It is possible that no owner's absence has ever prompted a greater stir, or caused more fans to revisit roiling emotions, than Rick Pitino's decision to boycott the 144th running of the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks.
Pitino has told his trainer, Dale Romans, friends, and his partners in Coach Rocks, a filly with a puncher's chance, that he will not attend the $1-million Oaks on Friday in the latest display of anger involving his dismissal as men's basketball coach at Louisville.
Although Romans expects Coach Rocks to outrun her 12-1 morning-line odds and “run huge,” he said he failed to persuade the bitter Pitino to come. Terry Meiners, a popular radio and television personality at WHAS who became a friend of Pitino's, does not expect a last-minute change of heart.
“I wish he would come, but he's not going to do that,” Meiners said. “His life has been turned upside down. He's miffed. He's scalded is probably the best term. He's scalded by being removed from his job and having his legacy tarnished.”
Pitino, 65, was dismissed with what the University of Louisville Athletics Association described as “just cause” amid a federal investigation into the bribing of recruits. That followed a scandal in which one of Pitino's assistants was accused of using strippers and prostitutes to help attract recruits, prompting the NCAA to force the Cardinals to surrender their 2013 national championship.
According to Meiners, Pitino continues to vehemently maintain his innocence, saying he would not have jeopardized what had been viewed as one the greatest college coaching careers in NCAA history by being involved in any wrongdoing. Pitino could not be reached for comment.
Pitino has said he would not return to the state until David Grissom, scheduled to be vice chairman of the school's Board of Trustees until 2023, and John Schnatter, a board member set to serve until 2022, are no longer members of what he has described as the “board of traitors.” He has mockingly referred to Schnatter, founder of Papa John's, as “Pizza Boy.”
Their ongoing service at Louisville might not be the only factor causing Pitino, an avid racing fan, to stay away. He told Romans he intends to enjoy the Oaks day card at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla., where he spent much of his unexpected free time last winter.
Under the circumstances, it appears there was at least some concern about how fans might treat him if he was spotted at Churchill Downs and what kind of raucous scene might unfold if Coach Rocks, winner of the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks on March 31 in her last start, should win.
“I told him he might be surprised by how well-received he would be,” said Romans, a lifelong Louisville resident. “He said it would be a big day for him even if he was at Gulfstream. He just doesn't want to take a chance on someone ruining his day.”
Meiners predicted that Pitino supporters will convey their enduring allegiance to him no matter the accusations by wagering with both hands on Coach Rocks, a daughter of 2013 Preakness winner Oxbow bred by Calumet Farm.
“There will be support for his horse on Oaks Day because a lot of people are Louisville fans,” Meiners said. “They feel like the horse is a connection to the school and its athletic pursuits, as strange as that seems.”
Romans emphasized that there was a benevolent side to Pitino that he often kept from public view. The trainer said he answered the phone in 2012 to hear the coach tell him, “You're getting too fat. Get over here.” Romans was given a locker in the coaches' locker room, workout clothes and ordered to get started. Although he ultimately regained the pounds he lost as part of what has been a losing battle to maintain a healthy weight, Romans will always be grateful for the coach's concern.
“Once you sign on with Coach Pitino, you sign on for life. He's there for you,” Romans said. “He's done a lot for a lot of people.”
Roddy Valente, a friend, and West Point Thoroughbreds are Pitino's partners in Coach Rocks. Jeff Lifson, executive vice president for West Point's Midwest Division, may have voiced the emotions of many fans when he said, “We just feel like we've been dissed by the NCAA. The kids who won that championship won it legitimately. Granted, there is a lot of stuff that happened over the last couple of years that made it complicated, more complicated than necessary.”
Lifson remains defiant and angry in discussing a coveted championship that came and went like a thief in the night. He said of the players, “These are household names in Louisville and they're not erased from memory because the NCAA arbitrarily decided to erase them from the record books.”
History would remember Coach Rocks, a filly that needed six starts before she suddenly discovered herself and broke her maiden by eight lengths in mid-February, if she should surprise in the Oaks. And fans, love him or loathe him, will never forget Pitino, even if he skips one of the biggest days of his racing life.
Tom Pedulla wrote for USA Today from 1995-2012 and has been a contributor to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Blood-Horse, America's Best Racing and other publications.
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