“The highest of highs and lowest of lows.” As much as this
phrase personifies the rapid and sometimes unexpected swing of emotions that
encompass thoroughbred horse racing, I cannot help but think about how it reaches
beyond the Sport of Kings.
For nearly all of my life, I have had to grow and watch my
father suffer from a degenerative heart condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This condition, has portions of the heart muscle never stop growing,
to the point where the engrossed size will lead to arithmetic heart rhythms and
ultimately total cardiac failure. However, despite my father’s illness, pain,
and significantly reduced quality of life, he was always smiling. He never
showed any negativity and taught me the significance and joy that can be found
in every conscious moment.
About 5 years ago, my father’s heart had reached a degenerative
state (approximately 25% the output of a normal heart) with no signs of
improvement through various medications and therapies. It was decided he would
be put onto the transplant list, with hope that sometime in the future he would
be gifted with a new heart and new opportunity at life.
Nearly three and half years after being on the transplant
list, and continually showing the degenerative signs of his heart disease, a
horse was emerging onto the triple crown trail that I took note of. Mucho Macho Man caught my eye, not only for his racing talent and catchy name, but because
of something I couldn’t explain at the time. It was soon after, that I
discovered that his trainer, Kathy Ritvo, had been a heart transplant survivor from
the same heart condition that was so devastatingly crippling my father.
I explained story of Mucho Macho Man and his trainer to my
dad, and we found our derby horse.
Four days before the Belmont Stakes, my father was admitted to Ceder Sanai medical center in Los Angeles for what would be his permanent home until a new heart arrived…if a new heart arrived. From his hospital bed he watched Mucho Macho Man in the Belmont, and complete his rigorous triple crown campaign. It was not until nearly a month later, on July 6th, 2011 when I received a phone call from my mom with a message that a heart had become available for my father. For what had been the lowest of lows in my family’s lives had instantly become the highest of highs. However, it was not without a bitter thought that this could not have been possible without knowing that somewhere another family was mourning the death a loved one that had given my father the opportunity of continued life.
A year after my father’s surgery and successful transplant,
he was living a perfectly healthy life. Every
day was and still is a celebration. Trying to think of a way to further lobby
for the support of transplants and donors, I decided reach out to Kathy Ritvo.
I wanted to share how her inspiring story of survival and success had been such
an important part of the toughest days of my father’s life. And so began a
friendship that lead to an experience and memories we will never forget.
During the 2012 Breeders’ Cup my dad and I had tried to meet
up with Mrs. Ritvo as well as Mucho Macho Man’s owners Dean and Patti Reeves at
Santa Anita. Unfortunately, the chaos of the weekend ultimately had the last
word, and my father and I were unable to meet and thank them for their untold
inspiration. However, Mrs. Ritvo and Mrs. Reeves were not willing to give up on
us so easily. They reached out and proposed the idea of coming to South Florida
for the Eclipse Awards. We later found out that Mucho Macho Man would be
running in the Sunshine Millions Classic for a second consecutive year, further
adding to the excitement of the weekend.
After making travel arrangements and getting clearance from
my dad’s doctors, we took off for Gulfstream. We were so nervous to meet the
people that had demonstrated such kindness to go out of their way to ensure we
had a memorable weekend. During our three days at Gulfstream, we were able to
meet with Mrs. Ritvo, as well as the Reeves team. Getting to watch and listen
to my dad and Mrs. Ritvo exchange stories of their transplants, their
conditions prior to receiving the new heart and the euphoria they experienced after
surgery was extremely emotional.
I was amazed by the hospitality of people we had never
met, and as fans, my father and I got to experience a part of racing we
had never seen before. We were able to meet jockeys, grounds staff, and of
course, some wonderful horses. Words cannot express the gratitude that we have
for the experience, and also the symbolism of what it meant to us.
Going into the Saturday’s Sunshine Millions Classic, we were
floating on one of the highest of highs. We were simply radiating confidence in
our beloved Mucho Macho Man. As he was eased in the stretch my heart sank to my
feet and instantly fearing the worst for the horse. But even more so, we could
not help but feel sadness and disappointment for Mrs. Ritvo, and Mr. and Mrs.
Reeves. I have not seen my dad so pale since before his new heart arrived. We
were devastated. In the 1:49 seconds it took for Ron the Greek to win the race,
we had sunk to the lowest of lows.
After learning the horse was OK, there was a level of relief
in that he would be back to race another day, but still we were sulking. It was
a rough night of sleep for both of us, and as we were checking in to fly back
to California, we finally began to come around. We realized that there is so
much more to this sport than winning. It is the people that make up the
industry. It is the horses that connect us and bring us to the highest of
highs. It is the stories that inspire us during the lowest of lows. It is the
relationships that are forged and celebrated in the most remarkable of
For anyone interested in learning more about cardiomyopathy, heart transplants or becoming an organ donor, please click on the attached