It wasn’t over the course of the mile and a quarter Kentucky Derby (gr. I) that Mucho Macho Man went from being a big gangly kid to a man. It wasn’t over the last half-mile of the race or even the last quarter.
It was only in the last 100 yards that the proverbial light bulb went on and Mucho Macho indeed became a man. Let’s not forget, this leggy, long-striding colt will not even turn 3 until June 15, four days after the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).
So what happened in those final 100 yards of America’s most grueling race? Turning for home, Mucho Macho Man still hadn’t figured it 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.
When a horse can find another burst at the end of a mile and quarter race, especially the Kentucky Derby, it has to be an encouraging sign. This colt has tremendous lung capacity and never seems to get tired. Now we’ll find out if that wake-up move at the end of the Derby can propel him even farther in the Preakness (gr. I) and Belmont Stakes.
With nine starts at seven different distances from six furlongs to 1 1/4 miles and competing at seven different racetracks in five states, there is no doubt Mucho Macho Man is a throwback and should be appreciated for what he’s been able to accomplish at such a young age. The fact is, he is from two to five months younger than the horses he’s been competing against, yet has raced more times than any of them with the exception of former claimer and huge longshot Isn’t He Perfect, who has yet to race outside of New York State.
Not only is he a throwback, so is his trainer, Kathy Ritvo, who treats him as such, which is why she scheduled a half-mile work for him at Belmont Park Tuesday morning and never once gave it a second thought even as torrential rains all that morning turned the training track into a sloppy mess and caused flooding throughout the backstretch.
“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 couldn’t help but be amazed at the magical journey she has been on since her heart transplant in 2008. Here she was with a horse, who like her, virtually came back from the dead after being lifeless at birth, only to jump to his feet and dash around the field as his stunned breeders 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? I never even knew until a few months ago that they thought he was dead at birth. I wish I had.”
It is apparent that some horses and humans are 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.
Ritvo also is 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 has been most special for Ritvo are the number of people awaiting a heart transplant that have 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 had some of his best days since he talked to me and then 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.”
If there is one image of how far Ritvo has 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 off on this horse. I like the aggression he’s showing now. Its’ definitely a positive sign the way he worked today. It made me feel good. While the slop may hurt some of the others (in the Preakness), I’m sure it wont hurt him.. He doesn’t seem any different on a fast track or sloppy track. Some horses would be looking at all the puddles, but he just glides right over it. And there was a lot of water on the track.”
Ritvo now is ready for the second leg of the Triple Crown, and will be vanning Mucho Macho Man down to Pimlico on Wednesday. “It’s raining down there and it’s raining up here, so there isn’t much difference,” she said.
She is proud of the way she has handled Mucho Macho Man to get him to where he is now.
“Last year we gave him so much time between races just for this reason, so we can run in all three Triple Crown races,” she said. “People say, ‘Oh, you should skip the Preakness.’ How can you skip it when the horse is doing so good? I know Animal Kingdom ran a great race in the Derby, but Macho is going to get better coming off the Derby. I think we mapped out a really smart plan for him; I don’t think we made any mistakes as far as his racing and training. He’s all I can ask him to be. He’s going to win his share of races. 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.
“He always wants to play and he’ll bite, but he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. He has a special shank we made just for him, with nylon on one side so he can’t break it.”
So, this incredible journey continues. No matter where it goes from here it has already earned its place in the heart and in Triple Crown lore.
Right now, Ritvo’s visions are of the famed Woodlawn Vase.
“You and me,” Maragh said to her. “We’ll have our picture taken with it.”
Who knows, that picture may even find its way into her office one day.