Places in the Heart

This is the first in a series of columns about my favorite stories that I believe would make great movies. They are based on my 25 years of covering the major races for the Thoroughbred Times, Daily Racing Form, and Blood Horse. Rather than focusing on the race recap format I will tell the stories behind the story as if pitching them as a movie script and focusing on the human and equine spirit that made racing movies so popular from the 1930s to 1950s. This first column is about the inspiring story of Kathy Ritvo and Mucho Macho Man. ~ Steve Haskin

Places in the Heart

By Steve Haskin


The movie opens in 2008 in a hospital room in Miami, Florida where a young horse trainer named Kathy Ritvo is struggling to stay alive, stricken with a serious heart ailment called cardiomyopathy, a severe deterioration of the heart muscle that has left her virtually bed ridden. She knows if she gives up, her two children, ages 9 and 7, would have to grow up without a mother.

Kathy is hooked up to an IV of dopamine, a heart muscle stimulant that is keeping her alive. Several years earlier, she had gotten pregnant with her third child and was almost five months along when she was diagnosed with her illness and the pregnancy had to be terminated.

As her husband Tim said, “The way she was living was unbearable. Her legs were blown up like tree stumps. She was hooked up to the IV for seven months. But she had this unbelievable will to live to see the kids go to school and grow up and eventually get married. That’s what kept her going”

As Kathy struggles to stay alive, some 250 miles away in Ocala, Florida, a strapping bay colt is born on June 15 at Carole and John Rio’s farm that they leased, unusually late for a Thoroughbred. The 9-year-old Ponche de Leona had been three weeks overdue and the Rios were staying up day and night waiting for her to foal.

It is Father’s Day and the Rios are returning to the farm after attending to Carole’s champion miniature pinchers and receive a call from farm manager Jeff Sekay telling them the mare was foaling.

Oh damn,” says Carole, who didn’t like foaling mares out in the field.

When the Rios arrive they find Sekay and his wife standing over the foal’s seemingly lifeless body and praying. After several minutes and no sign of life, the foal is feared dead. Carole starts rubbing him and then stops and begins praying herself.

As Carole described the scene: “Just then, this sucker jumps up and starts running across the field. He didn’t walk, he ran. From that day on I started calling him Lazarus. I remember saying to my husband, ‘Well, here’s your Father’s Day present.’ And he said, ‘We’ll find out in two years how good of a gift it is.’”

Five months later, on Nov. 13, as the weanling colt, later to be named Mucho Macho Man, romps about in his paddock, Kathy Ritvo, in her own way, also “rises” from the dead following a successful heart transplant, for which she had been waiting for what seemed an interminable amount of time. When she awakes from anesthesia, she takes a deep breath, something she hadn’t been able to do for years.

Kathy’s daily regimen of medication is like drugs gone wild – 12 anti-rejection pills at 7:30 every morning, 15 vitamins at noon, and eight more anti-rejection pills at 7:30 at night.

Six months after leaving the hospital Kathy is back at the racetrack training a few horses. Tim, also a trainer, is stabled in New York while Kathy remains in Florida helping out with the horses stabled there.

Meanwhile, at the Rios farm, Ponche de Leona’s colt is now a yearling and the Rios’ reluctantly decide to consign the mare to the Ocala Breeders’ October mixed sale. Because of a miscommunication regarding her reserve, she sells for only $5,000. But because of legal issues surrounding her new owner, Carole, who was against selling her, is able to buy her back.

The following year, the colt, now named Mucho Macho Man, is spotted by Jim Culver of Dream Team One Racing. Culver had been watching the colt develop and grow and had a feeling he could be special so he makes an offer that is accepted by the Rios.

Turned over to trainer Bill White, Mucho Macho Man is entered for his career debut at Calder Race Course on July 17, 2010, but is scratched when the horse in the stall next to him flips in the gate and nicks him up enough for the track veterinarian to order him scratched. Seven days later he is entered again and finishes a strong second to a well regarded colt named Gourmet Dinner.

At the time, Dean and Patti Reeves of Suwanee, Georgia had recently become involved in owning Thoroughbreds after meeting owner Bob Ades and his wife while on vacation. Dean had attended his first Kentucky Derby in 1976 and was hooked. He would attend every Derby for the next 22 years and now was looking for a horse of his own.

The year before he and Patti had formed Reeves Thoroughbred Racing and were now on the lookout for a 2-year-old who showed promise. Their trainer happened to be Tim Ritvo, who called Dean about a potential horse for sale named Gourmet Dinner, who had just broken his maiden at Calder. Tim suggested that Dean watch the replay of the race to see what he thought of Gourmet Dinner, with the idea of making an offer on the colt.

So Dean watches the race, but has an unexpected reaction. He calls Ritvo and says, “Call me crazy, but I like the second place horse.” That horse was Mucho Macho Man, who had grown into a mammoth of horse standing near 17 hands tall.

Dean then contacts Culver and offers to buy majority interest in the colt. Tim Ritvo has Kathy go to Bill White’s barn to vet the horse for the sale along with Dr. Scott Hay. She likes what she sees, the colt vets clean, and the deal is completed. Kathy then begins galloping the horse and can feel the power beneath her. She sends Mucho Macho Man to Tim in New York where he finishes third at Saratoga and then breaks his maiden by four lengths at Monmouth Park stretching out to two turns.

Following that race, Tim is hired as president and general manager of Gulfstream Park and convinces Dean to let Kathy train the colt. The two would then embark on an amazing journey that would take the Reeves to the Kentucky Derby and finally to America’s richest race, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, not once but twice.

Kathy’s son Michael would put it best: “The horse had his rebirth and my mom had hers, and look what they’ve done with it.”

Carole Rio added, “Had he started that first time and not been scratched I truly believe he would have won and the Reeves never would have seen him in the maiden race with Gourmet Dinner. It was in the cards for the Reeves to own him and Kathy to train him. It was just meant to be.”

Under Kathy’s handling, Mucho Macho Man continues to improve, finishing second in the Nashua and Remsen Stakes in New York. Following a victory in the Risen Star Stakes and a close third in the Louisiana Derby, it is on to the Kentucky Derby. Just getting here is a fairy tale come true for Kathy, the Reeves, and Mucho Macho Man. The colt runs a big race to finish third behind Animal Kingdom. After attending the Derby as a spectator for over two decades Dean Reeves it now part of its history. Shortly after, the Reeves buy out Dream Team One’s share in the colt to become the sole owner. Considering that he will not even turn 3 years old until four days after the Belmont Stakes, the prospects for his future appear limitless.

But Mucho Macho Man inexplicably loses his form and turns in dismal performances in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. It is discovered he is suffering from a breathing problem and undergoes surgery, which sidelines him for five months. He returns stronger than ever at 4, winning the Gulfstream Park Handicap and Suburban Handicap, but suffers a heartbreaking defeat in the Breeders; Cup Classic, losing by a half-length to Fort Larned.

The Reeves are determined to give him another shot at the Classic and decide to bring him back as a 5-year-old, but a virus and bacterial infection followed by a quarter crack results in another five-month layoff, limiting him to only two losing efforts by August. But he bounces back with a solid third in the Whitney before going to Santa Anita where he runs off with the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes by 4 ¼ lengths under new rider Gary Stevens.

Stevens had been struggling with pain for several years and was involved in a horrific spill at Arlington Park that could easily have cost him his life, but he made an amazing comeback from that near-tragic incident. He continued to live with extreme pain in his knees before finally retiring in 2005. Over the years he briefly trained horses, was racing manager for Prince Ahmed’s The Thoroughbred Corp, was an advisor to IEAH Stables, worked as a TV analyst for several networks, and even acted in movies and television, getting excellent reviews for his roles in the film “Seabiscuit” and the short-lived TV series “Luck,” in which he played veteran washed-up jockey Ronnie Jenkins, who had turned to alcohol following a bad spill.

Following Luck’s cancellation, Stevens, remarkably, after seven years, decided to come out of retirement, as if continuing his role as Ronnie Jenkins, intent on proving to the world he still could ride with the best of them. To most everyone’s amazement, Stevens returned as strong and as fiercely competitive as he had been back in his glory days of the 1990s. He lost none of his strength and timing and his comeback was an immediate success, highlighted by his victory aboard Oxbow in the Preakness Stakes. His fellow jockeys were amazed he could come back off such a long layoff at the age of 50 and compete at the same high level he had seven years earlier.

Another member of the team who deserves a good deal of credit getting Mucho Macho Man here is racing manager Finn Green, whose father Bob Green was the longtime farm manager for the famed Greentree Stud, which stood such notable stallions as Tom Fool, Stage Door Johnny, and Arts and Letters. Green also is an amazing comeback story, in his life more than his career, and it is a miracle to him that he is part of the team and headed to another Breeders’ Cup Classic.

While Mucho Macho Man and Kathy virtually came back from the “dead,” Green came back from hell — the hell of a failed business, a failed marriage, a failed relationship with his daughter, and his and his daughter’s own losing battles with alcohol that had left him teetering on the edge between life and death.

“I had gotten so bad that only God could help me,” he said. “I lost my house, my wife, my business, and then my daughter. I felt like I had failed completely as a father and a human being and I thought about killing myself. Going bankrupt and losing the house and all the material stuff was one thing, but failing as a father was too much to accept. But I still hadn’t been broken down, and I’m the type of guy who wasn’t going to give up until I was ground into dust.”

But in the end it was his faith in God, his strong will, and his new-found relationship with his daughter that eventually led him to Dean and Patti Reeves and Mucho Macho Man.

After getting sober and helping his daughter with her problem and reestablishing their relationship, Finn got back into racing, eventually getting a job with Taylor Made Farm as business developer and had started following the career of Mucho Macho Man after the colt’s second-place finish in the Remsen Stakes. He contacted Dean Reeves and met him at Gulfstream Park. Dean was so impressed by Green’s knowledge of all aspects the industry, he offered him a job, which he accepted in September, 2011. Green had stepped back from the edge of the abyss and had now found happiness in all aspects of his life.

The 2013 Classic is shaping up as a highly competitive with Mucho Macho Man having to face two-time Santa Anita Handicap winner Game On Dude, who also captured that year’s Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic; the previous year’s BC Classic winner Fort Larned, Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice, Travers Stakes winner Will Take Charge, Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Ron the Greek, Suburban Handicap winner Flat Out, and from Ireland, Juddmonte Stakes winner Declaration of War.

Looking at Mucho Macho Man’s past performances I noticed a startling statistic and mentioned it in my daily Breeders’ Cup report. Since his maiden race, Mucho Macho Man was 0-for-14 when he didn’t have the lead at the eighth pole and seven-for-seven when he did have the lead. His main flaw was his inability to pass horses in the stretch, but when he had the lead no horse had ever passed him in the final furlong.

Breeders’ Cup Saturday finally arrives. The wait for the horses to emerge from the tunnel seems interminable. A woman standing alongside the fence near the gap holds a sign that reads, “Team Mucho Macho Man Has Heart (with the heart represented by a bright red heart). The track bugler walks by and when he sees the sign he goes over to the woman and begins playing the song “Macho Man” by The Village People, which has become synonymous with the horse.

A few minutes later, the horses finally appear. Kathy, just as she had done the year before, stands by the rail near the gap as the Classic field parades to the post. Because of her diminutive size, she has to step on a small stool to get a better look. But she is still too far away to see the entire stretch, so she steps up on a ledge and leans her body over the rail. When Mucho Macho Man’s name is introduced in the post parade, a cheer goes up from the crowd, and even Kathy applauds her horse with gentle claps.

She can see Gary Stevens move Mucho Macho Man into a perfect position down the backstetch behind the favorite Game On Dude, the speedy Moreno, and Fort Larned and then guns the big horse into contention nearing the quarter pole. Game On Dude and Moreno begin to drop back. “Macho” puts away a stubborn Fort Larned, his nemesis from the year before, and now is in front with his ears up. Stevens feels the urge to go to the whip, but refrains, knowing the horse is giving him everything he had and dislikes being whipped.

Kathy begins cheering her horse on as he passes the eighth pole with a clear lead, but here comes another giant of a horse, Travers winner Will Take Charge, bearing down on him from the far outside, with the Irish invader Declaration of War closing ground in between the two.

Mucho Macho Man digs in gamely as the trio hits the wire in a three-horse photo, with Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge inseparable. But Kathy feels confident she won when she sees Stevens give a little celebratory shake of his whip.

I think we got it,” she says, looking for affirmation from anyone. “Gary thought he won; he shook his stick. But I don’t know what that means.”

Others around her, however, aren’t as confident. When they show the replay a gasp goes up from the crowd as they hit wire. Could it be that Will Take Charge had stuck his nose in front? Kathy now begins having feelings of déjà vu. Had Mucho Macho Man suffered another heartbreaking defeat in the Classic? Could fate be so cruel as to lead them here only to end in failure once again?

The stretch run is replayed again, and this time Kathy keeps urging her horse on, as if watching the race live.

Come on, buddy. Come on, buddy,” she pleads in a soft tone.

When they hit the wire, she turns around and asks no one in particular, “Did he get it?”

Kathy then has a feeling of dread as the camera focuses in on Will Take Charge on the infield screen. But a second later, the number “6” goes up and the announcement is made. Mucho Macho Man is the winner of the $4.6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. The fairy tale is complete.

Bedlam breaks loose and tears begin to well up in Kathy’s eyes. “I’m so happy for the horse,” she says. “I hope my mother’s watching.”

Kathy’s mother ironically has been in the hospital for several weeks with heart problems.

As Mucho Macho Man returns, Kathy sprints over to greet the horse. It is hard to believe this is the same person who not too long ago couldn’t take two or three steps without losing her breath and could barely get out of bed.

Tim comes over and the two embrace. “It’s an amazing story,” he says “She fought to live for her kids. She’s worked for this her whole life and she deserves every minute of it. This is all about her. She’s done such a great job with this horse. It’s unbelievable. She’s been through so much. She was dead, I’m telling you; she was dead. That’s how bad she was. This is just a wonderful wonderful thing.”

Tim also acknowledges their two children, Dominique, now 21, and Michael, 19, who had to endure their mother’s debilitating illness when they were 9 and 7.

They lived through the worst of it and were always very supportive.” Tim says, as he becomes more emotional.

Michael is now walking around as if in a daze, but with a perpetual smile on his face.

It’s just so amazing, seeing her in the hospital, almost dead, to this, the pinnacle of racing,” he says. “It was so awful to see her like that, lying on the floor in the hospital, sick, sick, sick all the time. She’s the best. She’s an inspiration. I’m just so happy for her.”

Following the post-race press conference, Stevens looks at me, smiles, and says, “Thank you. When I came to the head of the stretch I was thinking of you. I knew I had to get him to the lead before we hit the eighth pole.” That is a moment I won’t forget.

Adding an historic element to the race, Kathy has become the first female trainer to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Patti is overwhelmed by the victory and Mucho Mach Man’s popularity. “When we went to the Derby we invited fans to come along on the ride,” she recalls. “We were so new in the horse racing business ourselves and we wanted all the fans along with us, so we started a Facebook page for the horse and a Twitter account, and they just started following and coming.”

Dean couldn’t help but pay tribute to Kathy and Finn Green. “Kathy and Finn have worked on this all year to come back and make up that half-length,” he says. “It’s pretty special. We love this horse. There are a lot of people that get a lot of smiles every day thinking about Mucho Macho Man.”

Well after the race emotions continue to run high. Dean’s sister, Camilla Ellenburg, is weeping openly as she hugs her brother, and then seeks a spiritual meaning to Mucho Macho Man’s victory.

It’s just amazing,” she says. “The Lord had him wrapped around his arm, that’s all I can tell you. He knew.”

Meanwhile, in Ocala, Carole Rio, who watched the Classic at a local restaurant, still cannot believe the improbable ending to this story.

I had such tunnel vision watching the race I didn’t even know it was a photo,” she says. “I just started celebrating. I was sobbing with tears of joy. It’s an indescribable feeling for small-time breeders like ourselves. I just started thinking of him laying in that field, and everyone believing he was dead. I remember it like it was yesterday. You can’t make this stuff up. I’m just so proud of him.”

The bond between humans and horses has been romanticized for centuries. Who can explain why Mucho Macho Man and Kathy Ritvo were destined to travel the same path in life and why that path led them to glory on racing’s biggest stage. From a physical standpoint, Kathy Ritvo is dwarfed by the towering Mucho Macho Man, but their hearts, which once had seemingly gone silent, now beat as one. And nothing as mundane as a photo finish camera was going to deny this fairy tale its happy ending.

But this fairy tale wasn’t quite over, as Mucho Macho Man would go on to win the coveted Secretariat “Vox Populi” Award as the nation’s most popular horse, which is voted on by the fans.

Following a group photo in the winner’s circle, Michael Ritvo, walks off by himself, and suddenly it hits him: “My mom won the Breeders’ Cup Classic.”

Sometimes, a simple revelation can have such profound meaning.

But it was Dean Reeves who summed up this magical day best and put everything in proper perspective.

I’m just so happy for Macho,” he said. “He’s part of racing history now.”


Photos courtesy of Breeders’ Cup and available for purchase, contact


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