LOS ANGELES – The best story won Saturday’s $5 million Breeders’ Cup horse race.
They call this one the Classic, and this time, it really was. But more for who won, than how or why.
About 5:55 p.m. at Santa Anita, with just a hint of sunlight still reflecting off the San Gabriel Mountains and a near-delirious throng of celebrants gathering in the winner’s circle, a small woman with somebody else’s heart marched toward a small man who is 50 years old, sitting atop a huge horse who was left for dead at birth.
Their names, in order, are Kathy Ritvo, Gary Stevens and Mucho Macho Man. And their place in this made-for- Hollywood movie is almost too overwhelming to digest.
The obvious was that they had, in order, prepared, ridden and won one of racing’s most coveted prizes, coveted as much for the achievement as the money.
The smiles worn by Ritvo and Stevens weren’t likely to end for hours.
Five years ago, Ritvo, 39 then, spent six months resting on her back, looking at four walls of a hospital room. She had cardiomyopathy, a disease that would soon kill her if she didn’t get a new heart.
In the 11th hour, she did, just as she was preparing herself to die. She takes 30 pills a day and one of the first things her doctor advised, to prevent rejection, was to avoid places of dirt and bacteria, such as the barn area of a racetrack.
So she went back to work as a thoroughbred trainer.
Five years ago, Stevens was two years into a retirement that had been forced by bad knees and dangerous falls. He starred in movies, television shows and did network TV commentary. Life was good, except that he wasn’t riding horses and knew he still could.
In January, after seven years on the sidelines, and at an age when most jockeys look to book races for others, not ride in them, Stevens made his comeback.
Five years ago, Mucho Macho Man was being born in Florida. He left the womb and didn’t move. Handlers poked, stroked, tried everything. No movement. Then, suddenly, he got up and galloped off. He was quickly nicknamed “Lazarus.”
With his $3 million share of Saturday’s purse, the so-called Lazarus has risen to career winnings of more than $5.5 million.
The 58,795 people who showed up bet Mucho Macho Man down to second favorite, behind Game on Dude, and he rewarded them at $10, $4.60 and $3.60.
Mucho Macho Man lost the Classic last year by half a length to Fort Larned, who lost a battle for third this time to Declaration of War. Ritvo and her team worked all year, they said, just to make up that half length, and they did so – with 3 inches to spare.