Photo: Don August
the final installment of my “2013 Breeders’ Cup Highlights” series, which
features the greatest personal moments of my Breeders’ Cup experience.
Highlight Seven: Mucho Macho Man’s Classic
One month remains until Christmas. Cheesy, made-for-TV Christmas
films are already playing, interrupted by commercials displaying festive scenes
to the sound of Christmas jingles. Stores are lavishly embellished with
Christmas decorations and Christmas parades are just around the corner.
But before Christmas rolls around, families will sit around a table abounding
with mouth-watering foods. Thanksgiving is not just a "kick-off" for
Christmas. It is a time to enjoy the presence of family and friends, a time to give
thanks. This Thanksgiving, I will certainly be giving thanks for my incredible
experience at this year's Breeders' Cup. From the beginning to the end, my time
spent at my fourth Breeders' Cup was full of thrills, delights, and moments to
forever cherish. Among those moments was a perfect ending: the Classic.
Just as the sun was setting at Santa Anita Park, casting a pink glow over the San Gabriel Mountains, the sun was
setting on the thirtieth Breeders’ Cup. Over the course of two days, thirteen
championships races had been contested at the Great Race Place, offering
thrilling finishes, heartwarming victories, and moments that are now cherished
memories. But one more race – arguably the most significant of them all –
remained: the Breeders’ Cup Classic
As the suspense soared higher than it had all weekend, eleven Thoroughbreds
paraded before the large crowd gathered at the Arcadia, California track. Minutes
later, the equine athletes loaded into the gate situated at the very top of
Santa Anita’s stretch. Entering the sixth gate was one of the most popular
horses to compete in the 2013 championships: Mucho Macho Man.
The five-year-old horse had accumulated a large, devoted fan base throughout
his racing career, captivating racing enthusiasts with the heartwarming stories
surrounding him. Mucho Macho Man was
meant to be a miracle horse. As a foal, he was born lifeless. Suddenly however,
he jumped up and began running. He was truly born to run.
Along the way, he has also charmed fans with the heartwarming story of his trainer, Kathy Ritvo, who overcame
a degenerative heart disease and heart transplant to train a horse like Mucho
Macho Man. Making the horse even easier to love was the generosity of his
owners – both current and previous. Through Dream Team Racing and Patti and
Dean Reeves, fans have developed a special attachment to Mucho Macho Man.
As if he didn’t have enough fans on his side already, joining his team for the
Breeders’ Cup was Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, who was riding in the
Breeders’ Cup for the first time since 2005 and searching for his first
Breeders’ Cup victory since 2000. The now 50-year-old rider had come out of
retirement in January and after a successful racing season that included a win
in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) and in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (gr. I) the
previous day, a Breeders’ Cup Classic victory would serve as the perfect
exclamation point for one of the greatest comebacks of all-time.
It would be unlikely for a scriptwriter to invent a story like Mucho Macho Man’s.
Just like so many of horse racing’s unique, yet true fairy tales, an abundance
of heartwarming plot lines surround his journey. With all the touching stories
surrounding the horse, how could one not cheer for Mucho Macho Man? It was
evident that he had a mass of fans rooting for him at Santa Anita. All around
the Great Race Place, people held signs that read “Your Hometown Horse – Mucho Macho
A tall, lanky son of Macho Uno, Mucho Macho Man was seeking redemption in the
Classic. A year earlier, he had run the race of his life, only to fall a half-length
short to Fort Larned. That rival, as well as a multitude of other talented
horses – including the favorite Game On Dude, the promising three-year-olds
Palace Malice and Will Take Charge, and the invading European Declaration of
War – had aligned to challenge him yet again in the 2013 edition of North
America’s richest race.
The 17-hand-plus bay broke sharply from the gate alongside the star-studded
Classic field to the cheer of the crowd gathered at Santa Anita. Although he
took the earliest lead, Stevens allowed the pacesetters to pass Mucho Macho Man
as the field raced past the stands for the initial time. Mucho Macho Man eased
into a comfortable position behind the leaders, racing several paths off the
rail as the horses charged into the clubhouse turn.
Just over two lengths separated Mucho Macho Man, who continued to race widest of all, from the frontrunners as the
field reached the backstretch. He remained in that comfortable spot down the
far stretch, gradually growing closer to the leaders.
As the field began to enter the far turn, Mucho Macho Man grew even with the
pacesetters, his large frame overtaking the others midway through the curve. His
long strides carried him to the front, giving him a clear lead as the horses
turned for home. But Fort Larned continued fighting along the rail and to Mucho
Macho Man’s outside, threatening rallies were being made by Declaration of War
and Will Take Charge.
The theme in Mucho Macho Man’s story has always been heart: Kathy Ritvo’s
heart, the kind heart of his owners, the determined heart of Gary Stevens, and,
of course, the unwavering heart of Mucho Macho Man. This theme was incredibly
prevalent as Mucho Macho Man approached the finish line of the 2013 Classic. Declaration
of War and Will Take Charge could have overtaken them. But they didn’t.
Instead, in one of the narrowest finishes in Classic history, it was Mucho
Macho Man’s nose that ended up in front. The most thrilling race of the 2013
championships had granted Mucho Macho Man with the most special victory of his
career, bringing smiles to his jockey, to his owners, to his trainer, and to
Kathy Ritvo had become the first female trainer to win the Classic. Gary
Stevens had become the first jockey since Mike Smith in 1997 to capture both
the Distaff and Classic in the same year. Mucho Macho Man had become the first
horse since Alysheba in 1988 to redeem a runner-up effort in the Classic with a
victory. History had been made, the smiles were recorded in photographs, and
videos showed the action after it had passed. But none of these things could
capture the atmosphere at Santa Anita following the Classic. Happiness for the
horse and his connections saturated the air. It was a fairy tale ending for the
Breeders’ Cup and certainly a moment I will be thankful for this Thanksgiving.