Mick Cronin, coach of the University of Cincinnati men's basketball team, grew up tagging along with his dad, Hep, to River Downs racetrack during the summer months. Hep Cronin was a Renaissance Man, juggling roles as one of the winningest high school basketball coaches of his era in Cincinnati and also serving as a teacher, a baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves and in various roles at River Downs.
"He always had like four different jobs, and that's how you would spend time with him: you would go with him," said Cronin, whose father was a mutuel clerk and even, at times, a jockey agent at the track now known as Belterra Park. "Horse racing was just part of our life. I've always loved it."
Last week, Mick Cronin took the opportunity to spend a week with his dad just before the busy lead-up to the season for a perennial Top 25 program. Celebrating Hep's 77th birthday, their destination was Del Mar, Calif., for the sun, the beach, golf, and mostly for the chance to spend time together at the racetrack and watch a few of the horses Mick Cronin is involved in with the Slam Dunk Racing ownership group.
The icing on the cake came twice, as Slam Dunk Racing's Gain Ground and Secretary At War both ushered the Cronins into the Del Mar winner's circle.
"It was such a fun trip, I loved every minute of it, especially getting my dad into the winner's circle twice" said Cronin, who commands an intense presence around the basketball court but is more like a kid in a candy shop at the racetrack. "For me, [horse racing] is just fun, and that's why I wanted to be more a part of it."
Cronin's brother, Dan, also tagged along on those trips to River Downs and developed a passion for horse racing that he devotes today as a professional handicapper and operator of the website FatBaldGuyRacing.com.
"Racing was a big deal in our family growing up," Dan Cronin said. "In those days, the Racing Form wouldn't come out until the night before the races. It was almost a nightly event that we would hop in the car with our dad and drive to the local deli that sold the Form. Then we would have to schmooze our mom into letting us go to the track with him again the next day. We've just always loved it."
Mick Cronin also shares a common interest in racing with his old boss, Rick Pitino, who has been a horse owner for many years. Cronin was an assistant under Pitino at the University of Louisville from 2001 to 2003 before taking the job at UC in 2006. As head coaches of major programs in close proximity and at times within the same conference, Cronin and Pitino did not talk much basketball when they crossed paths during the ensuing years. When they connected, the subject would often be about horse racing.
"That's something we could talk about and shared a common interest in," Cronin said. "Now that he is no longer coaching, we can talk more about basketball, but he does love the horses. We won another race at Del Mar the Sunday before I got there and Rick was at the track and represented me in the winner's circle."
Cronin took to heart Pitino's advice to spread his risk as a horse owner by getting involved with partners. He found a kindred spirit in Nick Cosato, a longtime jockey agent in Southern California who was so much fun of a hoops fanatic that he chose Slam Dunk Racing as his stable name and patterned the silks in the black, orange and blue colors of the New York Knicks and with a basketball on the back.
Cronin and Cosato met through mutual friends on the West Coast. Slam Dunk Racing had been up and running for a few years by the time Cronin joined as a partner in the fall of 2016. He sure chose the right time, as the stable reached new heights with Madame Dancealot and Beau Recall, a pair of Irish imports who have thrived in Southern California.
Last July, the duo both ran in the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks Presented by The Jockey Club and were involved in a double heartbreaker: Madame Dancealot finished second by a nose, and Beau Recall followed another neck back in third. They both bounced back while Cronin was immersed in March Madness, each winning Grade 2 races at Santa Anita Park.
One Slam Dunk horse that Cronin admits he wishes he had a piece of is Axelrod, who captured the Grade 3, $500,000 Indiana Derby in mid-July and will resurface Saturday in the Grade 3, $300,000 Smarty Jones Stakes at Parx Racing.
"Nick got that horse as a yearling for $25,000; it is amazing," Cronin said. "Nick knows his stuff and he is as honest as they come, which is so important, and we have a blast together. You spread the bills around as partners and have fun together. Hopefully you have someone leading the group so that no one gets hurt [financially] too bad. We've been extremely lucky. It's been great."