The statue of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro sits outside the main entrance of Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. With a Sugar Bowl football win and a menís college basketball national championship within the past six months, and the Kentucky Derby horse race less than a month away, itís a great time to be a sports fan in Kentucky.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. ó 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 menís 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 ó 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 Cardinalsí success is ďa springboard into the Derby,Ē said former Louisville mayor and Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, the cityís No. 1 cheerleader.
Abramson, the longest-serving mayor in Louisville history, added Thursday that the success of the sports teams translates into a glass-half-full attitude.
ďIt puts a smile on peopleís faces, they have a positive feeling about the direction in which the community is going,Ē he said.
Sports has a way of doing that for a city.
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.
Saturdayís 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.
Louisvilleís third national championship, and first since 1986, topped perhaps the best week of Pitinoís 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 menís basketball coach at Minnesota ó 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 didnít talk about the Derby at the basketball championship ó maybe he didnít want to jinx himself.
Still, Pitino did say watching a replay of Mondayís victory made him cry.
After winning the title, he told reporters, ďWhen good things happen, I donít really embrace it. I just say itís a lucky day. ...
ďThe horse race, I hope you guys bet and made some money. Outside that, itís all about the trainer, the jockey, the horse. Not about us. Thatís great. Outside of us, Richard getting the Minnesota job is one of the best things that could ever happen to me.Ē
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 racingís Triple Crown. Last yearís running drew a record 165,307 to Churchill Downs who wagered $12.3 million on the feature race. The betting take from all sources was a record $133.1 million.
The presence of a prominent local figure such as Pitino can only help boost interest in the Derby.
ďThese things are like icing on the cake,Ē added Carmen Hickerson, vice president of public affairs and communication for Greater Louisville, Inc., the cityís Chamber of Commerce.
As for the university, things have never been better.
ďIíve never at any of my academic stops had this experience,Ē said university President James Ramsey, whose resume includes North Carolina and Kentucky.
ďItís really exciting. Youíre 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 Iím in my rocking chair and retired, and Iíll look back and say, Ďdid all that stuff really happen?Ēí
It happened, and Ramsey believes the run began before the football teamís Sugar Bowl win.
He insists that Louisvilleís 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 Cardinalsí acceptance into one of the nationís 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 Volunteersí offer.
The Cardinals were huge underdogs against Florida but dominated the Gators 33-23 in New Orleans for the schoolís 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, thereís no telling when the ride will end.MORE IN Sports Wire
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