Blessed with gift of life, Derby trainer shares her emotional story

Publish date:

It's possible. My mind is accustomed to this simple math, in the pursuit of correctly stating the ages of people I'm writing about. It's late April (at the time), almost four full months into the year in which Ritvo will turn 42. So if she was born after this day in '69, she's indeed still 41. But the equation is incomplete. So I forge ahead: "When is your birthday?''

"February 28,'' says Ritvo.

Now this is awkward. "I think you're 42,'' is my tepid response.

Ritvo gives it a moment's thought and then reaches the inevitable conclusion (or it's possible she's playing me, but she's doing it well). "I am 42,'' she says. And then she pulls back her right foot, as if preparing to kick me in the shin or thereabouts. "Stop aging me!'' Then she smiles and falls slack. "No, that's a good thing,'' Ritvo says. "As long as I'm aging, that's a very good thing.''

Late Saturday afternoon, Ritvo, a thoroughbred horse trainer, will saddle a towering, lanky, 3-year-old colt named Mucho Macho Man in the 137th Kentucky Derby. Macho, as Ritvo calls him, earned his way to Kentucky by winning the Feb. 19 Risen Star Stakes and then finished a tough third in the Louisiana Derby a month later, and whatever his performance in the wildly unpredictable Derby itself, it is a towering achievement simply to contest the race. Consider: There were 32,169 registered foals born in 2008 -- 20 of them will run in this year's Derby, the maximum allowed.

There is no similar calculus for a trainer getting here with somebody else's original heart beating inside her chest.

She is what you would call a horse person. There are so many in the racing game. Ritvo was raised in Braintree, Mass.; her father, Peter Petro, owned horses that raced in the '70s and '80s at Suffolk Downs and Rockingham Park, old New England tracks now shuttered. With her three brothers, Kathy spent countless hours at the racetrack, grooming and walking horses. One of her brothers, Michael, would become a trainer. Two others, Nicky and Louis, would become jockeys.

Kathy took out her trainer's license in 1987 at age 18. By then she had already been dating jockey Tim Ritvo for two years, a true racetrack romance.

"We met at Suffolk Downs,'' says Tim, "I was 19 and riding; Kathy was 16 and working for her father. I took her to her senior prom.'' They were married on Aug. 5, 1990, and soon they moved to Florida, where the horse business was better than in New England.

One afternoon they went for a jog together near their apartment. Neither one of them can remember exactly when, but it was a long time ago.

"We got about four houses down the street and I was totally out of breath, my chest was hurting,'' says Kathy. "I said to Tim, 'See you later, I'm done.'"

Tim yelled at Kathy, "Come on, you've got to get in shape. Your chest has to burn.'' Tuesday morning at Churchill Downs, Tim sat in a plastic chair inside a tack room and remembered the day.

"She weighed about 83 pounds,'' he says. "Thinking back on it, it had to be something else.''

They had two children together: A daughter named Dominique born in 1992 and a son, Michael, born in 1994. Tim became the principal trainer in the family. Kathy worked for Tim but always she was tired. Her brother, Louis, died at age 38 in 1996. He had heart disease, but before that, says Kathy, he had suffered a stroke.

"We thought it was just a freak thing,'' she says. Nobody suggested a connection to her malaise. After all, racetrack people get up at 4 in the morning. It's a hard life, and they're always exhausted.

But Kathy was sick.

"Looking back,'' says Kathy, "I was born with something and I just got used to it.''

In December 2001, Kathy was 20 weeks pregnant with her third child when she became ever weaker and was admitted to a South Florida hospital. A cardiologist diagnosed her with a form of cardiomyopathy, which defines a broad range of diseases to the heart muscle. Her pregnancy was terminated -- "The doctors told us it was the baby or Kathy, but they couldn't both survive,'' says Tim -- and Kathy was placed on a medication regimen.

Doctors told Tim and Kathy that patients with her condition who are placed on medication could be split into thirds: A third would get better, a third would stay roughly the same and a third would worsen. She got better for several years and then gradually much worse.

On a spring morning in 2008, she drove her children to school and then called Tim from outside the building.

"She was crying,'' says Tim, "and she was so weak that she couldn't drive back home.''

Tim brought Kathy back to the hospital, and she was transferred to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. There, she was told that she needed a heart transplant.

"It was scary to hear that,'' she says. "But at that point, I felt so terrible that I wanted to hear anything. It's a lot better than" -- here she invokes the same language as from her jog with Tim many years earlier -- "'See you later.'"

She was accepted onto a transplant list -- not everyone is -- and told to wait.

It was nearly seven months, until the night of Nov. 12, 2008, when Kathy was sitting at home watching Clean House on the Style Network.

"You know,'' she says. "With Niecy Nash?'' Then she breaks into the theme song: "Who wants to clean house. ...'' Ritvo is a break-into-song kind of person.

During the show, Jackson Memorial called to tell her that a possible heart match had been found. Kathy recalls that the woman on the phone asked, "Would you like to accept the match?'' It seemed like such simple language. Kathy said yes, she would like to accept the match.

The woman said she would call back after some additional matching tests. Kathy and Tim went upstairs and told their kids what was about to happen. The family prayed together, and soon after that, the hospital called to confirm the match. Kathy was admitted shortly after midnight, and cardiac surgeon Dr. Si M. Pham of the Miami Transplant Institute at Jackson Memorial put a new heart into Kathy.

According to Kathy and Tim, at the time of Kathy's transplant, her heart's ejection fraction -- the rate at which the muscle pumps blood into her body -- was 12 percent, about 20 percent of normal. The American Heart Association says that of the more than 2,000 heart transplants performed every year in the United States, only 27.6 percent are done on women and only 19.4 percent on patients from age 35 to 49. Kathy Ritvo was a 39-year-old woman, a distinct minority.

She was up and walking the halls of Jackson Memorial in two days and discharged in seven. "One of our shorter stays,'' says Tim.

Now Kathy sees life through different eyes. When she was hospitalized in 2008, she shared spaced with a young man -- 24, says Kathy -- who needed a transplant but wasn't healthy enough in other ways to be placed on the list.

"His parents were there every day,'' she says, "and to see them walk out of the room. ...

"Somebody gave me a gift,'' she says. "Now instead of taking pictures, I want to live every day. I want to appreciate every day.'' (Kathy has written a letter asking to meet her heart donor's family; that letter has not yet been answered).

She has gone to work for the last couple of weeks at this cathedral of racing, with Mucho Macho Man, a horse that has a genuine chance to win the Derby. He's a tough, hard-knocking colt who finished a game third in the Louisiana Derby despite losing his right front shoe leaving the gate.

People want to hear her story. And that's OK. She will tell it again and again, because there is a message inside the tale.

"I'll talk all day if it helps anybody,'' Kathy says. "You know, to have faith, to donate an organ. I am so blessed to have my life back.''

Mucho Macho Man is her horse because in October, Tim took a job as vice president of East Coast racing for Magna International Developments, which owns several racetracks. When Tim took that position, Kathy became the trainer of record for Macho.

"And that's good,'' says Tim. "Kathy's story is better than mine.''

Kathy's story. Illness, desperation, a lifesaving operation and then the best horse she has ever touched. How can this happen?

She looks up and squints into the sun, considering the question. A few steps away, Macho grazes on the thick grass. Ritvo says, "You tell me."