Ponche de Leona was three weeks overdue. The 9-year-old mare kept showing signs she was about to foal, and her owner Carole Rio, who leases 40 acres of Rose Grove Farm near Ocala with her husband John, had been staying up day and night with her. Whenever she was unable to, John would take over. They eventually decided to put her out in the field to make her more comfortable.
It was Father’s Day, June 15, extremely late for a mare to give birth. But when the Rios purchased the daughter of Ponche at the 2007 Keeneland November mixed sale for $33,000 from Adena Springs, in foal to Macho Uno, they knew she was a June cover and would foal late, but were expecting her to give birth in May.
It was already the middle of June and Ponche de Leona, despite all the signs, still hadn’t dropped her foal. Her placenta looked fine and everything appeared normal. Carole had to leave the farm on this day to attend to her champion miniature pinchers. When she and her husband left, Carole told the farm manager Jeff Sekay, “This mare is ready to foal, but I really don’t know when, because she’s looked the same for the past three weeks. But I need to get off the farm and attend to my dogs, so just keep an eye on her.”
At 3:30 in the afternoon as they drove back to the farm, Carole received a call from Sekay saying the mare was foaling.
“Oh, damn,” exclaimed Carole, who said she doesn’t like foaling mares out in the field.
“I told him I was five minutes away,” she said. “A few minutes later he called back and said, ‘I think this foal is dead, he just doesn’t look alive.’
“When we arrived, Jeff and his wife were there and they’re standing over the foal and praying. I was doing my own praying on the way there. When I arrived I looked at him and he was lifeless, and I couldn’t see any breathing. I started rubbing him and finally I just stopped and we all prayed together. Just then this sucker jumped up and started running. He didn’t just stand up he jumped up and then ran off from the mare. It was bizarre.
“I remember saying to my husband, ‘Well, here’s your Father’s Day present.’ He said, ‘We’ll find out in two years how good of a gift it is.’”
They find out alright. The foal, believed to be dead at birth, was eventually named Mucho Macho Man and is now one of the leading contenders for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
“After he ran off in the field, Jeff’s wife said, ‘We ought to call him Lazarus.’ And that was his name on the farm,” Carole said.
“He was a character from day one, and was tall and lanky, and my husband used to call him Mr. Green Jeans. He’s older than me and I asked, ‘Who the heck is Mr. Green Jeans?’ He said he was a character on Captain Kangaroo who was this tall, skinny guy. That was way too far back for me. So, I kept calling him Lazarus, but my husband said he couldn’t stop calling him Mr. Green Jeans.”
The Rios’ foaling adventures with Ponche de Leona did not end with Mucho Macho Man.
“What’s weird is that this mare had a Chestertown Slew foal this year, and this time we had her in a stall,” Carole said. “I’ve foaled out thousands of mares, working at Due Process Farm and so many breeding farms since I was a kid, but I’ve never seen anything like this mare and her foals. This foal goes to get up and jumps up on her feet and stayed up for almost two full hours before lying back down. I don’t know what’s going on with this mare. These were the first two foals I had out of her. This foal naturally couldn’t run off because she was in a foaling stall, but I have no doubt she would have done it had she been out in the field.
“She’s a normal foaling mare, but not a normal acting mare. If she didn’t lie down and have that foal at 7:30 in the morning I would have sworn she wasn’t having a foal. I was just working in the barn and I could hear her water break. I couldn’t believe it because she hadn’t walked the stall or pawed or anything. She just lied down and had the foal; it’s amazing. All I can think of is the mare has a very high pain tolerance. If I would have turned her out in a small paddock she would have had it out in the field again.”
Perhaps she passed that high pain tolerance on to Mucho Macho Man, who ran every step of the way in the Louisiana Derby with only three shoes and came out of the race a bit foot sore.
“When I saw him lean in down the stretch, I said, ‘Oh my God, tell me this horse didn’t just get hurt,’ Carole said. “Whenever a horse does that who had never done it before it usually means something happened to him. When I heard he had lost the shoe I figured it had to hurt him. And it was his white foot which is more sensitive, and his right front, which would cause him to lean in if it was stinging him.”
Not only did the Rios breed and foal Mucho Macho Man, they broke him and gave him his early training.
“I’m kind of humbled by the whole experience,” Carole said. “He was the easiest foal to be around. We had him out with Special Kid, who placed in the Borderland Derby for Doug O’Neill; that’s who he was weaned with. They were the only two foals we had that year. When Mucho Macho Man was running around the paddock it was like he was cutting daisies.
“While we were training him on the farm you couldn’t go far enough with him. He never got tired. And he kept his fitness himself. He’s rangy and lanky and has always been that way. A lot of horses don’t keep their fitness and you have to get them fit. He maintained himself. This horse has always been easy on himself and real smart.
“He was so laid back and took everything in stride. The only thing he had a problem with was walking in the wash rack at the farm and the training center. At both places he wouldn’t walk forward into the wash rack; you had to back him in every day. He backed up so easily it was like maneuvering a car. A month ago, my husband met the van driver who took him to the airport and he said he wouldn’t load on the plane and they had to back him in. But everything else he did was perfect. Whether it was his first time on the racetrack or his first time in company it was as if he had done it his whole life.”
Mucho Macho Man was so big and gangly they didn’t want to push him, so they gave him only one easy work at the training center. They then shipped him to trainer Bill White and he ran six weeks later, finishing second.
“You tell me how much talent he’s got?” Carole said. “It’s not like he had four works here. He had one easy open gallop down the lane, that’s it. Normally I give them four works at the training center before I send them to Bill. He usually runs them six to eight weeks off the farm. When he got him, he saw what a late foal he was. I told him, ‘Bill, physically this horse is late, but mentally he’s way ahead.”
One person who had followed Mucho Macho Man when he was a young horse on the farm was Jim Culver of Dream Team Racing. He watched him develop and grow and said he had a funny feeling he was going to be something special. Just prior to the colt turning 2, Culver purchased him from the Rios, who retained a share.
Ironically, the Rios wound up consigning Ponche de Leona to the 2009 Ocala Breeders Sales Company October mixed sale, a move Carole was against. If she was against selling her before the sale, she certainly was even more so when the mare brought only $5,000.
“There was a miscommunication, and the reserve was not set properly,” Carole said. “Thank God my friend Kathy Paul of Fanlew Farms in Louisiana purchased her for a client. I let the sale go, and when I started training the colt I realized he was a good horse. My husband and I looked at one another, and I said, ‘I got to get the mare back, because I think I’m going to really regret selling her.’
“I contacted Kathy about buying her back before he started, but she was unsure about it. The owner she purchased her for wound up embezzling money and Kathy had to sell out to try to get her board money back. So I wound up buying ‘Ponchie’ back, and she was already in foal to Chestertown Slew. I would have regretted it for sure had I not gotten her back. So, it’s really weird how it all worked out and having the mare back with me. The whole story is freaky.
It got even freakier when Mucho Macho Man was entered in his career debut on July 10 at Calder, but had to be scratched when the horse in the stall next to him flipped in the gate, and he got nicked up enough to be scratched by the vet.
When he was entered back again seven days later he finished a good second to a highly promising colt named Gourmet Dinner. After the race, Dean and Patti Reeves were looking to buy a young horse and were touted on Gourmet Dinner, but when Dean watched the tape of the race he liked Mucho Macho Man more than Gourmet Dinner and purchased majority interest in him instead from Dream Team Racing.
“Had he started that first time, I think he would have won and the Reeves’ never would have seen him in the maiden race with Gourmet Dinner. It was in the cards for the Reeves to own him and Kathy Ritvo to train him. I think it all worked out best for this horse. I feel the horse really connected to Kathy. There was a reason why they scratched him from that first start. It’s just amazing to me the way it wound up. He’s just meant to be where he is.”
Just as Ponche de Leona is meant to be where she is.
“If it ended now it still would be a wonderful ride,” Carole said. “I had only two foals on the ground that year and they’re both stakes horses. One of 35,000 foals a year get to start in the Derby and what’s the likelihood of me having one of them?
“Then, of course, I have the dogs. Right after the Derby I have to fly out to Minnesota on Monday. My dog is competing in the miniature pincher nationals, which has 300 entries and she’s the favorite. Also, her mother is going to be inducted in the Hall of Fame. It’s just amazing. My husband says, ‘You won’t need a plane to fly to Minnesota if this horse wins the Derby.’”