Mucho Macho Man and trainer are both true life/death survivors

If you are writing horse stories for nine-year-olds, you place in your first paragraph that thoroughbred trainer Kathy Ritvo and her pupil Mucho Macho Man were meant to be together.

If you were commissioned to write articles about thoroughbreds and trainers for BloodHorse or the Daily Racing Form, you would inform the reader in your first paragraph that trainer Kathy Ritvo and thoroughbred Mucho Macho Man were meant to be a race track team.

Now aged four, Mucho Macho Man drew the nickname “Lazarus” from the stable hands and other staff at Rose Grove Farm in Ocala, Fla.

Mucho Macho Man dueled with Ft. Larned in a competitive stretch run in this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus. When Mucho Macho Man hit the ground, it appeared to all assembled workers and breeder Carole Rio that he was stillborn. There was no movement, no breathing. But Rio somehow coaxed him to life and had him standing within hours of his birth.

Trainer Ritvo was near death in 2008. She was mostly bedridden and her heart was quitting.

Her nights were the worst. Her husband and children took turns rubbing her back. Her limbs ached and standing upright put her in misery.

Ritvo had been coughing for a year and a half. Saying more than a dozen words at a time wore her out.

Without a heart transplant, her time was short. Summoning energy to carry on became a chore for her will to live. Death was close. Too close.

Ritvo underwent heart transplant surgery. The operation was successful. After a nominal period of convalescence, Ritvo was given the go-ahead to resume he training career. She was 41. And she finally had the physical means to actively pursue her career as a thoroughbred trainer.

“I just have a really deep sense that Mucho Macho Man was meant for Kathy Ritvo,” said Carole Rio.

By that time, the still-growing bay was owned by Dream Team One and Patti Reeves.

The horse was far from a calm and mature example of ready-to-go thoroughbred. He was gangly, and none-too-coordinated. If he ever became a serious challenger in the world of graded stakes races it would be in years past when he was a two-year-old.

The long-limbed bay colt grew to reach over 17 hands. None of his competition was as large. But many of them were already nearing maturity. And they could beat Mucho Macho Man.

In the early winter months of 2011, Ritvo had progressed him enough to see a future with the quickly maturing brown getting the winnings to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.

Even though he had no Grade I wins, the earnings were measured in stacks of bills high enough to get into the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field.

Mucho Macho Man was a mouthful to get out. By now, he was a handful to handle on the track.

Once just a skinny neophyte that hadn’t raced enough to know what was expected of him — much less how to win — he had matured to where the brilliant shine of his coat was mere window dressing to his huge 17 hands, three-inch frame that was held in place by a muscular back and hind quarters.

The Ritvo-trained 17 hands-tall bay combination finished third in the Kentucky Derby.

It was some time before Ritvo concluded that Mucho Macho Man required six to 10 weeks between races. She could calculate that opinion after he was sixth in the Preakness and seventh in the Belmont Stakes.

This year as a four-year-old, wins have come to the tall bay as he has grown into his frame.

In February, he won the Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park over other Florida-bred horses. After the proper amount of freshening time, he won the Gulfstream Park Handicap. Again, there was time away to rest. The next test came in the Suburban Handicap. And Mucho Macho Man passed that exam with flying colors — winning by 2 1/2 lengths.

“This is what we’ve been working for,” Ritvo said. “and hopefully, we can make it happen for him.

“My hands were shaking when I saw how easily he was running and how much horse (jockey) Mike Smith had. It’s great seeing him put together so many good races in a row. I have to pinch myself,” she told tales on herself.

He had won four of his last five races. Although he had never won a Grade I race, Ritvo had confidence he could compete well — and possibly even win — the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Before trying the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Mucho Macho Man had been in 15 races and won six times. His earnings had passed $1 million.

In the $5 million “Classic”, contested early this month, Game On Dude was the betting favorite and Flat Out was also watched by the large turnout at Santa Anita Park.

But the 10-furlong “Classic” revolved into a two-horse struggle between Mucho Macho Man and Ft. Larned. The front-running Ft. Larned went to the lead and eased into a comfortable pace with trainer Ritvo’s long-striding bay just off him.

As the two leaders swung into the stretch, Mucho Macho Man reached Ft. Larned and was only a half-length behind. Those two covered the last 400 yards separated by no more than three feet. At the finish line, Ft. Larned had a courageous win by a short neck.

It had been one of the most thrilling “Classics” ever run.

Like Ritvo had planned before, Mucho Macho Man will be given generous time away before being asked to race again.

A win in a Grade I race has yet to come. Neither trainer Ritvo or Mucho Macho Man has yet to taste the delicious fruit of a Grade I win.

But they both have liked the taste of life after both nearly died before ever getting to experience all sides and all the emotions of thoroughbred racing.

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