By Steve Haskin
If there is one thing you can always count on each year on the Kentucky Derby trail it is a story to warm the heart. This year, Mucho Macho Man and trainer Kathy Ritvo have taken that to a new level.
A towering 17-hands colt with a humongous stride and an unusually late (June 15) birth date, Mucho Macho Man has made Ritvo’s “second” life one to remember.
It was only three years ago that Ritvo lay in a hospital bed waiting for a heart transplant that she wasn’t sure would ever come.
“I was just surviving every day and trying to make it to the next day,” Ritvo said. “I’m normally optimistic, but it’s hard when you’re that sick.”
Ritvo has been unable to make contact with the family who donated the heart that saved her life.
“I don’t know if there are any words that I could say except to thank them for their decision to donate their loved one’s organs,” she said. “Because of them, my kids have their mother.
“We’re having an organ donation sign-up day at Gulfstream Park, and I will tell people that I’m alive because someone donated their heart, and I’m having a great life. It’s the most amazing, unselfish gift you can give.”
Ritvo, who has been training since she was 18, said her job now is to stay healthy and keep taking her medication on time, and as she puts it, “Do what makes me happy.”
That’s where Mucho Macho Man comes in.
“I appreciate every day and every thing, and having a real nice horse like this is just wonderful,” Ritvo said. “I just try to take everything in, and each day I spend with him is great.”
The son of Macho Uno , out of the Ponche mare Ponche de Leona, who was named after The Village People’s big hit “Macho Man,” was purchased after his first start by Dean and Patti Reeves of Reeves Thoroughbred Racing, with original owner Dream Team Racing Stable retaining minority interest. He was turned over to Ritvo’s husband, Tim, to train, but when Tim was named director of racing at Gulfstream Park after saddling the colt to a maiden victory at Monmouth Park, Kathy took over his training.
In four starts under Kathy’s care, Mucho Macho Man has a victory in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) and second-place finishes behind To Honor and Serve in the Remsen (gr. II) and Nashua Stakes (gr. II).
Now he’s ready for the biggest race of his life in the March 26 Louisiana Derby (gr. II). If he passes that test it is on to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
But with a six-week gap to the Derby, Mucho Macho Man will have to attempt something that hasn’t been accomplished since 1956 – win the Derby off a layoff of over five weeks.
“We might have to get creative in his training,” Ritvo said. “But he’s a nice laid-back horse. Taking the blinkers off has made a lot of difference and has helped him to relax; that and going two turns. He was already wearing blinkers when we bought him. When we worked him he was and jumping shadows and looking at the grandstand and the infield. He was just a baby, but he’s matured in leaps and bounds.
“He’s a very strong horse, even when you’re walking him. He’s a real athlete. I don’t mind his late foaling date; I hope it means he still hasn’t reached his peak. He knows what he’s doing now, and every day I look at him it seems like he’s getting taller.”
Mucho Macho Man, who was bred in Florida by John and Carole Rio, will be facing several new faces in the Louisiana Derby.
“He’s ready,” Ritvo said. “He likes that long stretch at Fair Grounds. Hopefully he’ll get a good break and Rajiv (Maragh) will be able to find a good spot for him and make one run.”
Ritvo is still excited at having won the Risen Star, especially the way the colt bounced back from a fourth-place finish in the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III) when he got keyed up early and wound up battling head and head, while between horses.
“I was really proud of the horse in the Risen Star,” Ritvo said. “He gave us all he’s got.”
He obviously takes after his trainer.