By Dave Joseph For Gulfstreampark.com
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – There’s a smile on trainer Kathy Ritvo’s face when she walks into the bright sunshine outside her barn at Gulfstream Park.
A goat is sprawled across a bail of hay inside the shedrow. Just 20 feet away, a miniature pony named Roxy grazes contently next to Ritvo’s Kentucky Derby prospect Mucho Macho Man.
“It’s amazing,” she says, shaking her head as if in disbelief. “It’s a dream.”
What was it, a little more than two years ago that Kathy Ritvo was fighting for her life, suffering from severe deterioration of her heart muscle? She was hooked up to machines that kept her alive, confined to Jackson Memorial Hospital for six months waiting for a donor and heart transplant.
Time was running out. There were two young children at home.
“I used to put her to bed every night thinking this might be the last time I see her,” said her husband, Tim Ritvo.
Fast forward to Friday morning: There’s Kathy on the backstretch, healthy, happy, and watching Mucho Macho Man prepare for the $400,000 Holy Bull (G3) later this month and, hopefully, the spring classics.
“I said to Timmy, ‘Ever since we met this horse everything has gone right,’ ” Kathy said. “But Timmy always says, ‘Kathy, ever since you got your heart everything has gone right.’ ”
Kathy and Tim have had a long history in racing. Tim started as a jockey at Suffolk Downs, became racing official and leading trainer in Florida before becoming VP of Racing, MI Developments Inc., in October.
Meanwhile, Kathy’s father, Peter Petro, was a popular trainer in New England before passing away from a heart ailment in 2007. Her three brothers have also been active. Michael is a trainer on the Delaware-Maryland circuit, Nick is a jockey, and Louis was also a jockey before passing away from from complications in 1996 of Cardiomyophy, the same ailment Kathy was first diagnosed with in 2000 when she lost the couple’s third child six months into her pregnancy.
For seven years, Kathy’s time was spent in-and-out of the hospital. In the summer of 2008, her condition deteriorated enough that she couldn’t leave the hospital.
“Once in a while, the doctor in charge of me would go on vacation and I would talk one of his students into letting me out,” said Kathy, who won 150 races from 1990-98. “So I would be like a week out. But I would have to be hooked up to all these machines and packs. And then I’d have to change the batteries (on the heart monitors) every 12 hours. If you didn’t do them at the right time, you’d be up in the middle of the night changing batteries. Then the doctor would find out I was out and he’d say, ‘How the hell did you get out?’ So back I went, crying and carrying on.”
As her condition worsened, the support system surrounding Kathy and Tim only seemed to grow. “It was hard for everybody, but you have to have a huge support system,” Kathy said. “When Tim was in New York training horses, my cousin would be at the hospital with me. When he wasn’t there my brother would fly in from Delaware to be at the hospital. My mother had the kids and Timmy’s mother helped a lot. The kids (Michael and Dominique) were incredible during the whole time. My mom lives here now…I think to watch me.”
It wasn’t until November of 2008 that Kathy found out there was a donor heart available. On Nov. 13, Kathy underwent a successful transplant. She does not know the donor’s name despite requesting the information from the family through the hospital.
“I was in the hospital for six months waiting for my heart,” she recalled. “After I got my heart I was out of the hospital six days later. I remember walking down the street when I got out and Timmy and my mother chasing after me. They said, “Where you going?’ I told them, ‘Down to the end of the driveway. I haven’t been able to walk in six months.’ ”
Kathy has been healthy since the transplant and remains on a strict regiment.
“I take 12 anti-rejection pills at 7:30 in the morning, 15 vitamins at noon, and exactly at 7:30 each night I take eight more anti-rejection pills,” she said. “I have alarms on my phone so I don’t forget. They’re doing new studies all the time to try and wean patients off the pills. But it’s no big thing. You get used to taking the pills, and I’ve been fortunate and have had no side effects.”
Things have gone just as smoothly for Mucho Macho Man, who came to the Ritvo’s over the summer when Tim’s owner, Dean Reeves, purchased a 70 percent interest from Dream Team Racing Stable after his career debut July 17 at Calder. After breaking his maiden Sept. 19 at Monmouth – and after Kathy took over the training of the colt after Tim accepted his position with MI Developments Inc. - Mucho Macho Man finished his juvenile season with second-place finishes behind To Honor and Serve at Aqueduct in the Nashua (G2) and Remsen (G2).
“I actually did the pre-sale check with the vet,” Kathy recalled. “After I got him and galloped him two days I said, ‘This horse need to go.’ And that’s when he left for New York. I wanted to get him out of the heat. He’s just a big, tall, long horse even though he’s a June foal. So he’s still learning. He looks everywhere, but he’s getting better and learning all the time.”
For Kathy, Mucho Macho Man and spending her mornings with the horses every day has been an elixir. When asked if she checked with her doctors about going back to training after her transplant, she replied; “No. After everything that happened, I just do what makes me happy,” she said. “As long as I feel well and rest enough, this is a great thing for me.”
“From where I was to this…” She looks across the barn area, at Roxy and her Derby contender. “Who would have imagined this?”