In the weeks after her heart transplant in 2008, Kathy Ritvo’s doctors gave her two rules to follow for the rest of her life. The Florida-based horse trainer needed to do her best to avoid illnesses – even simple things such as colds – and she had to take her medications on time every day.
Ritvo came up with a third rule on her own. After waiting six months for a new heart, she was going to follow it, honoring that gift of life by doing what made her happiest. It’s hard to imagine she could be more fulfilled than she will be today, when Ritvo saddles Mucho Macho Man for the 137th Kentucky Derby. Truth is, she feels just as grateful for the unremarkable moments of every day she is granted with her family and her horses.
The Derby produces stories of luck, triumph and improbable odds every year, which is no small part of its enduring appeal. It regularly tramples expectation and logic. It rewards dreamers and douses hubris.
Even in years like this one – when the 3-year-old thoroughbred crop looks quite ordinary – it is never just a horse race. Mucho Macho Man has a sponsor (Minnesota’s 3M company), a famous band of fans (the Village People sent an autographed photo, posted outside his stall) and a chance to become the youngest horse to win the Derby (he will not turn 3 until June 15). Ritvo helped that happen because someone donated their heart to a stranger, and she has poured every bit of it into every day it has given her.
“I’m having a great life, I really am,” said Ritvo, 42. “I’m healthy for the first time in a really long time. I’m alive because somebody unselfishly donated their loved one’s organs. It’s just an amazing, unselfish gift you can give.
“I appreciate everything. I appreciate every day. And having a really nice horse like this is just great.”
A woman trainer never has won the Derby, but that really nice horse could give Ritvo another day she’ll remember forever. Mucho Macho Man enters the Derby with two wins and seven in-the-money finishes from eight starts, with earnings of $410,643.
The colt drew post No. 13 for today’s race, which Ritvo considered a lucky omen. She got her heart transplant on Nov. 13, 2008, enabling her to keep celebrating her birthday on Feb. 13.
Horsemanship and heart disease run in Ritvo’s family. She was introduced to racing by her father, Peter Petro, who owned racehorses; one of her brothers is a trainer, and another is a jockey. A third brother, Louis Petro, also rode in races before he died of heart disease, the same illness that took her father’s life.
Ritvo has been training horses since she was 18 and has worked alongside her husband, trainer Tim Ritvo. The mother of two found out in 2001 that a heart ailment was responsible for the exhaustion she had been feeling, and her condition steadily worsened.
In 2008, she spent six months in the critical care unit of a Florida hospital, waiting for the transplant she needed to save her life. “I was just surviving every day, just trying to make it to the next day,” she said. “I’d just stay optimistic, but it’s hard when you’re so sick.”
Her perseverance got her through surgery and back on the track. Mucho Macho Man came into her world last summer, when Dean and Patti Reeves purchased a majority interest in the colt and sent him to Tim Ritvo’s barn.
When Tim became a racing executive with the company that owns Florida’s Gulfstream Park, Kathy took over training of the Derby prospect. The elegant bay has grown to a towering 17 hands this year and has matured mentally throughout the spring, learning when to boost the acceleration on his enormous stride.
Mucho Macho Man will have a Minnesota contingent cheering him on today. Patti Reeves, a marketing professional, recently heard that Derby horses could have corporate sponsors. Because her horse is called 3M – and she worked for that company for 15 years – she called 3M’s 1-800 number and pitched him as a spokescolt.
Reeves said she received a call back from 3M’s Maplewood headquarters about two hours later and they agreed to a deal.
The Derby also has provided a platform for Ritvo and others to promote organ donation. She has written a letter to the family of her heart donor. She has not heard back, but she hopes that in time, she can thank them personally for everything they have given her.
While it would be wonderful if that includes a Derby victory, she said, even her ordinary days feel as if they’re draped in roses.