The Sporting World Converges at Churchill

There were plenty of horses at Churchill Downs Thursday morning, but with final Derby workouts complete and more and more VIPs in town for the weekend, they are getting harder and harder to see through the throngs of coffee drinkers, sight-seers, and schmoozers in the barn area.

You would think he'd already made it to the Final Four with his new team, based on the reception given to Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino. At 8:15 a.m. the coach had a press conference where he explained his role at Churchill Downs, his loyalty to the state of Kentucky, and his horse's future in Hollywood.

Apparently after a poor showing in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), Pitino got a message secondhand from trainer Nick Zito that A P Valentine was "mad, furious, and upset he didn't get a chance to run."

"I said, if Nick is now talking to the horse, we need to go to Hollywood, not the Kentucky Derby," he said. "We have a remake of Mr. Ed on our hands...our trainer has a unique gift."

Pitino seems to relish his role simply as an owner, rather than a coach, when it comes to racing. "I'm in the horse business to have fun," he said. "Nick Zito has given me much more than we expected."

Pitino's close ties to the horse business and the people involved had an impact on his decision to take the coaching job at the University of Louisville. That's a bit ironic, considering many of those relationships were formed while he was in Lexington at the University of Kentucky.

"I didn't leave Kentucky to go to Louisville," he said. "I left to go to Boston, and it didn't work out...This will be my last job...I wanted to spend it with close friends (nearby). For one day a year it will be really difficult; for 364 it will be very enjoyable. We've just enhanced the fun of the game with this rivalry."

Taste of Mint
Friday night the Mint Jubilee will again be the Derby Eve ball of the young and up-and-comers. Co-organizer Matt Battaglia was at Churchill Downs Thursday morning, but didn't have any star power with him -- the only ones in town so far weren't interested in the early morning hour.

Battaglia said he will be spending the day with a group of producers who will help him put together the one-hour live show highlighting the stars on hand for the Jubilee. Battaglia said he called in favors from folks whose credits include the Academy Awards and MTV productions. His guests will include Loni Anderson, Leslie Bibb, Thora Birch, Kate Capshaw, Bob Costas, Dana Delany, Shannon Elizabeth, Melissa Joan Hart and E Entertainment's Suzanne Sena. Ty Herndon, Shane Sellers , and Uncle Kracker will perform. The live show will be from 9-10 p.m. on regional cable channel 8 in Louisville. Model Kylie Bax is also supposed to join the group as the guest of another organization, as will the actor who plays Uncle Junior on HBO's "The Sopranos."

The Original Derby
Although the Kentucky Derby is the longest running sporting event in the United States, it pales in comparison to the longevity of the original, the Epsom Derby. The race has been run since 1780. For the Stephen Wallis, general manager of Epsom Downs Racecourse, this year is his first time in Louisville. "I run the Darby, and want to see how the Derby is run," he said. (The English race is pronounced 'Darby' but is spelled the same way as the Kentucky Derby.) Wallis' racecourse outside London will have more than 100,000 patrons on Britain's biggest day out, which will be on June 9 this year.

Wallis said the Epsom and Kentucky Derbys, plus the Melbourne Cup, are "very special because we take racing off the racing page." One key difference is the focus on the barn area at Churchill Downs. In England, training centers are separate from the racetracks, so horses ship in the night before or the day of the race. "What the backstretch gives Churchill Downs is a focal point for the week," he said. "It's culture shock."

Wallis said he is particularly impressed with the way the whole city of Louisville "is entirely up for Derby have 800,000 people for a fireworks show (Thunder Over Louisville). Unbelievable. That's brilliant." At the track itself, Wallis said the openness of the sport's owners, trainers, and jockeys, makes it more media friendly than racing in England. "That has to be healthy," he said.

Congaree at Center
A surprising sight at Churchill Downs Thursday morning was a crew from NFL Films. The group is getting a jump on programming for the 2002 season, when Robert McNair's Houston Texans will play their first games in the NFL. The crew, headed by producer Tiffany Montgomery, was at the Wood Memorial to film McNair's Congaree in action, and followed the chestnut to Louisville for more.

Montgomery said NFL Films Presents is a football show, but goes beyond the games to the people involved. Since this footage is being shot so far in advance of its air date, Montgomery said the final product could be anywhere between two and 10 minutes long, and would include training camp and other football video, plus scenes of Congaree in action. The crew was to head to the McNairs' Stonerside Stable outside Paris, Ky., this afternoon.

"We're finding there's more correlation between football and horse racing than we expected," she said. "We're looking at Mr. McNair's success in both sports."

Outside the Oval
Derby hats of the baseball cap/support-your-favorite-horse variety are aplenty on the backside. Dollar Bill caps are to the point -- they show a buck of currency and the horse's name. Nick Zito's A P Valentine cap has the horse's name and a Cardinal (the University of Louisville's mascot)... Associated Press racing writer Ed Schuyler will make this Derby his last. Rich Rosenblatt, the AP's national college football writer, will take over the beat... the traditional tulips, which usually provide bright outtake scenes in the paddock of Churchill Downs on Derby Day, came early this year. They've already been replaced by petunias, so no tip-toeing this May... Each owner of a Derby or Oaks horse has an official host provided by Churchill Downs for the week before the race. These folks are not employees of the track, but are local leaders. They act almost like personal concierges for visitors, and come from a variety of backgrounds. There are lawyers, business owners, higher-ups at local corporations, etc. Some of them have been hosts for all 13 years of the program, and many take the week off from their normal jobs. One host still had on scrubs this morning...Al Roker is scheduled to be live on the backstretch Friday morning for the Today show's weather segments. Willard Scott is also to be on the grounds tomorrow.