Halory Hunter Joins Pitino as Exacta Pick


The Kentucky Derby is automatic front-page news in Louisville, and so is Rick Pitino. If Pitino’s horse, Halory Hunter, wins Saturday’s Derby, this Ohio River town may not be able to contain itself.

The Louisville Courier-Journal probably would publish its first “Extra” since the death of Stephen Foster.

Pitino never sounded like a Kentuckian--you can’t take the streets of New York out of him--but in the bluegrass country they didn’t care, as long as he won at the University of Kentucky, 70 miles down the road from Churchill Downs.


The unofficial religions in these parts are horses and Kentucky basketball, and Pitino, who won a national title and 219 games during eight seasons coaching the Wildcats, is as close to a parlay as the state has never known.

He left Kentucky last May, after the Boston Celtics caught his attention with a 10-year contract worth $50 million. Those are numbers that sound like the stud fees for the top stallions in Lexington. They are the kind of numbers that Halory Hunter aspires to, and might reach, with a win in the 124th running of the Derby.

Halory Hunter, winner of the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland three weeks ago, races in the green and white colors of the Celtic Pride Stable. With his business manager, Rick Avare, Pitino owns 56% of the colt. They have hitched their horse to the right wagon: trainer Nick Zito, who has figured out how to win the Derby. He did it in 1991 with Strike The Gold and in 1994 with Go For Gin.

While at Kentucky, Pitino made friends with Seth Hancock, whose Claiborne Farm bred Johnstown, the 1939 Derby winner, and bred and raced Swale, who won here in 1984. Before long, Pitino bought into some of Hancock’s horses. Pitino also got to know trainer John Parisella, who brought Zito to one of Pitino’s basketball practices.

“Why don’t you try to find me a couple of horses?” Pitino said.

It took six months, but finally Zito and Pitino were racing horses together. Now Pitino owns nine horses, six with the Celtic Pride group, and he says he would like to expand his stable. A Derby contender will make a man think like that.

Pitino will try to be low-key here, but only a disguise will allow him that luxury. “Pitino’s Derby Victory Dream Has State’s Emotions Racing,” said the Courier-Journal’s Page 1 headline Wednesday. In case any Kentuckian forgot, there was a color picture of Pitino with Zito.

“I still can’t believe I’m [running a horse in the Derby],” Pitino said. “I’m very undeserving because I haven’t toiled in this business very long. But I have very little input in this venture. All I do is sign the checks and pay the bills.”

To play it safe, Zito asked Pitino for his approval before he hired Corey Nakatani to ride Halory Hunter in the Derby. For a good horse, Halory Hunter has been ridden by a lot of jockeys. He has run nine times--three wins, two seconds and three thirds--and Nakatani will be his seventh rider.

Pat Day, who rode Halory Hunter to a third-place finish in the Florida Derby, wasn’t available for the Blue Grass because he was riding Favorite Trick the same day in the Arkansas Derby. Gary Stevens, who won the Blue Grass with Zito’s undersized colt, is riding undefeated Indian Charlie, the 2-1 favorite in the Derby.

“Gary rode my horse aggressively in the Blue Grass,” Zito said, “and I wanted to get a rider with a similar style for the Derby. Nakatani fits that pattern.”

Nakatani, who is based in Southern California, has ridden only a handful of horses for Zito. His best ride with five Kentucky Derby mounts was a fourth astride Green Alligator in 1991, the year Strike The Gold won.

Ben Jones holds the Derby record for trainers, having saddled six winners. Zito is one of nine trainers to win the race twice and could move into more exclusive company with Halory Hunter. Only three trainers--Sonny Jim Fitzsimmons, Max Hirsch and Wayne Lukas--have won the Derby three times.

Lil’s Lad, who outran late-charging Halory Hunter all three times they met in Florida this winter, was ahead of him in the Blue Grass too, but bore out in the stretch and made room for Zito’s colt on the inside. That was the best place to run that day at Keeneland. X-rays after the race showed that Lil’s Lad suffered a chipped ankle.

Some have suggested that Lil’s Lad’s injury devalued Halory Hunter’s win in the Blue Grass, but Zito deflects such notions. The time for 1 1/8 miles, 1:47 4/5, was the second fastest in the last 13 runnings of the stake.

“What you have to ask yourself,” Zito said, “is how fast Lil’s Lad was going to run in the last eighth of a mile. He would have had to run 1:46 to beat us. Would he have done that? I don’t think so.”

Horse Racing Notes

The first of five simulcasts from Churchill Downs on Friday at Hollywood Park will be at 11:30 a.m. and gates will open at 10 a.m. Post time for the Kentucky Oaks is scheduled for 2:45 p.m. . . . Gates will open at 8:30 a.m. Saturday and the first of eight simulcasts, including the Kentucky Derby, from Louisville will be at 9:50 a.m. The first live race on both days will be at 1 p.m.