By Bill Dwyre
LOS ANGELES—It is an overcast morning Friday, and a tiny woman sits on a bale of hay outside a distant barn at Santa Anita. In the stall behind her is a giant race horse.
Her name is Kathy Ritvo, his is Mucho Macho Man.
She weighs barely 100 pounds. He stands more than 17 hands and weighs close to 1,200 pounds. They are the Mutt and Jeff of thoroughbred racing.
She is the trainer, he the breadwinner. Each has a story of survival, but hers is more compelling. Plus, she tells hers better. Mr. Ed, he is not.
They are not from here, but are happy to be visiting.
Santa Anita opens its Autumn Meet on Friday, and it is front and center for the next six weeks. Its grand finale will be Breeders’ Cup weekend Nov. 1-2. It was here last year that Mucho Macho Man got to within half a length of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned to finish second.
Mutt and Jeff will help get things rolling in next Saturday’s Awesome Again Grade I Stakes, a $250,000 race that pays the way for its winner to start in the BC Classic. A good performance will keep the two around for this year’s Classic.
During that extended stay, Mucho Macho Man will work at Santa Anita on a surface he seems to love, and, ideally, keep the kind of edge that gave him the fastest five-furlong performance of 58 horses on the track Sept. 13.
Mostly they will wait.
Oh, and she will repeat her story again, as more media arrive for the Breeders’ Cup.
She told it Friday morning, sitting on that bale of hay, holding her 4-month-old puppy in her lap, surrounded by dirt and dust and animals and all sorts of things she should avoid.
Ritvo, you see, is a heart transplant recipient. Infection is her enemy. Her daily existence in a barn atmosphere would not rank high on a doctor’s list of best environments.
Nov. 13 is the fifth anniversary of receiving her new heart and she has yet to experience any signs of rejection.
“I refuse to get it,” she says.
The 31 pills a day she takes contribute to that resolve.
She is a billboard for happiness. She says things such as:
“I don’t have bad days.”
“I wouldn’t have my life any other way.”
“I’m a better person. I appreciate things more. You stay in the moment.”
She lives in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., suburb of Davie and was 39 when she got the transplant in Miami. She had cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the walls around the heart. It had claimed her father’s life and one of her brothers’. She had been failing progressively since 2001, but had done her best to maintain a stable of thoroughbreds, as well as a family with a husband and two teenage children.
Doctors studied her heart after they replaced it and told her she probably wouldn’t have made it more than several weeks longer.
“It was torture,” she says. “I always had hope, but I was always scared, terrified. You have trouble breathing, you lose weight, you lose everything.”
For the six months before her transplant, she was bedridden, mostly in the hospital.
“I did some paintings, and I’m not a painter,” she says. “I did latch hook rugs, watched TV — no medical shows.”
During her months of hospital stay, her husband, Tim, then a trainer and now president of Florida’s Gulfstream Park, slept each night in a chair in her room. When he had business elsewhere, her brother Nick did the same.
In an article in Sports Illustrated, Tim was quoted as saying, “There were times when you put her to bed, and you just weren’t sure she would wake up the next day.”
She says she hated being a burden and often wanted it just to end but hung on. “I did not want my children to be without a mother,” she says.
Ritvo’s story came to light when she saddled Mucho Macho Man for the 2011 Kentucky Derby. He finished third, then completed the Triple Crown pursuit with a sixth at the Preakness and seventh at the Belmont. Now the 5-year-old, campaigned by Dean and Patti Reeves, has $2,440,410 in earnings and has been in the money 17 of his 21 starts.
Mucho Macho Man is 5 years old but not a gelding.
“The Reeves like the racing,” Ritvo says. “Everything they do in racing, they do the right way.”
Ritvo never tires of telling her story. It isn’t ego. It is because it might help the next person with heart disease. At the 2011 Kentucky Derby, where she was the 14th woman in 136 years to saddle a starter, officials allowed the local organ donor organization to have a booth on the grounds. Ritvo visited often, and hopes for the same at Santa Anita.
That might also help her tell the story of another survivor, Mucho Macho Man.
Five months before her transplant, he left the womb and entered the world lifeless. Those attending poked at him, massaged him, shook him, but got no signs of life, not even a heartbeat.
Then, after several minutes, he just got up and galloped away. No feeble first steps. Just off and running.
Same as the woman, post-transplant, who trains him now.