A Rainy Morning With Kathy and Mucho

Who can say for sure when Mucho Macho became a Man? After all, he was a precocious 2-year-old, despite being a giant of a horse, and was good enough to finish second in the Nashua and Remsen Stakes, even though he was a June 15 foal. How could a horse that big and gangly, and that young and immature, perform the way he did so early in life?

That was the first indication that Mucho Macho Man was no ordinary horse. After all, how many horses compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown before their actual third birthday?

It was in the Kentucky Derby, about 100 yards from the finish, that the light bulb first went on. Turning for home, Mucho Macho Man still hadn’t figured everything out, despite making his ninth career start, and never finishing worse than fourth. He was late changing leads and only did switch over to his right lead at the three-sixteenths pole when Animal Kingdom drifted in on him and forced him into Pants on Fire. He then drifted out under a left-handed whip by Rajiv Maragh, all the while plugging away as he usually does, but never really finding his best stride. When Maragh switched to a right-handed whip with just about 100 yards to go, Mucho drifted back in, but in doing so, finally leveled off and actually found another gear. He re-broke and gave a final burst, pulling away from a stubborn Shackleford and missing by a neck of catching Nehro for second.

It was apparent that he had tremendous lung capacity and never seemed to get tired, regardless of the track, surface or distance. In fact, his first nine starts were at seven different racetracks in five states and at seven different distances from six furlongs to 1 1/4 miles.

No, this was no ordinary horse. He was more of a throwback to those rough n tumble horses who just went out there and ran their heart out, oblivious to the conditions.

This was the horse that would help Kathy Ritvo’s amazing story and will to live reach people all over the country. Their remarkable journey and how fate brought them together was discussed in my Breeders’ Cup recap. This is a prequel to that story about one special morning spent with Ritvo and Mucho following his third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby that is being rehashed in the wake of his memorable Classic victory.

Torrential rains fell on Belmont Park that morning, turning the track into a quagmire and flooding areas of the backstretch. It was a day to remain in the barn, and the majority of the trainers did. But not Kathy Ritvo. Mucho Macho Man was scheduled for a half-mile work, and by golly he was going to work a half-mile even if he had to swim.

“We’re like the Post Office,” Ritvo said as she was about to take an earlier set out to the track.

So, at 7:40 a.m., not even the heavy rains could keep Mucho Macho Man “from the swift completion of his appointed rounds.”

As the big colt was being saddled, Ritvo talked to him as she would her own child. Hanging outside his stall was a Jolly Ball toy and a round honey-coated oat and grain ball that looked like a cross between bird suet and a Rice Krispies treat, a gift from Churchill Downs. Inside her office was just one piece of memorabilia – a framed color photo of The Village People (who recorded the big hit Macho Man), signed by each of the group’s members.

Ritvo hadn’t even been aware of Mucho Macho Man’s “return from the dead,” after being born, having found out about it only a few months earlier. She now appreciated the almost mystical path they were on even more.

There she was barely clinging to life for her husband and two young children in the hope of receiving a heart transplant, while what seemed like a million miles away, a foal who was believed dead was jumping to his feet and dashing around his paddock as his stunned breeders, who moments earlier had been praying over his lifeless body, looked on in disbelief.

“We both bounced back to life at almost the same time,” Ritvo said. “He was definitely made for me. How do so many things line up like that? Who would have ever thought we’d both be here?”

Little did she know that “here” was nowhere compared to where they would be two and a half years later.

There is no denying that some horses and humans are simply meant for each other, just as Zenyatta and John Shirreffs were meant for each other.

“I hope this story gets as good as that one,” Ritvo said with a slight smile on her face.

Just then a crackle of lightning knocked out electricity for a second, followed by one loud clap of thunder that set off a chorus of whinnies throughout the barn. Ritvo began talking calmly to some of the horses, but Mucho Macho Man remained unfazed.

Prior to the Derby, Ritvo was amazed at the number of features done on her, by magazines, newspapers, and TV stations. But there was one incident that summed up her new-found popularity more than any of them.

“It really hit me when I was in Target buying a raincoat, because Mucho had ripped mine,” Ritvo said. “I was walking down the aisle and I could hear someone running up behind me, and I’m wondering if I should duck. I turned around and it was a lady chasing me to ask me if I would take a picture with her and her daughter. And I’m thinking, 'Oh, my God.'"

But what was more special than anything were the number of people awaiting a heart transplant that had contacted her and hearing from new donors.

“On Derby morning, someone from Churchill Downs contacted me and asked me if I could find any time to call this person they had heard from who was on the list waiting for a heart transplant and was having a hard time," Ritvo said. "I know how important the Derby is, but that was really important, too. I called him and said to him, ‘Believe me, no one had more of a hard time than I did, so you hang in there.’ I received a text from him about a week later telling me he had some of his best days since he talked to me and had been rooting for Mucho Macho Man in the Derby.

“Another lady sent me an e-mail. She has a daughter the same age as mine, ready to graduate high school. This lady has the same thing I had (cardiomyopathy) and was worried about being put on the list, because she was afraid. I just told her, ‘There really isn’t anything to be afraid of if you want your life back. There’s nothing to lose, because the quality of life is so awful.’ She told me that she couldn’t walk up the stairs, and I know where she’s coming from because I couldn’t walk from here to there (signifying about 10 yards) without being breathless. I couldn’t even hold myself up. It would make me so tired just trying to pick something up. Hearing from these people is amazing; how they keep going and look to me.”

Ritvo's story has inspired many people who are in the same situation she was in. One such person is Catherine Uher, a colon cancer survivor who was told in 2012 she needed a heart transplant.

"I've been struggling so much with this but after witnessing Mucho Macho Man's win and following his and Kathy's story for the last few years, I literally just started crying at the end when he won, and to see the look on Kathy's face and watch her running over to him and Gary was just so emotional for me… I think it gave me the little push I've needed to go forward with the transplant," she said. "It just affected me so profoundly that I knew I could be brave enough to do it if Kathy could."

If there is one image of how far Ritvo had come it was watching her on the walk over before the Derby while being interviewed. Most of the interviewers were huffing and puffing as they asked their questions. But Ritvo never took a deep breath.

“I was rolling along,” she said. “I’m just so fortunate and blessed to be in this position and that everything has worked out the way it has.”

Ritvo then returned to the moment, looking in awe at Mucho Macho Man in his stall.

“Can you believe he hasn’t had a bath in a week?” she said. “It’s been so cold we haven’t been able to. But look at his coat and his color; look at the reflection. It’s unbelievable.”

Just before heading out, an indecipherable announcement came blaring over the loudspeaker.

“What did he say?” Ritvo asked. “Maybe it was either the track is closed or the track is open for anyone stupid enough to use it. I can just see it now, ‘Heart transplant lady gets pneumonia.’”

But by now the rain had let up and Mucho Macho Man, with jockey Rajiv Maragh up, went out for the short walk to the training track, where he proceeded to work a half-mile in :49 1/5, with Ritvo watching from the trainer’s stand. He was easy to spot considering he was pretty much the only horse out there.
Mucho Macho Man walked off the track and returned to the barn and, as the old saying goes, wouldn’t blow out a match.

“He had the whole track to himself today,” Maragh said. “It was more like a steady kind of work. He went off pretty nicely. Sometimes he has a tendency to be a little lazy and not focused when he’s by himself, but he was very focused today. I definitely see the progression. Maybe the light bulb did go on on this horse.”

Ritvo firmly believed they had not seen the best of Mucho Macho Man. Who knows what was going to emerge from that towering frame once he filled out and matured physically and mentally?

”He’s going to win his share of races,” Ritvo said. “He has so much energy and he’ll give it to you if you ask him for it. He came back great from the Derby and was dragging us on to the trailer at 8 o’clock the next morning. He never wastes any energy doing anything silly. Hopefully he stays like that. We just have to make sure we keep doing the right thing for him.”

Do the right thing she did, for the next two and a half years, through the nagging physical setbacks, the tough defeats, and the brilliant victories. There was even the agonizing wait before last year’s Classic when Mucho’s flight was delayed and diverted due to super storm Sandy.

The horse finally left Belmont Park with the final group of New York horses on the Wednesday morning before the Classic at 4:45 and vanned up to Newburgh, N.Y. before flying to Louisville out of Stewart Air Force Base. There they picked up the last remaining Kentucky-based horses, including fellow Classic contender Fort Larned, who would narrowly deprive Mucho Macho Man of his Classic victory a year early.

Meanwhile, at Santa Anita, co-owners Dean and Patti Reeves waited nervously. Dean was having sleepless nights, envisioning the race in his dreams and trying to picture himself in the winner’s circle Saturday night.

The picture was right, the day was right; he just had the wrong year.

Not so for Ritvo. She knew Mucho’s time would come. It had to. The time just wasn’t right in 2012. That’s because the one final element in the fairy tale was missing: Gary Stevens. There was the trainer’s comeback and the horse’s comeback. It figured the story wouldn’t be complete without the jockey’s comeback.

Now that all three have written an unforgettable chapter in the annals of the Breeders’ Cup, I can’t help but think back to that rainy morning at Belmont Park when the dream was just beginning, and of the long, incredible journey still to come.


Leave a Comment:

zenyatta fan

Excellent, as usual.  Thank you so much!

12 Nov 2013 8:27 PM

Thanks so much for all the wonderful stories about this horse and his connections. The fairy tale just keeps getting better and better with the addition of Gary Stevens to the mix. We can add Steve Haskin's name to the growing list of improbable cast members, as well, because you surely are as much a part of this horse's success story as anyone. This is the part of the sport that never goes out of style, that never gets stale in the telling -- the backstory. I'm hoping we have a few more chapters, a few more special races, a few more wins to celebrate!  

12 Nov 2013 8:49 PM

Steve, you are so blessed to be in the company of some of racing's greatest horses, trainers and jockeys. And then we are blessed when we read your amazing articles. You bring these horses and these people right into our lives--and our hearts.

12 Nov 2013 9:10 PM
Paula Higgins

Another great piece Steve!! I really enjoyed the back story to MMM and Kathy's journey. The thing I love about people like Kathy Ritvo and John Shirreffs is that they bond with their horses. You don't see that with many of the other trainers. You can see that it is primarily a business for them and not a love affair. In short,  trainers like Kathy and John have heart and their horses have heart too. There is a great deal of positive energy between horse and trainer. I love that.

12 Nov 2013 9:14 PM

Great article, Steve. I always get a kick out of reading your articles. Thanks for another winner!

12 Nov 2013 11:00 PM
Ron Crookham

Great story! Thanks for taking us on your journey back in time Doc Haskin :)

12 Nov 2013 11:35 PM
Nancy Magoon

Great job putting everything together. Seems like this tale could have begun "Once upon a time..."

13 Nov 2013 6:17 AM
Shelby's Best Pal

What a lovely story.  I hope you realize what a treasure your work is for racing fans.  Thank you.  

13 Nov 2013 6:42 AM

Excellent and contagious to read. Better than any script.

13 Nov 2013 6:49 AM
Tiz Herself

Steve - a day just would not be a great day without reading your blogs... thank you for brightening mine every time! While I am working on a fictional horse racing type book with the hope of it being published one day, I have a LONG time to go yet before am anywhere near close to being in the same league as you.

MMM and Kathy Ritvo deserve all the accolades they deserve. She is an inspiration to all of us. It serves as a reminder to the men in this sport that women also have a place and Kathy hit them over the head with that when MMM captured the Classic.

Even if he does not return for one more year in 2014, I have enjoyed the memories that MMM has given me. You could see him trying to put it all together and he is a monster of a horse...

Thanks Steve again!

13 Nov 2013 8:43 AM
lunar spook

This horse has been a model of consistency , in the money 12 of his last 13 races , WOW ! I had him last year in the classic when he was just beaten by fort larned , this yr I had declaration of war and will take charge in an exacta , guess who cut me out ? the MACHO MAN of course !

13 Nov 2013 9:12 AM
Steve Haskin

Thank you, everyone for your wonderful comments, I really appreciate it. I received a Facebook message from someone who is in the same situation as Kathy and she asked me to pass on her sentiments to her, which I have. I took part of it and added it to the story, right after the graphs on how Kathy has inspired other people. I think you will find it very touching.

13 Nov 2013 9:45 AM
Jackie WV

Thanks for another fantastic and uplifting story Steve!!  One of my very best friends had a heart transplant 8 years ago.  She's a horse lover / owner and has followed MMM and Kathy since the Derby. Mucho's Classic win was very special to her and to me as well!!  I have no doubt that Kathy has inspired a lot of people out there. Thank You Kathy....we love you!!!

13 Nov 2013 10:01 AM
Proud Acres

That race where MMM won by 3" was the best race of this years Breeders Cup.  I felt he had a good chance, he was so beautiful walking through the tunnel. And the story around him is so awesome.  I have been a fan of Gary Stevens for a few years now and am glad he was in the mix. Great story Steve, it was fun meeting you this year near the press box at Breeders Cup.  Yes, you are a great addition to the story!

13 Nov 2013 10:12 AM

The story of Kathy Ritvo and Mucho Macho Man just keeps getting better and better. This woman's courage is so inspiring and so is her compassion for others and her love for horses.

I look forward to seeing MMM race in 2014 (I hope he isn't retired), and watching this big, beautiful horse run and win.

People like Kathy Ritvo are exceptionally good for horse racing and for those who are facing possible life threatening illnesses. God bless them all.

13 Nov 2013 11:51 AM
steve from st louis

Once, just once, do I wish Haskin would publish just an average story. Sorry, a fleeting bout of jealousy.

13 Nov 2013 12:24 PM
Love 'em all

One of my favorite stories by Mr. Haskin has to be MMM's Born to Run story.  What a hoot!  The story of 'Lazarus' was just too funny, and right up there with his fun to read John Henry stories.  For those who have never read the story, just search here at the B-H site ... 'Macho Man Was Born to Run' 4/25/11.

And speaking of John Henry, one must include JH and his patient trainer, Ron McAnally, being one of the perfect pair of racehorse and trainer bonding with one another.  Perhaps one day, MMM and Kathy Ritvo will be voted in the Hall of Fame .... and even better ... at the same time like JH and Mr. McAnally.  

Love your stories, Mr. Haskin.

13 Nov 2013 12:24 PM

In recent years, the film industry in Hollywood has produced such horse racing movies as "Seabiscuit", "Dreamers" and "Secretariat".  I believe this story would make a fine script.  Mr. Haskin--Hollywood is calling!

13 Nov 2013 1:04 PM
Steve Haskin

Genie, have no fear, I've been told when the MMM movie is made I will be one of the writers :)

Steve, thank you. I try my best not to be average :)

Thank you, Love em all, I believe that was one of the first stories ever written about MMM. It was a fun story to do.

13 Nov 2013 2:01 PM

Gee whiz, Steve, this is great, especially the last paragraph. Thank you! I really hope someone does make a movie about Macho and his team.

13 Nov 2013 2:13 PM

And just think...at the movie premiere you and Lenny can do a special edition of "and...They're Off" from the red carpet!   :)

13 Nov 2013 6:11 PM

What a great story. I totally missed the idea that 3 were coming together in this year's Classic, MMM, Ritvo, and Stevens.

The number 3 is a special number:

In this number we have quite a new set of phenomena. We come to the first geometrical figure. Two straight lines cannot possibly enclose any space, or form a plane figure; neither can two plan surfaces form a solid. Three lines are necessary to form a plan figure; and 3 dimensions of length, breadth, and height, are necessary to form a solid. Hence the number is the symbol of the cube -- the simplest form of solid figure. As two is the symbol of the square, or plane contents (x*x), so three is the symbol of the cube, or solid contents (x*x*x).

Three, therefore, stands for that which is solid, real, substantial, complete, and entire. All things that are specially complete are stamped with this number.

God's attributes are: omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence.

There great divisions completing time: past, present, and future.

3 persons, in grammar, express and include all the relationships of mankind.

Thought, word, and deed, complete the sum of human capability.

Three degrees of comparison complete our knowledge of qualities.

The simplest proposition requires three things to complete it; viz., the subject, the predicate, and the copula.

Three propositions are necessary to complete the simplest form of argument: the major premise, the minor, and the conclusion.

3 kingdoms embrace our ideas of matter; mineral, vegetable, and animal.

When we turn to the Scriptures, this completion becomes Divine, and marks Divine completeness or perfection.

If only I had realized that 3 were coming together for the Classic, maybe I would have had more confidence that MMM would win.

And then by 3 inches. Wow!

13 Nov 2013 6:20 PM
Abigail Anderson

This is such an inspirational story and no one better than you to set it to music, Steve. I savoured every word! Thank you.

13 Nov 2013 8:31 PM
Paula Higgins

Kathy Ritvo is a quietly competent/ gifted trainer and a courageous woman. I worked with people waiting for cardiac transplants and post-transplant patients some years ago. It was rough for these people. Their lives after a transplant require a commitment to their health/medication regime etc. that is fairly stringent. You don't decide that you're going to skip your medication if you don't feel like taking it every now and then. The medicines are very important so the pt. doesn't "reject" the transplant. While some heart transplant patients go back to work, most certainly don't do the kind of demanding work she does. She starts her day very early, training horses and then takes care of her family. I am sure they support her in every way they can, but when it comes down to it, she is the mom and all that means. Her commitment to Much Macho Man has been very impressive. She never gave up on him even when he had setbacks. I really believe her own  health issues taught her to be patient and resilient and not to give up on MMM when other trainers might have moved on. She is a very special person and apart from John Shirreffs and Zenyatta, I have never been happier about a win in horse racing.

13 Nov 2013 10:57 PM

Thank you Steve for this wonderful backstory on MMM.  I love this type of background.  I hope more people become fans of horseracing because of it.  It is such an inspirational true life tale.

13 Nov 2013 11:26 PM

Awesome Story, Steve. I adore Mucho Macho Man & his connections. Please consider writing a book about Mucho Macho Man, because in my opinion, he is that good & the story is very inspiring to us all & besides you are the best writer to do so :)

14 Nov 2013 11:22 AM
El Kabong


On a day like today, I come home from work and go to the Bloodhorse first thing. Play some Hugh Masekela and I look at the headlines and to get the good news and bad. Today, I took another shot to the soul hearing about Turallure. Then I progress to your work and read this article and hope is instantly restored. This is a magical industry but you'd never know it if you didn't come here to the Bloodhorse and get all sides and the big picture. That's journalism at it's best. Thanks.

14 Nov 2013 12:15 PM

Steve, thank you for this fabulous story.  Love it and I love MMM and his connections.

14 Nov 2013 2:50 PM
Steve Haskin

Thanks you, El Kabong, that's nice of you to say. And thanks to everyone for your comments. They are always greatly appreciated.

14 Nov 2013 3:01 PM
Linda in Texas

El Kabong - my feelings exactly, just now coming home to read about Turallure.RIP. Then the story about Kathy and Mucho Macho Man.

Hope you don't mind letting me be included on dittoing your comments.

You are the best Steve.

14 Nov 2013 8:10 PM

Gotta love this animal and his connections...ty...

15 Nov 2013 2:19 AM

Beautifully done as always, Steve, thanks.

I was so sad to read the news about Turallure last night.  The first time he walked by me at a track I spun around and said, "who the heck is that?" and enjoyed following his races after that.  What an eye he had, and what a classy, gutsy horse.  I want to do something in his memory.  Do you know if his owners and trainer favor a particular charity?  If not, maybe I'll send some $$ to Old Friends KY in his name.  

15 Nov 2013 2:10 PM

Thanks for another incredible story about Kathy Ritvo and Mucho Macho Man. Kathy Ritvo obtained her trainer's license at the age of 18 at Suffolk Downs.           She came from a family who was involved with horses and her dad was a horse owner. Her brother, Nick, had an untimely death due to a heart problem at the age of 38. Nick's son, Nick Petro Jr., is the exercise rider of Mucho Macho Man.

A retired thoroughbred trainer told me that at Suffolk Downs everyone helps each other with their horses.

Kathy and her husband Tim (a former jockey at Suffolk Downs and trainer at Calder and Gulfstream Park and now president of Gulfstream Park) grew up in that culture.

There has been an amazing confluence of events resulting in Macho winning the Classic in 2013.

Changing the subject, I am sad to hear of the death of Turallure and the two young horses who died at the Breeders Cup. In the case of young horses, I hope that anabolic steroids will stop being given to yearlings prior to the sales ring.

15 Nov 2013 7:32 PM

Steve, keep it up and we're all going to dub you the next Bill Nack!

16 Nov 2013 10:30 PM
George Rowand

Steve, it's a wonderful story, and beautifully told. You're the finest writer of horse stories of your day.

18 Nov 2013 10:58 AM

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