Every Kentucky Derby trainer feels fortunate to be a part of America's most storied horse race. But for heart transplant survivor Kathy Ritvo, just being alive is the greatest gift.
Ritvo, a heart transplant survivor, will try to become with first female trainer to win the Derby in the 137-year history of the 1 1/4-mile classic with Mucho Macho Man.
Ritvo, 41, suffered for 10 years from cardiomyopathy, a disease that deteriorates the heart muscles, and endured 17 hours of surgery receiving a new heart in November 2008. She was thrilled to get a new lease on life following the transplant.
"This is all a blessing," Ritvo explains.
The disease claimed the life of her brother at 38 and exacted a severe toll upon not only herself, but her family and friends. Doctors told her that she wouldn't have lived much longer without the surgery.
Ritvo, who started training horses at 18, comes from a thoroughbred racing family and was anxious to get back to what she loves following her second chance. Married to trainer Tim Ritvo, the mother of two was helping tend to her husband's string of horses within six months of receiving a new heart.
"As quick as they would let, as quick as my husband and my mother would let me back to the track, I was ready," Ritvo said of her rapid return.
"He's doing really well and we're excited to be in this position," Ritvo said.
Mucho Macho Man was transferred to Tim's stable following his career debut, a runner-up effort at Calder Race Course last July, and captured his first race two starts later, winning easily at Monmouth Park in mid-September.
Tim accepted a new job in October as vice president of racing for the East Coast for MI Developments, a racetrack conglomerate that owns Gulfstream Park, and surrendered his training duties. That left Kathy in charge of the horses.
Ritvo then made the wise decision to send Mucho Macho Man to Fair Grounds for his next two starts, a breakthrough victory in the February 19 Risen Star Stakes (G2) and a gutsy third in the March 26 Louisiana Derby (G2). In the latter, he lost a piece of his foot when ripping one of his shoes off at the start but never stopped trying despite the discomfort, finishing less than one length behind the winner.
The foot quickly recovered and Mucho Macho Man hasn't missed a beat in his preparations for the Kentucky Derby.
"Those races were the best path for him," Ritvo noted. "He's really been doing great in his training (since the Louisiana Derby)."
Mucho Macho Man got his first taste for the Churchill Downs track when working seven-eighths of a mile over a sloppy track on Sunday, April 24. In an era when many trainers work their horses shorter distances, this was more old-style training tactics from Ritvo.
"He got over the track very well and came back in great shape," Ritvo said. "Everything is moving forward."
"He's still maturing and we're hoping for a career-best in the Derby," Ritvo said.
Mucho Macho Man's positive attributes probably won't be lost on bettors, and he provides Ritvo with a serious chance to win the Roses.
While Ritvo is trying to become the Derby's first winning female trainer, there have been near-misses, with Shelley Riley finishing second with Casual Lies in 1992 and Kristin Mulhall third with Imperialism in 2004.
While Mucho Macho Man would touch the hearts of many worldwide with an historic Derby victory, Ritvo is already a winner in more ways than one.