The following recap is an expanded version of the original that appears in the November 9, 2013 issue of The Blood-Horse.
It couldn’t have ended any other way. There simply was too much magic at work. And everyone who was at Santa Anita on Nov. 2 could feel that magic. The fairy tale journey of Mucho Macho Man and trainer Kathy Ritvo began five years ago, and after watching the towering 5-year-old son of Macho Uno – Ponche de Leona, by Ponche win the $4.6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) and experiencing the emotional aftermath, one had to feel that destiny was guiding the two all the way, and that this special moment in time was preordained.
Shakespeare wrote: “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”
It was Ritvo’s fight for life after being so close to death, stricken with the heart disease cardiomyopathy, a severe deterioration of the heart muscle, and her incredible will to live that brought her and Mucho Macho Man together to share something so special it brought waves of rapturous cheers and, yes, a few tears.
Ritvo had thought this moment would come a year earlier, but a heartbreaking defeat in the Classic seemingly had put an end to the dream.
The wait for the horses to emerge from the tunnel seemed interminable. A woman stood alongside the fence near the gap holding a sign that read, “Team Mucho Macho Man Has Heart (with the heart represented by a bright red heart). The track bugler walked by and when he saw the sign he went over to the woman and began playing the song “Macho Man” by The Village People.
A few minutes later, the horses finally appeared. Ritvo, just as she had done last year, stood by the rail near the gap as the Classic field paraded to the post. Because of her diminutive size, she had to step on a small stool to get a better look. But she was still too far away to see the entire stretch, so she stepped up on a ledge and leaned her body over the rail. When Mucho Macho Man’s name was introduced in the post parade, a cheer went up from the crowd, and even Ritvo applauded her horse with gentle claps.
She could see jockey Gary Stevens, who was on a magical journey himself, move Mucho Macho Man into a perfect position down the backstetch and she could plainly see him gun the big horse to the lead at the five-sixteenths pole, unlike last year when “Macho” was forced to try to get past a stubborn Fort Larned and couldn’t do it, falling a half-length short.
Now, he was in front, with his ears up. Stevens, who has made a remarkable comeback after being retired for seven years, had won the Awesome Again Stakes (gr. I) on his first mount aboard Mucho Macho Man and felt the urge to go to the whip, but refrained, knowing the horse was giving him everything he had and disliked being whipped.
Ritvo began cheering her horse on as he led by daylight inside the eighth pole, but here came another giant of a horse, Travers Stakes (gr. I) winner Will Take Charge, bearing down on him from the far outside, with the Irish invader Declaration of War closing ground in between the two.
When they hit the wire, Ritvo felt confident she had won when she saw Stevens give a little celebratory shake of his whip.
“I think we got it,” she said, looking for affirmation from anyone. “Gary thought he won; he shook his stick. But I don’t know what that means.”
Others around her, however, weren’t as confident. When they showed the replay a gasp went up from the crowd as they hit wire. Could it be that Will Take Charge had stuck his nose in front? Ritvo now began having feelings of déjà vu. Had Mucho Macho Man suffered another heartbreaking defeat? Could fate be so cruel as to lead them here again only to end in failure?
The stretch run was replayed again, and this time Ritvo kept urging her horse on, as if watching the race live.
“Come on, buddy. Come on, buddy,” she pleaded in a soft tone.
When they hit the wire, she turned around and asked no one in particular, “Did he get it?”
Then came a feeling of dread when the camera switched to Will Take Charge on the infield screen just as the unofficial results sign went up. But a second later, the number “6” went up and the announcement was made. Mucho Macho Man had won the 30th Breeders’ Cup Classic. The dream was complete.
Bedlam broke loose, and tears began to well up in Ritvo’s eyes. “I’m so happy for the horse,” she said. “I hope my mother’s watching.”
Ritvo’s mother has been in the hospital for several weeks with heart problems.
Ritvo’s husband, Tim, who is the president and general manager of Gulfstream and who actually trained Mucho Macho Man when the horse broke his maiden, came over and the two embraced.
It’s an amazing story,” Tim said. “She fought to live for her kids. She’s worked for this her whole life and she deserves every minute of it. This is all about her. She’s done such a great job with this horse. It’s unbelievable. She’s been through so much. She was dead, I’m telling you; she was dead. That’s how bad she was. This is just a wonderful wonderful thing.”
The Ritvo’s two children, Dominique, 21, and Michael, 19, had to endure their mother’s debilitating illness starting when they were 9 and 7.
“They lived through the worst of it and were always very supportive.” Tim said.
Michael, who aspires to be a rider, walked around as if in a daze, a perpetual smile on his face.
“It’s just so amazing, seeing her in the hospital, almost dead, to this, the pinnacle of racing,” he said. “It was so awful to see her like that, lying on the floor in the hospital, sick, sick, sick all the time. She’s the best. She’s an inspiration. I’m just so happy for her.”
The story of Ritvo and Mucho Macho Man and Stevens and majority owners Dean and Patti Reeves have so many intertwining plot lines it would difficult to make it up and get away with it.
The story began in 2008, as Ritvo lay in a hospital bed in Miami Fla., hooked up to an IV of dopamine, a heart muscle stimulant that was keeping her alive. In 2000, she had gotten pregnant with their third child and was almost five months along when she was diagnosed with her illness and the pregnancy had to be terminated.
“The way she was living was unbearable,” Tim said. “Her legs were blown up like tree stumps. She was hooked up to the IV for seven months. But she had this unbelievable will to live to see the kids go to school and grow up and eventually get married. That’s what kept her going”
Ritvo’s daily regimen of medication sounded like drugs gone wild – 12 anti-rejection pills at 7:30 every morning, 15 vitamins at noon, and eight more anti-rejection pills at 7:30 at night.
As Ritvo struggled to stay alive, some 250 miles away in Ocala, Fla., a strapping bay colt was born on June 15 at Carole and John Rio’s farm that they leased, unusually late for a Thoroughbred. The 9-year-old Ponche de Leona had been three weeks overdue and the Rios were staying up day and night waiting for her to foal.
It was Father’s Day when the Rios were returning to the farm after attending to Carole’s champion miniature pinchers and received a call from farm manager Jeff Sekay telling them the mare was foaling.
“Oh damn,” said Carole, who didn’t like foaling mares out in the field.
When they arrived, Sekay and his wife were standing over the foal’s seemingly lifeless body and were praying. After several minutes and no sign of life, the foal was feared dead. Carole started rubbing him and then stopped and began praying herself.
“Just then, this sucker jumped up and started running across the field,” Carole said. “He didn’t walk, he ran. From that day on I started calling him Lazarus. I remember saying to my husband, ‘Well, here’s your Father’s Day present.’ And he said, ‘We’ll find out in two years how good of a gift it is.’”
Five months later, on Nov. 13, as the weanling colt, later to be named Mucho Macho Man, romped about in his paddock, Ritvo also “rose” from the dead following a successful heart transplant, for which she had been waiting for what seemed an interminable amount of time. When she awoke from anesthesia, she took a deep breath, something she hadn’t been able to do for years, and in six months was back at the racetrack training horses.
As if in a movie script, Ritvo and Mucho Man Man would one day unite and embark on a journey that would lead them to a third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, five weeks before the colt's actual third birthday, and two years later to the winner’s circle of America’s richest horserace.
As Michael said, “The horse had his rebirth and my mom had hers, and look what they’ve done with it.”
That ended the first chapter of the Mucho Macho Man story. The second chapter began when the colt was purchased from the Rios by Jim Culver of Dream Team One Racing. Culver had watched the colt develop and grow and had a feeling he would be something special. When he was entered for his career debut at Calder, trained at the time by Bill White, he 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 withdrawn by the veterinarian.
When he was entered back seven days later, he finished a strong second to a highly touted colt named Gourmet Dinner. At the time, the Reeves’ were looking to buy a young horse and had been touted on Gourmet Dinner. Dean watched the tape of the race with the intention of purchasing the colt, but after the race he uttered the words that would change his and Patti’s life forever: “I like the second horse.” So, he contacted Culver and bought majority interest in Mucho Macho Man, eventually buying out Dream Team One Racing.
“Had he started that first time and not been scratched I truly believe he would have won and the Reeves never would have seen him in the maiden race with Gourmet Dinner,” Carole Rio said. “It was in the cards for the Reeves to own him and Kathy to train him. He just was meant to be where he is.”
When Mucho Macho Man was a yearling in 2009, the Rios consigned Ponche de Leona to the Ocala Breeders’ October mixed sale, a move Carole was against. She felt even worse when, because of a miscommunication regarding the mare’s reserve, she sold for only $5,000. But because of legal issues surrounding her new owner, Carole was able to buy her back, enabling that chapter to have a happy ending as well.
The Reeves were Tim Ritvo’s clients and they gave him the horse to train. While Tim was up in New York, Kathy was helping out at the barn in Florida. It was Kathy who went to White’s barn and vetted him for the sale, along with Dr. Scott Hay. After the deal was completed, she galloped the colt for a couple of days and fell in love with him. She then sent him to Tim in New York. When Tim took the job at Gulfstream shortly after, he convinced the Reeves to keep the horse with Kathy and one of the sport’s great marriages was born.
Mucho Macho Man’s 5-year-old campaign was compromised by a virus and bacterial infection early in the year. While training for the Met Mile (gr. I) he suffered a quarter crack and was forced to miss the race. After returning and finishing third in the Criminal Type Stakes and Whitney Invitational Handicap (gr. I), it was decided to put Gary Stevens up and send the horse to Santa Anita to prep for the Classic in the Awesome Again Stakes (gr. I).
Stevens, who had been struggling with pain for several years, was involved in a horrific spill at Arlington Park that could easily have cost him his life, but he made an amazing comeback from that near-tragic incident. He continued to live with extreme pain in his knees before finally retiring in 2005. Over the years he briefly trained horses, was racing manager for Prince Ahmed’s The Thoroughbred Corp, was an advisor to IEAH Stables, worked as a TV analyst for several networks, and even acted in movies and television, getting excellent reviews for his roles in the film “Seabiscuit” and the short-lived TV series “Luck,” in which he played veteran washed-up jockey Ronnie Jenkins, who had turned to alcohol following a bad spill.
Following Luck’s cancellation, Stevens, remarkably, after seven years, decided to come out of retirement, as if continuing his role as Ronnie Jenkins, intent on proving to the world he still could ride with the best of them. To most everyone’s amazement, Stevens returned as strong and as fiercely competitive as he had been back in his glory days of the 1990s. He lost none of his strength and timing and his comeback was an immediate success, highlighted by his victory aboard Oxbow in the Preakness Stakes. His fellow jockeys were amazed he could come back off such a long layoff at the age of 50 and compete at the same high level he had seven years earlier.
Now, here he was aboard a horse who had an excellent chance to give him his first Breeders’ Cup Classic victory.
Mucho Macho Man had a unique record going into the Awesome Again. Since his career debut at Calder he was six-for-six when he had the lead at the eighth pole and 0-for-14 when he didn’t. Stevens gunned him to the front on the far turn and drew off to a 4 1/4-length victory. Now, Mucho Macho Man was seven-for-seven when he had the lead at the eighth pole. The strategy for the Classic seemed pretty simple.
The Classic attracted a deep and talented field of 11 with the scratch of Ron the Greek due to a quarter crack.
Sent off at 4-1, Mucho Macho Man actually outbroke the field and held the lead briefly until Stevens took him back and let him settle off the pace in fourth.
“He left there like a Quarter-horse,” Stevens said. “I could have put him on the lead, but he’s so push-button, I just slid my hands back a little bit and he shut it down. It’s exactly what I wanted him to do.”
Game On Dude, the 8-5 favorite went to the front, as expected, dogged by Moreno and Fort Larned. After a quarter in :23.39, Moreno took a short lead over Fort Larned, as Game On Dude slipped back to third, followed by Declaration of War, who was showing excellent speed in his dirt debut under jockey Joseph O’Brien, son of trainer Aidan O’Brien. Mucho Macho Man was right alongside, as they hit the half in a solid :46.36.
As they rounded the far turn, Fort Larned had a half-length lead over Moreno and Game On Dude, with Mucho Macho Man ready to pounce from the far outside. Declaration of War was hanging tough behind horses, as Palace Malice, who had broken slowly and dropped back to last early, made a bold move to reach contention, with Will Take Charge being pushed along behind him. Palace Malice was ridden by Rafael Bejarano, who replaced John Velazquez, who was taken to the hospital following a spill in the Juvenile Fillies (gr. I).
Passing the five-sixteenths pole, Stevens remembered about Mucho Macho Man's unique record at the eighth pole and was intent on getting there in front. He started nudging on the big horse and he moved up to take the lead from Fort Larned, as Moreno and then Game On Dude began to drop out of it. Fort Larned hung tough and put up a fight, and it looked to be between the same two Classic antagonists as last year. Mucho Macho Man was too much this time and continued to ease clear at the eighth pole with his ears up. But Will Take Charge was now flying on the far outside, with Declaration of War, still on his left lead, closing fast as well. The three hit the wire in a photo, with Mucho Macho Man getting the narrowest of decisions over Will Take Charge, who was a head in front of Declaration of War. It was another 3 1/4 lengths back to Fort Larned in fourth. The final time for the 1 1/4 miles was 2:00.72.
Ritvo had become the first female trainer to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“Kathy and Finn (racing manager Finn Green) have worked on this all year to come back and make up that half-length,” Dean Reeves said. “It’s pretty special. We love this horse. There are a lot of people that get a lot of smiles every day thinking about Mucho Macho Man.”
Patti added, “When we went to the Derby we invited fans to come along on the ride. We were so new in the horse racing business ourselves and we wanted all the fans along with us, so we started a Facebook page for the horse and Twitter, and they just started following and coming.”
As Dean Reeves walked back through the tunnel, Wayne Lukas, trainer of Will Take Charge, came over to shake his hand, but was noticeably crushed by the defeat.
“That one tore me up,” he said.
Aidan O’Brien, who had won the Turf (gr. IT) with Magician, was thrilled with Declaration of War’s performance, as well as the ride by his son.
“He ran a great race and he fought all the way to the wire,” he said. “I would like to thank my team (at Coolmore) for letting me run him here. It’s a privilege to be here. Joseph did everything right on the horse.”
Emotions continued to run high well after the race. Dean Reeves’ sister, Camilla Ellenburg, wept as she hugged her brother, and then sought a spiritual meaning to Mucho Macho Man’s victory.
“It’s just amazing,” she said. “The Lord had him wrapped around his arm, that’s all I can tell you. He knew.”
Mike Sivo, who owns a minority share in Mucho Macho Man with his wife
Laura, said, “I’m in shock; I’m totally in shock. I’m still shaking my head.”
Laura wrote on Facebook the following day, “When you're a little fish in a big pond in the ‘Sport of Kings’ it is good to feel like a king, if only for a day. Our journey with Mucho Macho Man started over two years ago and it has been the ride of a lifetime. I couldn't have more gratitude for the experience, and I couldn't be happier for this magnificent horse and dedicated trainer Kathy Ritvo.”
Meanwhile, in Ocala, Carole Rio watched the Classic at a local restaurant and was extremely confident, but for an unusual reason.
“My miniature pincher, who is ranked number 3 in the country won her record 108th Best in Show on that same Friday and Saturday, and when I got the text she had won I knew Mucho Macho Man was going to win, because every time she wins a Best in Show, he comes right back and wins a race immediately afterward,” Rio said. “It’s unbelievable.
“I had such tunnel vision watching the race I didn’t even know it was a photo. I just started celebrating. I was sobbing with tears of joy. It’s an indescribable feeling for small-time breeders like ourselves. I just started thinking of him laying in that field, and everyone believing he was dead. And then there was the time the vet had to cut a canker out of his foot. I remember it like it was yesterday. You can’t make this stuff up. I’m just so proud of him.”
The bond between humans and horses has been romanticized for centuries. Who can explain why Mucho Macho Man and Kathy Ritvo were destined to travel the same path in life and why that path led them to glory on racing’s biggest stage? From a physical standpoint, Ritvo is dwarfed by the towering Mucho Macho Man, but their hearts, which once had seemingly gone silent, now beat as one. And nothing as mundane as a photo finish camera was going to deny this fairy tale its happy ending.
Following a group photo in the winner’s circle, Michael Ritvo, walked off by himself, and suddenly it hit him:
“My mom won the Breeders’ Cup Classic.”
Sometimes, a simple revelation can have such profound meaning.
But it was Dean Reeves who summed up this magical day best and put everything in proper perspective.
“I’m just so happy for Macho,” he said. “He’s part of racing history now.”