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Mucho Macho Man, ridden by 50-year-old Hall of Famer Gary Stevens, held off Will Take Charge to win the 2013 Breeders' Cup Classic by a nose for owners Reeves Thoroughbred Racing and trainer Kathy Ritvo. 

By Tom Pedulla, America’s Best Racing

ARCADIA, Calif. – A horse that is all heart and a trainer with a relatively new heart provided an invincible combination Saturday in the $5 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park.

Mucho Macho Man, as rugged as his name suggests as he held off Will Take Charge by a diminishing nose, and trainer Kathy Ritvo, macho enough to survive a heart transplant, made for a storybook finish to culminate a spectacular afternoon of international competition.

Throw in that Gary Stevens, 50, gained his first Classic triumph after ending a retirement of more than seven years and the tale becomes one Hollywood could not possibly consider. Too good to be true.

Yet it is all wonderfully true for owners Patti and Dean Reeves and their 5-year-old son of Macho Uno, a determined runner-up to Fort Larned in this demanding 1 ¼-mile event last year.

Where to begin to tell this true fairly tale? With Ritvo, who fought back tears after emerging as the first female to train a Classic winner.

“I’m just so excited,” she said, “and, honestly, very, very blessed to be here.”

Her husband, Timothy Ritvo, who is in charge of Gulfstream Park in Florida, looked on in awe.

“It’s an amazing story,” he said. “She fought to be here for her kids, and this is the pinnacle.”

2013 CLASSIC SLIDESHOW

Photos courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire

Ritvo was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a steady weakening of the heart muscle, in 2001. Her condition gradually deteriorated. She spent six months at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, clinging to life as she awaited a transplant, a middle-aged woman desperate to see her son and daughter grow into adults.

She would beseech relatives to stay with her at night because she was gripped by fear and dreaded being alone in the room. During those times when no one could be with her, she wearily counted ceiling tiles, finding it reassuring to know that her eyes and mind were functioning. She was still alive – but barely.

Finally, days before she believes she would have died because her heart was so rapidly losing its ability to function, a match was found. She underwent a 17-hour transplant on Nov. 13, 2008. She returned to her barn six months later against the advice of her doctors, who feared an increased risk of infection.

When the Classic was over, when the photo finish showed the scant difference separating Mucho Macho Man, Will Take Charge, and third-place Declaration of War, Ritvo ran onto the track to clasp Stevens’ hand.

“You just made an old man happy,” he told her.

Stevens, 50, capped a dramatic comeback. He had spent more than seven years in retirement, seemingly happy as a broadcaster for major races. Then he could not watch any longer. He had to be in the middle of it all.

When he announced he was coming back, skeptics abounded. How long might this last?

The snickering abruptly ended when he won the Preakness Stakes with Oxbow and top outfits began turning to him with their finest stock. And now he has filled in one of the few holes in his resume.

“Unbelievable. This is just a dream come true,” Stevens said. “I always said the one race I was missing in my career was the Breeders’ Cup Classic. I didn’t think I’d get one. I didn’t think it would come in 2013.”

Mucho Macho Man made it happen. He had been extremely consistent against top-flight completion but not broken through in a Grade 1 contest until his prep race for the Classic, the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita on Sept. 28. It was seemingly the race on the track he needed; it gave him eight victories with five runner-up finishes and six third-place showings for earnings of $2,590,410.

After that, heart got him home.

For an Equibase chart, click here.

STEVENS CELEBRATES THE CLASSIC VICTORY

BC-Classic -Inside

Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire

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