Kentucky Derby

3 years after heart transplant, trainer Kathy Ritvo is headed to the Derby

Trainer Kathy Ritvo watched as Mucho Macho Man shook off the water from his bath at Churchill Downs on Saturday. The colt came to Ritvo and her husband, Tim, last year and and won the Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on Feb. 19.
Trainer Kathy Ritvo watched as Mucho Macho Man shook off the water from his bath at Churchill Downs on Saturday. The colt came to Ritvo and her husband, Tim, last year and and won the Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on Feb. 19. Garry Jones

It peeks out from just above the top of Kathy Ritvo's shirt, beginning in the upper part of her sternum and running about 4 or 5 inches down from there.

"Look, it doesn't look bad at all," Ritvo says, holding her green jacket apart to provide a better view of the raised track of skin on her chest. "It doesn't go far at all. It's a battle scar, and I am (proud of it)."

As well she should be. It is because of that scar that Ritvo gets to raise her two children — Michael, 17, and Dominique, 18. And it is because of that scar that the 41-year-old trainer gets to debate with her husband, Tim, vice president of racing for MI Developments, about where to run her horses.

That scar and the resolute spirit underneath is allowing Ritvo to not only live her life, but also live her dream.

This Saturday, Ritvo will lead Mucho Macho Man into the Churchill Downs paddock for his expected start in the Kentucky Derby, a journey that seemed unfathomable about three years ago.

But even if the son of Macho Uno makes Ritvo the first female trainer to condition a Derby winner, the date May 7, 2011, probably won't supplant Nov. 13, 2008, as the best day of Ritvo's life.

That day, while watching the television show Clean House, Ritvo received word that her seven-year battle with cardiomyopathy — the same degenerative heart disease that claimed her brother Louis at age 38 — was on the verge of a miracle conclusion.

The transplant team at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Florida called Ritvo to tell her they had a donor heart for her; would she like to accept it?

She had spent years with fatigue so bad she could sometimes barely lift her head, and her husband had wondered many nights whether he had put her to bed for the last time. So Ritvo's answer to that question didn't require much debate.

"We got the kids upstairs and prayed, and we told them what was going on," Ritvo said. "And then Tim and I left. I don't even think I packed a bag because I said 'I won't be there that long.' "

About 17 hours of surgery later, Ritvo had a healthy heart inside her for the first time in years. She left the hospital in just seven days and, as she found herself steadily able to resume the everyday activities previously robbed of her, she set her sights on getting back into the sport that had won her heart decades earlier.

"I saw her at her lowest point when she was close to death," Tim Ritvo said. "And now she's going to be doing something that she's dreamed of her whole life. It's just been a moving experience."

A man's world

Being around Thoroughbreds was as routine as schoolwork for Ritvo growing up. Her father, Peter Petro, owned horses, and her three brothers, Michael, Nick and Louis, all carved out careers either training or riding.

Ritvo was equally enthralled with the beautiful animals, but Peter Petro wasn't so keen on his wide-eyed daughter delving into what can be an unforgiving industry.

"He wanted the boys to go, but he didn't want me to go. He was always like, 'Well you can stay home,' and I'd tell him I needed to go to the barn so I could see the cats or something," Ritvo recalled. "I just loved the horses, and I love developing a horse.

"I have a hard head, so (my family) knew I was going to do what I want."

By 1990, Ritvo had the trainer's license she wanted, as well as a new husband and partner in Tim, a trainer and former jockey.

The duo made a niche for themselves on the Florida circuit as they combined to condition several stakes winners. But by 2000, the nagging malaise that had plagued Kathy Ritvo for years began to show itself as the life-altering ailment it was.

"We went into the hospital because we were having our third child, and she was just fatigued, coughing, and she couldn't take it anymore," Tim Ritvo said. "That started the ball rolling on that day but, at first, they just thought she had the flu, or this and that. They kept looking at her, and she kept getting worse so, of course, the doctors went further along and discovered the heart murmur.

"Everything just kind of went downhill from there."

Kathy Ritvo ended up losing the couple's third child, sadly just the start of what the disease would take from her.

As her heart continued to deteriorate, Ritvo was forced to all but give up her trainer's hat. From 1999 through 2008, she had just 101 starters listed in her name. In the months before she got her transplant, Ritvo was hooked to IV medication to keep her heart beating — unable to watch her own children, much less get out to the barns.

"My kids ... they didn't know if they were going to see me in the morning alive sometimes," Ritvo said. "There were a lot of times I did say, why me, and there were a lot of times I did break down. But you know, once you get through that and get yourself together, you have to keep going forward. It was not my time to go, and I did not want to go."

She also did not want to let go of the innate horsewoman inside her.

Right back at it

In the weeks after her heart transplant, Ritvo began feeling truly healthy for the first time that she could remember.

"I tried right away to get myself back," she said. "Everyone was watching me saying, 'Don't pick up this, don't do that.' But I tried to do a little bit more every day."

One thing about Ritvo that was not dulled by her ordeal was her self-professed, hard-headed nature. If she was healthy enough to resume her day-to-day life and the exertions that come with it, there was no reason in her mind that she couldn't pick up her stable where she left off.

Six months after her transplant, Ritvo made the decision to resume training horses and ended up taking over the couple's stable full-time last October, when her husband moved into his management role at MI Developments, owner of Gulfstream Park in South Florida.

Among the horses in the couple's care was a gangly 2-year-old named Mucho Macho Man. He had joined the barn when owners Dean and Patti Reeves purchased a 70 percent interest in the colt from Dream Team One Racing after he finished second to eventual graded-stakes winner Gourmet Dinner in his first career start last July.

Despite his June 15 birth date, Mucho Macho Man wasn't behind the curve when it came to his ability. With Ritvo's nurturing hand guiding him through his bouts of immaturity, the bay colt broke his maiden on his third time out at Monmouth Park in New Jersey last September. He closed out his juvenile campaign with a pair of runner-up finishes in the Grade II Nashua and Remsen stakes races.

"Tim had originally called me to buy Gourmet Dinner, and ... I said, 'Call me crazy, but I like the second-place horse,' " said Dean Reeves, who bought his first racehorse four years ago and first came to the Ritvos after former jockey Jerry Bailey recommended them. "So we ended up buying Mucho Macho Man and ... we just think we're part of God's plan here to bring a horse like this into our lives and with what Kathy has gone through."

"I noticed early on what I was getting with Tim and Kathy was two great trainers," Reeves continued. "When Tim decided to take that position, I never thought twice about letting Kathy continue on, and we kid now that I might have got the better trainer as a result."

Mucho Macho Man finished fourth in his 3-year-old debut in the Grade III Holy Bull Stakes. But the light bulbs came on for him when he recorded a 11/2-length victory in the Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on Feb. 19.

He lost his right-front shoe in the Grade II Louisiana Derby a month later, contributing to a disappointing third-place finish. Though the colt will have to overcome a six-week layoff to win the Kentucky Derby, Ritvo said his fitness is the least of her worries. That was clear Saturday after a 5-furlong breeze in 1:00.40 at Churchill Downs.

"You have to let him do the work that he wants to do. If you restrain him, it doesn't work for him," Ritvo said. "He needs to work as much or as little as he wants, and we can't train him hard enough."

'This is just a bonus'

Aside from the occasional cold, Ritvo really is the picture of health these days even as she digests daily reminders of how fragile she once was.

"I take 30 pills every day. At 7:30 in the morning, 7:30 at night, I take my rejection medication and then 15 vitamins at lunch time," she said. "It's pretty easy, actually. It doesn't bother me at all."

Dramatic stretch-runs not withstanding, Ritvo doesn't let much get her too riled up. After spending years fighting to hold on to her life, it has become easy to identify which stressors are worth it.

So as much as Ritvo is bracing herself for the wave of emotion that is barreling her way this Saturday, the success of the day for her and her family isn't entirely dependent on the results.

"I don't want to downplay the Derby at all. For what we have done our whole life, it is the most thrilling race you could win in America," Tim Ritvo said. "But there is no comparison to being healthy, so this is just a bonus. It's hard to put them in the same perspective.

"Kathy's a winner regardless of how the horse runs. One thing we hope everyone gets out of this whole thing is that everybody who is really sick and thinks there is no chance — she was there. Good things can happen."

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