Breeders' Cup Classic produces improbable story

The best story won Saturday's $5-million Breeders' Cup horse race.

They call this one the Classic, and this time, it really was. But more for who won, than how or why.

About 5:55 p.m. at Santa Anita, with just a hint of sunlight still reflecting off the San Gabriel Mountains and a near-delirious throng of celebrants gathering in the winner's circle, a small woman with somebody else's heart marched toward a small man who is 50 years old, sitting atop a huge horse who was left for dead at birth.

Their names, in order, are Kathy Ritvo, Gary Stevens and Mucho Macho Man. And their place in this made-for-Hollywood movie is almost too overwhelming to digest. They were, in combination, the ultimate trio of impossibility.

The obvious was that they had, in order, prepared, ridden and won one of racing's most coveted prizes, coveted as much for the achievement as the money.

Stevens was still on the horse, having just finished his victory ride. Ritvo reached up and shook his hand. Mucho Macho Man said nothing.

It was their private moment, as fleeting as it was well-deserved. The celebration could begin. The winner's circle would be chaos, a blur. Stevens was kissed by movie star Elizabeth Banks, Ritvo hugged by track owner Frank Stronach. Stevens won again.

The smiles weren't likely to end for hours. Their faces might ache for days.

Five years ago, Ritvo, 39 then, spent six months resting on her back, looking at four walls of a hospital room. She had cardiomyopathy, a disease that would soon kill her if she didn't get a new heart.

In the 11th hour, she did, just as she was preparing herself to die. She takes 30 pills a day and one of the first things her doctor advised, to prevent rejection, was to avoid places of dirt and bacteria, such as the barn area of a racetrack.

So she went back to work as a thoroughbred trainer.

Five years ago, Stevens was two years into a retirement that had been forced by bad knees and dangerous falls. He starred in movies, television shows and did network TV commentary. Life was good, except that he wasn't riding horses and knew he still could.

In January, after seven years on the sidelines, and at an age when most jockeys look to book races for others, not ride in them, Stevens made his comeback.

Five years ago, Mucho Macho Man was being born in Florida. He left the womb and didn't move. Handlers poked, stroked, tried everything. No movement. Then, suddenly, he got up and galloped off. He was quickly nicknamed "Lazarus."

With his $3-million share of Saturday's purse, the so-called Lazarus has risen to career winnings of more than $5.5 million. Some might call that a classic resurrection.

The 58,795 people who showed up, on yet another day of November sunshine in Southern California that may continue to nudge Breeders' Cup officials toward making Santa Anita a semi-permanent home for this event, sensed something about Mucho Macho Man.

Maybe it was the incredible story lines. Maybe it seemed just too good to be true that a horse named Mucho Macho Man would make his 4-foot-11 trainer the first woman to win a Breeders' Cup Classic, interestingly four years after the first female horse, Zenyatta, broke the equine gender barrier on the same track.

Or maybe it was his impressive 41/4-length victory in the Sept. 28 Grade I Awesome Again Stakes on the same track.

Whatever, they bet Mucho Macho Man down to second favorite, behind Game On Dude, and he rewarded them at $10, $4.60 and $3.60. The photo finish showed the margin of victory as perhaps as much as three inches over D. Wayne Lukas' longshot Will Take Charge.

Stevens said that, as close as it was, he knew he had won, that riders have a feel for the finish line. "Jockeys almost always know," he said.

Each year, the Breeders' Cup has a grand finale race each day. Friday was the $2-million Distaff. Stevens won that on Beholder. Saturday was the $5-million Classic. Stevens again.

He had gone from one foot in the rest home to both feet in the record books.

"I thought it was going to happen," Stevens said, "but I can't believe it did."

He, like most of the team around Mucho Macho Man that included owners Dean and Patti Reeves and stable manager Finn Green, gave Ritvo the lion's share of the credit for what happened Saturday.

"I kept hearing that this horse was really, really sharp," Stevens said. "Then I rode him in the Awesome Again and the other day, I asked Kathy to just give me that same horse today. She said no, you'll get much, much more.

"Hers was a super training job."

Mucho Macho Man lost the Classic last year by half a length to Fort Larned, who lost a battle for third this time to Declaration Of War. Ritvo and her team worked all year, they said, just to make up that half length, and they did so with three inches to spare.

Game On Dude, a 6-year-old who has won just about everything else but failed in three Classics, struggled home in ninth. Mike Smith, his jockey, said he knew he was in trouble when Stevens came to him on the backstretch and he couldn't get Game On Dude to respond.

Stevens, who has won more than 5,000 races but never a Breeders' Cup Classic, went on by and headed for fairy tale land.

This was the 30th Breeders' Cup. It may take 30 more to top it.

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