Every day at track a joy for Ritvo
Cliché perhaps, but trainer Kathy Ritvo, whose horse Mucho Macho Man will race this Saturday at the Belmont Stakes, has a heart that beats for the sport of horse racing. But the truth is, it just isn’t her own heart.
On May 3, 2008, Ritvo was watching the Kentucky Derby from a hospital room. It was dangerous stuff for Ritvo to tune into the broadcast. Just watching the “the fastest two minutes in sports” could have created issues with her heart.
Ritvo, a well-respected trainer, was an always energetic and on-the-go woman until heart disease landed her in a hospital bed.
Ritvo’s cardiologist at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Fla. strolled in for a routine check on her and was curious as to why this woman seemed transfixed by the broadcast of the first leg of the Triple Crown. Ritvo was succinct in her response.
“Doc, that’s what I do,” she said. “I train horses.”
Doctor and patient spent the next few minutes peering at the television as they watched Big Brown bound his way to the bed of roses before the second largest crowd in Derby history.
It was there, in that hospital bed, that Ritvo was uncertain whether she would live to see another Kentucky Derby, let alone go back to training horses. Diagnosed in 2000 with dilated cardiomyopathy, Ritvo’s heart was having great difficulty in pumping blood and delivering it to the rest of her body. As days and weeks turned into months, she noticed changes to her energy levels.
Concerns began to mount as Ritvo recalled losing her brother to the hereditary disease just several years before her own diagnosis.
“My body was failing. I was exhausted all the time, no matter what I was doing, I was just always tired, couldn’t shake it,” Ritvo said. “No energy and I was having a hard time breathing. Couldn’t concentrate at all on anything.”
Placed on a waiting list for a heart transplant in the spring of 2008, Ritvo waited half a year to get the phone call that could give her a new lease on life. On the night of Nov. 12 that year while watching television, the phone rang with the call from the cardiovascular center at Jackson Memorial, asking Ritvo if she wanted to take advantage of a heart transplant opportunity.
Along with husband Tim, Ritvo checked into the hospital after midnight for a surgery that was scheduled just seven hours later. She doesn’t recall how long the procedure lasted — “Ask my husband, I had the easy part as I was passed out,” — but she does remember the feeling of her breathing tube being removed the next day.
“They took it out and I just remember feeling great,” Ritvo said. “Everything felt right, it felt good. It was like I was finally back to being the way I was supposed to be."
Heart disease and cardiomyopathy carries risks and, like in the case of Ritvo’s brother, can be a deadly disease. She takes 30 pills daily — or 31 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday of each week when she needs to take her antibiotic to fight any bacteria from the transplant — but life is relatively “normal.” That’s saying something in a sport and business that is anything but normal.
While she looks the part of the woman who is your next door neighbor or someone you might bump into at Starbucks, Ritvo is in fact one of the most respected and sought after trainers in the sport. She’s notorious for her work ethic and it is not uncommon to see her in the barn with the horses hours before daylight breaks. Horse racing is as dirty, dusty, grueling and heart-wrenching as it comes with a trainer’s job being taxing and unforgiving.
It’s a tall order for a person with normal health let alone a heart transplant recipient, but Ritvo really knows nothing else.
“I didn’t tell the doctors originally what I do for a living for a little while as I wasn’t sure how’d they respond," Ritvo said. "I figured it is what I’ve been doing my whole life and my body knows it and knows how to respond to it. As long as my body can tolerate it, I will continue to do it and I have no reason to believe that I will stop anytime soon. Once you’ve waited six months for a new heart, there really isn’t a thing such as stress anymore.”
With her first goal of walking out the door of the hospital achieved, Ritvo returned to the track six months later, working with her husband. Bit by bit, she took on her old responsibilities again. Eventually, she and her husband Tim felt so confident in her abilities and strength that when he left for a position in management at a track, she took over the training responsibilities for him.
“I can tell you that she has more energy and enthusiasm then anyone I know," said Jim Culver of Dream Team Racing, which along with Reeves Thoroughbred owns Mucho Macho Man. "She brings a unique maternal prospective to her training of Mucho Macho Man in that she treats him as if he were her child.
"She is very blessed to be alive, and she lives her life one day at a time doing what she loves most: training horses."
And now on Saturday at the 143rd running of the Belmont Stakes, Ritvo will be in the grandstand to watch that “child” compete in one of horse racing’s grandest spectacles. The fact that the 3-year-old colt was tipped by Barry Irwin, the owner of Animal Kingdom and the winner of the Kentucky Derby, as “the horse to beat” only underscores Ritvo’s commitment to the sport.
Mucho Macho Man finished a good third in the Kentucky Derby but couldn't match Animal Kingdom's charge. Mucho Macho Man then lost a front shoe in the Preakness and finished a non-threatening sixth. He will be one of only three horses this year, along with Animal Kingdom and Preakness winner Shackleford, to compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown.
Ritvo has been there for every step on the Triple Crown trail.
In a sport where for two minutes, the whole earth seems to stand silent as the rhythmic charge of hooves hitting dirt seems to echo, those moments this Saturday afternoon mean a lot to Ritvo. For her, each heart-beating moment, each pulse racing turn, is the very breath of life.
“To be here right now, after the past few years, it is fantastic,” Ritvo said. “There’s nowhere I’d rather be.”