After saddling Mucho Macho Man for a thrilling victory by a nose over a late-charging Will Take Charge in Saturday's $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita, trainer Kathy Ritvo can finally face the disappointment of his close second-place finish behind Fort Larned in last year's Classic at the Arcadia, California, track.
"Now that he won, I can re-watch last year. I haven't watched it in almost a year. I watch it up to the quarter-pole, then I have to start the race over again," Ritvo said. "Again, I was really happy with his effort last year, but this year was great for him to come back and win. To have a second and a win in the Breeders' Cup, it shows it was no fluke. He's a good horse."
Ritvo, who received a second chance at life by receiving a heart transplant five years ago, became the first female trainer to saddle the winner of the Classic in the 30-year history of the Breeders' Cup World Championships.
"How about that? I hope I'm the first of many. With the heart transplant and having a second chance, it's an amazing thing," said the 44-year-old mother of two, who trains the five-year-old Mucho Macho Man for Dean and Patti Reeves of Atlanta. "Selfless people donated their loved one's organs to give me a second chance, and to be in this place, it's hard to come up with words."
Ritvo has been swamped with phone calls and text messages since Mucho Macho Man made a sweeping move to the lead under Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens on the turn into the homestretch and holding gamely in the closing yards to just prevail over D. Wayne Lukas-trained Will Take Charge.
"The calls have been unbelievable," she said. "We're very grateful to be here. I'm very blessed to be here. I wouldn't be here without my donor family. Without my family, I wouldn't be here. Without Finn (Green) managing the horse, I wouldn't be here. Without my team -- Nicky (Petro) galloping the horse every day and my assistants and all my help, I wouldn't be here. It's been a team effort."
Mucho Macho Man, who spent the morning grazing on a patch of grass outside Barn 126, finished the 2013 campaign with a flourish at Santa Anita, capturing the Awesome Again on September 28 and the Classic to become a last-minute candidate for the older male championship and Horse of the Year title. The Florida-bred veteran's season had been compromised by a virus and a quarter crack before returning to top form, but Green revealed that the son of Macho Uno has been hampered by other health issues throughout his career.
"All of those issues were on top of something that we hadn't talked about. He came out of the (2011) Belmont Stakes with a wind issue. We addressed it, took care of it," said Green, who revealed that Mucho Macho Man had undergone a surgical procedure to correct the wind problem. "The horse is an unbelievable horse. He's had more problems than people have known about."
Through it all, Ritvo and Green were convinced that Mucho Macho Man would return to his old self on the track this year.
"We had no doubts. We had faith in the horse. He was showing us all the right signs that he wanted to continue training," said Ritvo, whose Classic winner is scheduled to ship to Gulfstream Park Tuesday night.
Now that Mucho Macho Man is happy and healthy again, there's a possibility he could stay in training next year, depending on "economic factors."
"If he stays racing sound and fit and he's going to be better off on the track than on the farm, he could stay in training," said Green, noting that he and the Reeves have had conversations with farms for the past year and a half.
Should Mucho Macho Man stay in training, the $10 million Dubai World Cup in late March next year would be an option due to Ritvo's discovery that the long-striding horse had a distinct affinity for the Tapeta footing during his stay at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland.
Mucho Macho Man's triumph also capped a memorable Breeders' Cup for Stevens, who returned from a seven-year retirement this year and rode the winners of both the Classic and Friday's Distaff (Beholder).
"I didn't know how I'd be received after seven years of retirement. The way I've been received by people from the past and people I've never ridden before, like Kathy Ritvo with Mucho Macho Man, it's been an unbelievable year," Stevens said. "It's humbling."
Fort Larned, whom Mucho Macho Man denied a second straight win in the Classic, came out of his fourth-place finish Saturday in good order and was scheduled to return to Kentucky on a Sunday afternoon flight, according to trainer Ian Wilkes.
"There was a lot more pressure on the front end this year than last; they never left us alone," Wilkes said. "But he ran his 'A' race and tried hard. Hats off to Mucho Macho Man and Kathy who did a tremendous job with that horse."
Fort Larned has been retired from racing and Wilkes said the five-year-old may go to Adena Springs near Paris, Kentucky, as early as Monday.