LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Those colorful hats and dresses that add to the ambience of Churchill Downs are prominently being displayed in storefronts. Billboards are touting hot-air balloon races and fireworks for the race. Yes, Louisville is gearing up for the Kentucky Derby.
But rarely, if ever, has the city of Louisville been on this kind of a roll leading up to the annual race. At the center of the excitement are the Louisville Cardinals.
The men’s team just brought fans in the basketball-crazed state their second consecutive national championship. Rick Pitino made history by becoming the first coach to win the national championship at two schools – Louisville and Kentucky.
The ride will continue at Churchill Downs, where racing fans will be able to enjoy their mint juleps watching the thoroughbred co-owned by Pitino run for the roses.
The Cardinals’ success is “a springboard into the Derby,” said former Louisville mayor and Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson.
Abramson, the longest-serving mayor in Louisville history, added Thursday that the success of the sports teams translates into a glass-half-full attitude.
“It puts a smile on people’s faces, they have a positive feeling about the direction in which the community is going,” he said.
Sure, some of the spotlight will be diverted with Tiger Woods playing at the Masters this weekend, but with the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby on May 4 at Churchill Downs, Louisville will once again take center stage.
Pitino already figured to be part of the Derby, given a love of horse racing that has led him to name thoroughbreds after several Cardinals.
Saturday’s victory by Goldencents in the Santa Anita Derby placed the horse in the Run For the Roses, positioning him to possibly add to a haul of achievements in the past week.
Louisville’s third national championship, and first since 1986, topped perhaps the best week of Pitino’s career.
After winning his second national title, being elected to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame earlier in the year, seeing his son Richard named the head men’s basketball coach at Minnesota – the 60-year-old Pitino was already playing with house money.
His thoroughbred won while the Cardinals were rallying past Wichita State in the national semifinal in Atlanta.
Pitino heard the good news after the game, one that his team needed to stay focused on to reach the goal that went beyond the coaches and players.
The coach didn’t talk about the Derby at the basketball championship – maybe he didn’t want to jinx himself.
After winning the title, he told reporters, “When good things happen, I don’t really embrace it. I just say it’s a lucky day.”
“The horse race, I hope you guys bet and made some money. Outside that, it’s all about the trainer, the jockey, the horse. Not about us. That’s great. Outside of us, Richard getting the Minnesota job is one of the best things that could ever happen to me.”
Life could get better for the coach with a Goldencents win in the Derby.
Either way, it certainly spices up the first leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown. Last year’s running drew a record 165,307 to Churchill Downs who wagered $12.3 million on the feature race.
The presence of a prominent local figure such as Pitino can only help boost interest in the Derby.
“These things are like icing on the cake,” added Carmen Hickerson, vice president of public affairs and communication for Greater Louisville, Inc., the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
As for the university, things have never been better.
“I’ve never at any of my academic stops had this experience,” said university President James Ramsey, whose resume includes North Carolina and Kentucky.
“It’s really exciting. You’re working hard and going pretty strong to take advantage and capitalize on it. I think the real impact will be in a few years when I’m in my rocking chair and retired, and I’ll look back and say, ‘did all that stuff really happen?”’
It happened, and Ramsey believes the run began before the football team’s Sugar Bowl win.
He insists that Louisville’s invitation into the Atlantic Coast Conference in November triggered a series of good fortune for the school, which is expected to begin league play in 2014. The Cardinals’ acceptance into one of the nation’s premier athletic and academic conferences was somewhat surprising, considering Big East rival Connecticut was projected as the favorite.
Ramsey credits that breakthrough for helping the school retain football coach Charlie Strong. The fourth-year coach interviewed with Tennessee before turning down the Volunteers’ offer.
The Cardinals were huge underdogs against Florida but dominated the Gators 33-23 in New Orleans for the school’s second BCS win. Louisville faces higher expectations on the football field with many starters returning next season, including quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, projected as a Heisman Trophy candidate.
The way things are going, there’s no telling when the ride will end.