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.