BILL DWYRE

Life is good for Mucho Macho Man trainer Kathy Ritvo

Every day is a gift for the heart transplant recipient, who is preparing the thoroughbred to race Sept. 28 in Santa Anita's Awesome Again Grade I Stakes.

It is an overcast morning Friday, and a tiny woman sits on a bale of hay outside a distant barn at Santa Anita. In the stall behind her is a giant race horse.

Her name is Kathy Ritvo, his is Mucho Macho Man.

She weighs barely 100 pounds. He stands more than 17 hands and weighs close to 1,200 pounds. They are the Mutt and Jeff of thoroughbred racing.

She is the trainer, he the breadwinner. Each has a story of survival, but hers is more compelling. Plus, she tells hers better. Mr. Ed, he is not.

They are not from here, but are happy to be visiting.

Santa Anita opens its Autumn Meet on Friday, and it is front and center for the next six weeks. Its grand finale will be Breeders' Cup weekend Nov. 1-2. It was here last year that Mucho Macho Man got to within half a length of Breeders' Cup Classic winner Fort Larned to finish second.

Mutt and Jeff will help get things rolling in next Saturday's Awesome Again Grade I Stakes, a $250,000 race that pays the way for its winner to start in the BC Classic. A good performance will keep the two around for this year's Classic.

During that extended stay, Mucho Macho Man will work at Santa Anita on a surface he seems to love, and, ideally, keep the kind of edge that gave him the fastest five-furlong performance of 58 horses on the track Sept. 13.

Mostly they will wait.

Oh, and she will repeat her story again, as more media arrive for the Breeders' Cup.

She told it Friday morning, sitting on that bale of hay, holding her 4-month-old puppy in her lap, surrounded by dirt and dust and animals and all sorts of things she should avoid.

Ritvo, you see, is a heart transplant recipient. Infection is her enemy. Her daily existence in a barn atmosphere would not rank high on a doctor's list of best environments. Nov. 13 is the fifth anniversary of receiving her new heart and she has yet to experience any signs of rejection.

"I refuse to get it," she says.

The 31 pills a day she takes contribute to that resolve.

She is a billboard for happiness. She says things such as:

— "I don't have bad days."

— "I wouldn't have my life any other way."

— "I'm a better person. I appreciate things more. You stay in the moment."

She lives in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., suburb of Davie and was 39 when she got the transplant in Miami. She had cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the walls around the heart. It had claimed her father's life and one of her brothers'. She had been failing progressively since 2001, but had done her best to maintain a stable of thoroughbreds, as well as a family with a husband and two teenage children.

Doctors studied her heart after they replaced it and told her she probably wouldn't have made it more than several weeks longer.

CHICAGO

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