Mucho Macho Man and his trainer: a Derby story with heart

(CNN) — Each morning about 5, every morning without fail, Kathy Ritvo is at the track, always the most dependable 100-to-1 shot on the grounds.

On the backside — that musky, muddy village where the horses live — she finds life, too.

“I don’t miss any days,” she said. “I love it. It keeps me busy; it keeps my mind busy. I’m not a transplant patient when I’m at the barn, I’m a trainer.”

You’ve never heard of any horse she has trained in the past. But if you’ve paid any attention at all to the runup to Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, you will hear the story of Mucho Macho Man and the little 42-year-old woman with the borrowed heart who will give the event its most human patina.

Ritvo will be going for one of the great daily doubles come Derby Day. No female trainer’s horse has won a Kentucky Derby. Only 13 others have tried in the previous 136 years of the race. Shelley Riley came within one length of history in 1992, finishing second with Casual Lies.

“I think (being a female trainer) is a little harder,” Ritvo said. “It’s kind of a man’s world. There are a lot more women who work at the track; it’s just a little bit harder, that’s all.

“Being the first would be nice; it would be great.”

And, certainly, no one before has arrived at Churchill Downs as did this South Florida-based trainer: with a transplanted heart and a horse this stout.

Just three years ago, Ritvo watched the Kentucky Derby from a Miami hospital room, viewing Big Brown’s victory through a medicated fog. And now, quite upright and active, she will take a horse to the post.

Saturday is Ritvo’s first visit to the Derby; she always said she would never go as a spectator, only when she had a horse in the race. Not being one of the designer trainers who attract all the best bloodlines, Ritvo had no reason to expect she’d ever get a worthy entry. All she had was an elusive dream.

Then, as her heart began to deteriorate — with the same cardiomyopathy that claimed one of her brothers — even that goal appeared to be gone.

Everything in her life revolved around horses and the track. Her late father was an owner, running his horses mostly in New York. One brother trains, and another rides. Her late brother also was a jockey. She met her future husband, Tim, at the track when she was just 16 and the apprentice jock offered her a ride home.

When she was only 18, Ritvo took out her trainer’s license at Massachusetts’ Suffolk Downs. In between having two children, she and Tim trained horses in South Florida and made a comfortable living. Through the 1990s, she won 150 races — seven of them stakes races — but never sniffed a chance at one of the Triple Crown races.

She began growing weaker with the new millennium and received the dire diagnosis of degenerative heart disease in 2001. Spending the next seven years in and out of hospitals, Ritvo worked infrequently. By 2008, she was bound to her bed in Miami’s Jackson Memorial.

She remembers little of watching that Derby with her doctor, but her husband recalls it more clearly: “We sat in the hospital, never thinking at all that we would ever be there one day; it was just whether Kathy would live or not.”

On November 13, 2008, a donor heart became available. To strain the racing imagery to its limits, Ritvo beat death by a nose. Doctors later told her she had no more than a week left on her original equipment.

Given her life back, Ritvo could have been satisfied quietly appreciating the reclaimed time with her family. In fact, she was advised to steer clear of the barns for fear of the grime and bacteria that come with the territory.

The anti-rejection drugs she still takes lower her natural immunity, leaving her susceptible to infections. Within six months of transplant surgery, however, Ritvo was showing up regularly at the couple’s barn. No matter how often Tim shooed her away, she just as determinedly returned. Eventually, she just wore down her husband.

“What ultimately swayed me was that she loved (training). She had a passion for it, had done it for her whole life,” Tim said. “Not being able to train horses was like not being able to live for her.”

There are strict rules and limitations to her interaction with the horses now. She no longer rides alongside the thoroughbreds on their way to or from training. When she needs to inspect horses, a handler brings them to her, outside the barn. She clears out when it is time to clean the stall.

She is more keenly aware of avoiding any sharp corners at the barn or the nipping teeth of a spirited thoroughbred (Mucho Macho Man is a bit mouthy, as they put it).

And, she said with a guffaw, “I try to stay away from big crowds. That won’t be a problem at the Kentucky Derby, right?”

A lanky colt with a patch on its face that looks a little like a lightning bolt came into the Ritvos’ life in July. Working with Suwanee, Georgia-based owners Dean and Patti Reeves, Tim Ritvo went shopping for a promising 2-year-old. Their attention went to a maiden race at Calder.

It wasn’t the winner of the race that the couple became interested in. Rather it was the fluid, long-striding place horse. They bought a 70 percent share in Mucho Macho Man for $210,000. Tim handled the bulk of training initially.

Mucho Macho Man rounded into form with his first victory in September in a maiden race and began showing promise for a lucrative 3-year-old campaign. In the fall of 2010, though, Tim took an executive position with the racing arm of MI Developments (owner of six U.S. tracks), giving up his part of the hands-on training.

At this point, with big designs for the horse, the Reeveses could have been tempted to switch to a more proven trainer, someone with experience at getting a young horse to the big stage. They received all kinds of unsolicited advice in that direction.

But, believing in a sense of stability — and in the vaguer sense that Kathy’s destiny was somehow connected to this horse — the owners never sought another trainer.

From the beginning, Patti Reeves was taken by Kathy’s extraordinary attention to detail, watching with amusement as the trainer would pick through bales of hay like a finicky produce shopper until she found the ones with just the right composition for her animal.

Initially, Dean Reeves was stunned by Tim’s decision to take the new job — “My thoughts were that Tim and I were going to carry this thing all the way through” — but he quickly shook off the angst.

“The real blessing here, a part of God’s plan, is that it put Kathy first and foremost in front of this entire deal,” he said.

The owners’ faith in Ritvo was rewarded when Mucho Macho Man won February’s Risen Star Stakes at Louisiana’s Fair Grounds, giving him the injection of graded stakes winnings needed to qualify for the Kentucky Derby field.

He has a record of two firsts, three seconds and two thirds in eight lifetime starts. He is the youngest horse in the field, a late foal who won’t actually turn 3 until after the Belmont Stakes.

What he may lack in age, Ritvo says, he more than makes up for in racing spirit.

“He’s very consistent,” she said. “He runs with his all each time he runs, very competitive. He’s still growing. After every race, it seems like he just gets taller. He’s going to do a lot more growing, too. He’s like a teenager, long and tall, and has those long, long legs. When he grows into himself, he’s going to be a big boy.”

In a 20-horse field, Mucho Macho Man demands a proportionate sliver of attention. But all those seeking a story that has more universal appeal than the time of that morning’s workout will make their way to his barn and seek out the trainer who took out a second mortgage on life.

Ritvo says she doesn’t mind the attention if it gives hope to others awaiting a transplant, if it might show someone that “you can have your life back.”

Weeks ago, her husband began preparing Ritvo for the stress of Derby week, sounding the constant reminder that this race is ultimately no different than the hundreds of others for which she has prepared — and that this moment should be treasured as a bonus regardless of how her horse may decide to run on this given Saturday.

The emotions that come with race day may be too many and too complex to completely catalogue.

“It can get pretty emotional at times. You had to live it. It’s hard to put into words,” Tim said. “She won’t play up that part of it, but there were times when you put her to bed you just weren’t sure if she would make it to the next day.”

“I’m sure there will be a lot of things playing through my head,” Kathy said of race day. “About how I wouldn’t be standing here without the donor family, wouldn’t be standing here without my family, the Reeveses, the horse, everybody. I’m just blessed to be alive, blessed to have the opportunity to train such a good horse. This is what I’ve worked for my whole life.”

Then comes the moment when the starting gate to the biggest race flies open and every trainer’s heartbeat grows stronger, thumping in time with the sound of heavy hoofbeats galloping for the first turn.

This article was written by Steve Hummer, a sports writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in Georgia.
This article was reposted by
May 6, 2011
Photo by John Sommers II

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