LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- There are, if you do this job long enough, a handful of stories that stick with you over the years. Kathy Ritvo's was one of them.
During Kentucky Derby week 2011, if you believed in Fairy Tales, you believed that the horse she trained, Mucho Macho Man, would be wearing the garland of roses.
I spent quite a bit of that week with Ritvo. During Derby week of 2008, she was in a hospital bed, in need of a heart transplant as a sufferer of cardiomyopathy, a degenerative disease that weakens the heart muscle. She called her cardiologist over during the post parade and told him, when she made it to that race, he had to come.
The odds of any trainer making good on that promise are slim. The odds of a trainer having a heart transplant and then doing it are just plain silly. But if you had bet that longshot, Kathy Ritvo would've cashed that ticket. She made it to the Derby. She got a heart transplant, took a couple dozen pills a day, went back to her job as a trainer, got a once-in-a-lifetime horse and, yeah, fairy tales.
Maybe I wrote it as too much of a fairy tale. It was one of those stories you wanted to make sing. Page 1 editors wanted medical explanations and the harder news side. Later that year, I rewrote the story myself and posted it on my own website. I wanted to remember the story in my own way, because it would remain a special story in my mind. Even the horse, Mucho Macho Man, was born with no heartbeat. The farm managers there just prayed for the foal on the ground and one of them put her hands on him. And all of a sudden, he didn't just jump up -- he popped up and ran.
It was movie-script stuff, I'm telling you.
But real life doesn't always cooperate. Ritvo and Mucho Macho Man finished third in the Derby. It was still a great story and Ritvo did a lot of good talking about organ donation. But I always felt a little empty about the ending of that story, for a lot of reasons.
Until Saturday. That's when Mucho Macho Man gave Ritvo the biggest win of her career -- he made her the first female trainer to win the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park.
I should have known. What better place for the script to play out than just outside Hollywood? And who better to ride the horse to his fairy tale finish than Gary Stevens, who knows his way around the camera. Mucho Macho Man finished second in the Classic last year. Stevens had been 0-for-14 in his Hall of Fame career in the Classic. This time, the stars aligned.
Stevens, at age 50, ended a seven-year retirement in January to return to racing. More than a few people thought he was crazy. He was a well-respected network racing analyst who had achieved just about everything there was to achieve in his riding career.
Why return? Racing horses isn't exactly a ride in the park. It's frighteningly dangerous. But Stevens picked up right where he left off, it seemed. He won the Preakness aboard Oxbow. And now he has pulled the Classic and Distaff double.
At age 5, Mucho Macho Man is a rarity, a talented horse who kept running. He's not a gelding, but his owner, Dean Reeves, likes to race. And now he has given his sport a truly special moment.
None of it, however, is more special than what Ritvo has achieved. She's now five years beyond her transplant, and beyond her story of organ donation awareness, she also offers proof that there's more than just survival after a transplant, there's hope, and there can even be greatness.
Ritvo didn't get to smell the roses at the Derby. But she of all people knew, as long as there's a heartbeat, there's reason to keep running.
"I don't even know how to feel," Ritvo told reporters after Mucho Macho Man edged out Will Take Charge, Declaration of War and Fort Larned.
I do know how to feel. The ending now finally is worthy of the story.