Mucho Macho Man and trainer Kathy Ritvo add heart to this year’s Kentucky Derby [Kentucky Derby]

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Three years ago 42-year-old trainer Kathy Ritvo watched Big Brown win the Kentucky Derby from her hospital bed. She was awaiting a much needed heart transplant from a condition called cardiomyopathy, which claimed the life of her brother at age 38. About a week after that 2008 Derby, Kathy Ritvo endured a 17-hour operation to receive her new heart. Today, two and half years since she left the hospital, she’s training Kentucky Derby contender Mucho Macho Man and attempting to be the first female trainer to win the Kentucky Derby.

I was fortunate enough to talk with Kathy Ritvo earlier this week on the backside outside Mucho Macho Man’s stall. A friend introduced Kathy Ritvo to Kym Burns, who received a heart transplant twenty-five-years ago. The two exchanged war stories and compared the medical and drug advancements that have occurred during the time in-between their two procedures.

“I was taking 100 pills a day after my transplant,” said Kym.

“I take 30,” replied Kathy.

It struck me how compassionate the two were for the struggles the other had endured. Although they had just met, they each genuinely seemed concerned with each other’s well-being.

Knowing how sensitive the issue of being a transplant recipient might be, I asked Kathy Ritvo if it was difficult to talk about her ordeal as freely as she has done recently in the press. She replied, “If I can help one person, then it’s all worth it.”

She is using her Derby spotlight to shine some light on the importance of becoming an organ donor. She waited eight years to receive her new heart from an anonymous donor. She watched as her brother waited for his new heart, but grew too sick before one became available. Undoubtedly, you have seen Kathy Ritvo on the local news or heard her story elsewhere by now. She knows that she is here at this time for a reason and that reason is to give back for the gift of life that she has been given. We will have to wait until Saturday night to learn whether or not that reason is also to win the Derby.

If you believe in fate or destiny, you might think that Kathy Ritvo’s being here in this Kentucky Derby with this horse, Mucho Macho Man, is nothing but fate. Kathy Ritvo received her heart almost exactly one month before Mucho Macho Man was born. A birth that was thought by the breeder to be a still-born. Mucho Macho Man was born out in the field, not in the barn. When the farm workers found him, he seemed lifeless, so they called for the breeder. The breeder came, rubbed on him a bit, but he still appeared lifeless. They gathered around him and prayed. The next thing they knew, he jumped up and began running through the field. After that, they nicknamed him Lazarus.

If you’re looking for a betting angle in this year’s Derby, this might be the one. Kathy Ritvo and Mucho Macho Man are certainly a match made in heaven. It’s incredible to think that each of them was celebrating their second chance at life at virtually the same time and now, here they are, celebrating their accomplishment of making it to racing’s most prestigious race!

Aside from the fate angle, Mucho Macho Man is a quality horse. He has never finished worse than fourth in eight lifetime starts. He finished a half length behind Pants On Fire and Nehro in the Louisiana Derby after throwing a shoe at the start of the race over a heavy Fair Grounds track. And all of this from likely the youngest of this year’s Derby contenders. Although are thoroughbreds are considered a year older as of January 1, each year, Mucho Macho Man technically won’t turn three until June 15th.

This Saturday when you’re making your wagers, having your Derby party, going to the track, or just watching the race, take a minute and check to see that you are signed up as an organ donor. Make your wishes known to your family and friends. No one wants to think that something could happen to you and you’re lying in a hospital on life support, but should the worst happen, that tragedy could create a miracle in the life of someone else. Kentucky residents may go to www.donatelifeky.org  to register. 

Photo: Courtesy Jessie Oswald