- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Hope breeds eternal at the betting windows of a racetrack, where a hunch can mean a financial windfall and a slice of knowledge a life-changing payout.
But there also is no place better at popping an optimist's bubble and killing karma than a racetrack.
Rick Pitino rode into Churchill Downs the luckiest man in the commonwealth, collecting success and victory at every turn. The coach of the national champion Louisville Cardinals rode out of the gates with his good fortune finally meeting its match.
His horse, Goldencents, dropped from the front of the pack to finish a dismal 17th in the 139th Kentucky Derby. "Well, at least we won the championship," Pitino quipped to his assorted friends and family gathered to watch the race.
Pitino could afford to be blasé about his loss. Though he's hyper competitive and wanted to win as much as anyone, he still counts horse racing as a hobby, not a profession. Since Goldencents won the Santa Anita Derby to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, Pitino has insisted that anything the horse did here would be gravy on top of a crazy run that included a Hall of Fame invite and a national title.
His plan was to sit back and enjoy it.
Which is exactly what he did.
At about 5:45, he decided to head down to the paddock, taking a shortcut from his suite to get there. Along the way, fans yelled to him, "Good luck, Coach," and when he arrived in the paddock, he posed for a dozen pictures with fans.
Pitino said he wasn't nervous, but when Goldencents arrived looking a little keyed up, the coach admitted that he was concerned.
The horse settled down, though, and so did Pitino.
"We got the Cardinal red shadow on him, Coach," trainer Doug O'Neill said to Pitino in the paddock. "Let's keep it going."
Pitino headed back up to his suite to watch the race, getting more good luck wishes along the way. He walked back in to the crowd and announced, "Well, I spoke to the horse; we're good."
Moving out to the balcony, he gathered his wife, Joanne, and daughter, Jacqueline, close to him and waited for the race to begin.
Once it did, the man who claimed indifference clearly showed he was a little more invested than he might have let on. Pitino watched the Derby from the far left side of his balcony, his chin in his hand, studying the race intently as the horses came from the start directly in front of him.
Goldencents hung among the front pack for the first part of the race but quickly lost ground, and by the time the horses passed in front of Pitino's suite, which sits just above the finish line, he was a nonfactor.
If Pitino was disappointed, he didn't show it. He hung out on the balcony for a bit before moving inside to the suite.
His first thought after the race finished, in fact, was for the trainer of Derby winner Orb, Shug McGaughey.
"I'm really happy for Shug," Pitino said of the Kentucky native. "He's a really, really good guy."
Others around the track weren't so diplomatic, of course.
When hopes and dreams fizzle and blossom in a short two minutes, diplomacy and kindness toward the winner (when it's not you) is a hard trait to fathom.
But Rick Pitino has the beautiful luxury of being a horse racing insider still living and working on the outside. He would have loved to win the roses, but he was more worried about collecting the hardware from his real job.
Maybe his luck hasn't run out, after all.