Last Updated: 10:06 AM, May 4, 2011
Posted: 12:19 AM, May 4, 2011
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A woman with a heart transplant is the trainer for a horse nicknamed Lazarus -- because he "rose from the dead" -- who is a leading contender to win Saturday's Kentucky Derby.
Talk about drama and destiny. This is a team to watch. They may have something more than luck going for them -- like heavenly blessings.
The horse is Mucho Macho Man, a monster of a colt whose racing history suggests he is going to be right there at the finish.
The trainer is 42-year-old Kathy Ritvo, a petite blonde with a personal history even more riveting than the horse's. Eleven years ago, the mother of two was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, a degenerative heart disease that claimed her brother Louis at age 38.
Saturday, in her first start in the Derby, she could become the first female trainer to win the run for the roses. But even that groundbreaking win would be secondary to what she has already overcome. "She is as strong as anyone I know," said her husband, Tim, an executive at Gulfstream Park racetrack.
In 2000, after years of nagging fatigue, her heart condition was diagnosed. The fatigue became so persistent that Ritvo, a licensed trainer since 1990, had to virtually give up her passion. From 1999 through 2008, she had just 101 starts.
She spent years in and out of hospitals, wired to machines, swallowing barrels of medication, never knowing each night whether she would wake up the next day.
Then, three years ago, came the miracle. In November 2008, she received a heart transplant in a 17-hour operation at Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital, giving her a second lease on life. Now here she is, training a terrific horse with a shot to win the Kentucky Derby.
In the rain and gloom of a foul morning at Churchill Downs yesterday, Ritvo was all smiles and joy.
"I appreciate every day of my life," she said. "I am alive because someone donated their heart, the most amazing unselfish gift anyone can give.
"I am honored to be here at Churchill, I'm excited to be here. Everything is perfect.''
The same might be said for Mucho Macho Man. When he was foaled at a farm near Ocala, Fla., the attendant called breeder Carole Rio and cried, "I think he's dead. He just doesn't look alive."
When Rio got there, she found him lifeless.
"I couldn't see any breathing," she said. "I started rubbing him and finally, I just stopped and we all stood around and prayed together.
"Just then, the sucker jumped up and started running. It was so bizarre."
At that moment, they nicknamed the foal Lazarus, later to be called Mucho Macho Man.
And he's been running ever since. In eight starts, he has been off the board only once, when he was obliterated at the start. He has run in graded stakes in his last five starts, picking up a check every time and earning nearly half a million dollars.
Few horses in the Derby have a better foundation to run the mile and a quarter than MMM with five races as a 2-year-old and three as a 3-year-old. He springs from the line of that fine sire Holy Bull, who sired the 2005 Derby winner Giacomo.
The only knock against MMM is that he has not broken any stopwatches in his races, but then none of his rivals have, either. He won the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds, then was beaten less than a length in the Louisiana Derby when he lost a shoe. Rajiv Maragh will ride him again Saturday.
Ritvo does not know who gave her a new heart. But she said her prognosis is good. Aside from swallowing 30 pills a day, she is the picture of health.
When Mucho Macho Man goes into the starting gate on Saturday she expects to have one special guest -- Joseph Bauerlein, her cardiologist.