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Trainer's (new) heart and soul are in Kentucky Derby

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Associated Press
May 5, 2011
— No female trainer has ever won the Kentucky Derby. No trainer with a replacement heart has ever won the Derby, either. Kathy Ritvo is trying to do both.

Three years ago, Ritvo watched the Derby in a critical care unit of a Miami hospital, waiting for a donor. Six months later, after being tethered to machines that kept her heart functioning, Ritvo got her donor, and her new heart took over for the old one that was completely worn out.


Ritvo, 41, is at Churchill Downs this week. She trains Mucho Macho Man, a horse with a chance. The colt is not nearly the longshot his trainer was in 2001 when the degenerative heart disease was discovered. She dealt with it, but it was never easy, and it was always going to get worse. And it did, slowly, then quickly.


“I was just surviving every day, just trying to make it to the next day,” Ritvo said.


The transplant has gotten her 2 ½ years and a Derby horse.


When Mucho Macho Man was foaled, they thought he had died. All of a sudden, the horse just got up without warning, so naturally they took to calling him “Lazarus.” This horse has the right trainer.


The colt was second in the Nashua and Remsen Stakes last year, won the Risen Star and was third in the Louisiana Derby this year.


Mucho Macho Man will be the biggest horse in the post parade, standing nearly 17 hands. He is also the youngest, having been born June 15, 2008, while Ritvo was waiting for her new heart.


As she waited, she tried very hard to stay positive.


“I’d just stay optimistic, but it’s hard when you’re so sick, because you just don’t feel like anything’s going right when you’re that sick,” she said.


Now, she is back at the track and only a few days from where every horse trainer wants to be once in his or her life.


“I just have to try to stay healthy without getting a cold or sick or anything and take my medication on time like I do and just do what makes me happy,” Ritvo said.


The track probably is not a place any doctor would recommend for someone after a surgery like a heart transplant. But when she felt well enough, Ritvo was always coming back.


She is from a New England racing family. Her father, Peter Petro, owned horses. Older brother Michael Petro trains horses in the Mid-Atlantic. Another older brother, Nick Petro, is a jockey. Her husband Tim Ritvo, a former trainer, is now a racing executive.


Dean Reeves purchased a 70 percent interest in Mucho Macho Man after his first race. Tim Ritvo trained the colt for two starts. Then, Kathy took over.


Ray Nikodem was part of the original ownership group, Dream Team Stables, and, along with his partners, stayed in for 30 percent. They originally bought the colt for $80,000 as a yearling and then sold 70 percent for $275,000 after his first race.


“We were playing with house money at that point,” Nikodem said.


They inherited Tim and then Kathy as trainers.


“When Kathy came around, we were trying to figure who Kathy was,” Nikodem said.


So, the partners asked their first trainer, Bill White, about Kathy. He told them, with a smile, that they got a “huge trainer upgrade.”


Nikodem did not really know her life story then. He knows it now.


“Then, we started Derby dreaming a little bit thinking if this actually comes to fruition, there are some great back stories attached to this horse,” Nikodem said.


Kathy Ritvo probably should be doing something quite a bit less stressful than training horses, a 24/7 job in which bad news always outweighs good news — unless you have a new heart and every day is a good day, stressful or not.


“It’s definitely kept me more grounded,” Ritvo said. “I appreciate everything. I appreciate every day. And having a really nice horse like this is just great.”


Mucho Macho Man has raced at Calder, Saratoga, Monmouth Park, Aqueduct, Gulfstream Park and Fairgrounds. Now, Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. The colt has finished worse than third only once, and that was a fourth in the Holy Bull Stakes in January.


“He’s a very long horse and he is very tall,” Ritvo said. “He has a huge stride and he likes to stretch his legs.”


But can he beat 19 other three-year-olds going a mile and a quarter? That answer will have to wait until early Saturday evening. Right now, any day remains a good day.


“I just try to take in everything and appreciate every day and all the time I get to spend with (the horse),” Ritvo said. “He’s a really nice horse.”


And the horse’s trainer really appreciates the chance she is getting. And wants everybody to know about organ donation, what it has meant to her and what it could mean to others.


“People really need to think about signing up,” she said. “If I can tell anybody that I’m alive because somebody unselfishly donated their loved one’s organs. And I’m having a great life. I really am. I mean I’m healthy for the first time in a really long time. And it’s just a very unselfish, amazing gift that you can give.”


The Village People gave us their 1978 disco classic “Macho Man.” Now, we have this horse. Mucho Macho Man will be running for his owners, trainer and jockey Rajiv Maragh on Saturday. The colt also will be running for all those players who will be betting all that money. And, when they do run the race, so many more people will know about the gift that gave life to a horse trainer and can give life to so many more.



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