worried. He's blossoming now, a lot like Strike the Gold did four years ago."

Zito speaks in deep, choppy New Yorkese. If you've been to Manhattan, you've ordered deli pastrami from a fellow who sounds like Nick. He could have been one of Louie DePalma's drivers on Taxi.

"We show up in Kentucky, good stuff starts happening," said Zito, who owns 38 percent of the 3-year-old hope. "We take the Blue Grass Stakes in a delicious rally. He's coming, baby. Halory is coming."

Pitino listens and smiles.

"This is a hobby for me," the NBA tycoon said. "I've not paid my horse-racing dues. I'm more experienced at dealing with two-legged athletes. Whether we finish first, second, third or dead last in the Derby, late Saturday afternoon in Louisville is going to be a unique personal rush."