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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Female trainer chases historic Kentucky Derby win

Thursday, May 5, 2011

LOUISVILLE ? They are poised to make history in Saturday's Kentucky Derby: Kathy Ritvo, a heart transplant recipient seeking to become the first woman to train a champion in America's most prestigious horse race, and Mucho Macho Man, the strapping colt she will send to the starting gate at Churchill Downs.

  • Kathy Ritvo towels off Derby hopeful Mucho Macho Man at Churchill Downs on Monday as Jose Martinez holds the horse.

    By Garry Jones, AP

    Kathy Ritvo towels off Derby hopeful Mucho Macho Man at Churchill Downs on Monday as Jose Martinez holds the horse.

By Garry Jones, AP

Kathy Ritvo towels off Derby hopeful Mucho Macho Man at Churchill Downs on Monday as Jose Martinez holds the horse.

They've become sentimental favorites for the Derby's 137th running, but it wasn't long ago that both trainer and horse seemed long shots, at best, to ever be in this position.

Ritvo, 42, received a heart transplant in November 2008 because of cardiomyopathy, a steady weakening of the heart muscle that she believes would have killed her within a few days without the transplant at a Miami hospital.

A few months earlier, the horse Ritvo eventually would train was born in Ocala, Fla. and, for several minutes, showed no signs of life. Then, suddenly, the foal that would become known as Mucho Macho Man sprang to his feet and galloped away, seemingly skipping the awkward dance with balance that nearly all newborn horses experience when standing for the first time.

So together, Ritvo and Mucho Macho Man represent an against-the-odds story line that could reach a crescendo in the Derby (6:24 p.m. ET Saturday, NBC) before a nationwide TV audience and an expected crowd of more than 100,000.

Thirteen other female trainers have had entries in the famed Run for the Roses. Shelley Riley came the closest to winning, when Casual Lies placed second to Lil E. Tee in 1992. Ritvo, who had never trained a horse the caliber of Mucho Macho Man, says she's thankful for the opportunity and the new lease on life that allowed it to happen.

"To wake up every morning, I pinch myself," she says. "I don't take anything for granted, and hopefully we get lucky."

'I was afraid to go to sleep'

If anyone can appreciate every breath, every moment and the chance to live her girlhood dream, it's Ritvo. She recalls being so terrified by her grave illness during a six-month stay at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami before the transplant that she asked for a family member to remain with her through each night.

"I was afraid to go to sleep," she says.

Ritvo had been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy in 2001, and the condition cost her dearly.

Her father died of heart disease, and one of her three brothers, jockey Louis Petro, died from cardiomyopathy in 1996 at age 38, while waiting for a transplant. Ritvo and her husband, Tim, were awaiting their third child when she became debilitated and her heart condition was discovered. The pregnancy was terminated on the advice of doctors, who believed neither mother nor child would have survived the delivery.

Ritvo responded well to medication during the first few years after her diagnosis. But her cardiologist, E. Joseph Bauerlein, warned of storms ahead. She increasingly lacked the energy necessary to function. Her breathing became more and more labored.

Tim, her husband of 21 years, says she was "deadly sick" by the time she was placed on the transplant list. She could not be added sooner because of a nationwide shortage of organs.

Ritvo, who grew up in a racing family and got her trainer's license at Boston's Suffolk Downs when she was 18, watched the 2008 Kentucky Derby without enthusiasm while in the critical care unit at Jackson Memorial.

"It is hard to focus on anything when you are that sick," she says. "I would have bad days and more bad days."

Tim says her legs "blew up like tree stumps," because of fluid retention. Her suffering almost became too much to bear, for her and for him.

"There were times when I thought if she had to pass, she would be better off," Tim says, his voice cracking with emotion. "Now, I can't believe I would think that way."

Visitors helped Ritvo cling to life, she says. Successful transplant patients would discuss their ordeal and how the new organ had given them their lives back. The sight of her two children daughter Dominique, now 18, and son Michael, 17 strengthened her.

"I wanted my kids to have their mother," Ritvo says. "I wasn't finished."

When she was alone, she counted ceiling tiles. Anything to let her know she had made it through another minute, another hour, another day. Anything to keep alive her hope that the right heart might become available.

"It was survival," Ritvo says. "It was every day trying to make it to the end of the day, and waiting for the call.

"I wanted it to go one way or the other. I wanted to get better or stop suffering. I was making everybody else suffer also."

Finally, a match was found. Heart surgeon Si Pham performed a 17-hour transplant on Nov. 13, 2008. Ritvo was released from the hospital seven days later and resumed her training career six months after the operation, despite the concern of her doctors.

"For a transplant patient, there is always risk of rejection," Pham says. "Exposure to the barn environment increases risk. That risk has to be balanced with her having the thing she likes to do."

Ritvo takes 30 pills a day to limit the chances her body will reject her new heart, but says she always was determined to return to horse racing. She's confident that dust and mold will not be a problem.

"It's what I've been doing my whole life," she says. "It's not new to my body."

'Please lift this horse up'

Ritvo's teaming with Mucho Macho Man began after horse owner Dean Reeves purchased a 70% interest in the colt after he placed second in his debut race last July at Miami's Calder Race Course. Reeves hired Tim Ritvo as the colt's trainer.

When Tim accepted an executive position at Florida's Gulfstream Park several months later, Reeves needed a new trainer. He opted to stay in the Ritvo family, with Kathy.

"There were people out there who said, 'Dean, you can get a big-name trainer for this horse.' I had no second thoughts whatsoever. She's just done a fabulous job," Reeves says.

Mucho Macho Man, an impressive winner of the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans on Feb. 19, proved his mettle when he lost a shoe at the start of the 1-mile Louisiana Derby on March 26. He still finished third, behind Kentucky Derby entrants Pants On Fire and Nehro, in his final tuneup for the opening leg of the Triple Crown.

The bay colt, who is exceptionally tall at 17 hands and towers above his trainer, has cracked the top three in seven of eight lifetime starts and has earned $410,643.

Breeder Carol Rio delights in how far Mucho Macho Man has come since he lay motionless for several anguished minutes at the side of his dam, Ponche de Leona, after his birth on June 15, 2008.

"We just prayed to God, 'Please lift this horse up,'" she recalls. "He just stood up and ran, and he didn't run three or four steps. He literally galloped off."

Foals typically struggle to keep their feet, then walk a few unsteady steps while the dam hovers over them.

Whether Mucho Macho Man earns a place in history in what looms as a wide-open, 20-horse contest here Saturday depends largely on Ritvo. Trainers play critical roles leading up to the Derby, because a combination of solid morning gallops and sharp workouts must be designed to bring out the best performance of a young horse's life on the first Saturday in May.

Finding the right balance is critical. Push a still-maturing horse too hard, and he can be lost to injury. Ask him for too little, and he may not be sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of a 1-mile journey that's longer than any race he has run previously.

Michael is convinced his mother and the horse of their dreams will get it right.

"It's not an 'if.' It's a 'when,'" he says. "She fought all the odds. She's definitely going to beat the odds again. This is the story that is meant to be."

Another female trainer, Linda Rice, made a major breakthrough when she won the training title during the prestigious summer meet at Saratoga in New York in 2009. Even so, she describes training as an "old-school profession" and recalls her father Clyde's unhappiness when she told him she wanted to follow in his footsteps.

"It would be easier if you were one of my (three) sons," he told her.

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas believes some female counterparts may have fallen short because they are reluctant to put enough pressure on their horses.

"You are not going to the junior prom. You are going to war," says Lukas, who has trained four Kentucky Derby champions. Some female trainers "may get a little soft, and that will jump up and bite them."

He says of Mucho Macho Man, "I've been watching that horse, and I think he is very legitimate. It wouldn't surprise me to see him win the whole thing."

Rice notes that female trainers are vastly outnumbered by men. She believes female trainers have had few horses good enough to compete in the Kentucky Derby since No Sir ran 13th in 1937 for Mary Hirsch, the first female trainer to have a horse in the race.

Lukas believes inroads are being made, by trainers and jockeys. Evidence of that might be that Kathleen O'Connell, who conditions Tampa Bay Derby victor Watch Me Go, also is part of the Kentucky Derby field.

Also Saturday, Rosie Napravnik will try to become the first female jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. She'll ride Louisiana Derby winner Pants On Fire. Napravnik will be the sixth woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby.

"I have 100% confidence in my training," Ritvo says. "I try to pay attention to the details and the signals the horses are giving me. They tell you what they need, and you have to take your cues from them."

She says she draws confidence from her horse, who leaves Barn 41 to gaze every morning at Churchill Downs' twin spires. She is convinced that his ability to sit off the pace and his long, seemingly effortless strides will serve him well during the stretch run of what's widely known as "the most exciting two minutes in sports."

Less than three years after she stared down death, Ritvo can envision a triumph that once seemed impossible.

"I think," she says, "it's going to be great."

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