Rick Pitino has a unique vantage point on the Kentucky Derby.
The Louisville men’s basketball coach previously coached at the University of Kentucky and has taken up horse ownership in recent years. He even owns a filly entered in this year’s Kentucky Oaks, the race that takes place at Churchill Downs the day before the Derby.
As such, he’s got some advice to politicians for whom the Derby has become a must-attend event.
“Politicians are such that — they’ve got to be very careful, because they don’t know who they’re speaking to, whether it’s Republicans or Democrats,” Pitino told me and ESPN’s Andy Katz, in an interview for the latest episode of our podcast series “Capital Games.”
“You’re going to find that there’s a mixture of Republicans and Democrats. Remember that we’re 3-1 Democrats over Republicans [in Kentucky], but for some reason in our state we vote Republicans for the presidency and we vote Democratic for the other races. So it’s kind of an interesting state.”
The Kentucky Derby is a critical event for non-political public figures in the state, including basketball coaches like Pitino. But the Louisville coach said it takes on another level of importance for politicians, who use Derby weekend to hobnob with big donors and try to connect with voters.
“It’s big for them. it’s a forum for them to meet so many people,” he said. “For them, for politicians, the governor and everybody who’s in that kind of forum, it’s very, very big for them.”
As for horse racing, Pitino said he’s learned enough to know you can’t be in it to make money.
“I don’t think it’s a business that you’re going to profit from in the long run. If you’re in this to make money, I would tell you, absolutely not,” he said. “It’s more for the social part of it, the enjoyment part of it. It’s like being on vacation – you spend money on vacation to have a good time.”
And he was quick to endorse the Derby as a “bucket list” type of event for people to attend.
“It’s one of the greatest weekends of the year,” he said. “It’s the socializing that makes the weekends – it’s really not the actual racing.”
Listen to the full episode of “Capital Games” to hear Pitino’s memories of taking celebrities to the Derby. The program also features interviews with Kentucky Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes and Trey Grayson, a former Kentucky secretary of state who now heads up the Harvard Institute of Politics.
“Capital Games with Katz and Klein” is a part of the new podcast series, ESPN Perspectives, with original programming on issues across the sports world. The program explores the intersection of sports and politics, through interviews and analysis, and can be downloaded free via iTunes.