Rather than staying home at Gulfstream Park to face the impressive To Honor and Serve (Bernardini) for a third time in next Saturday's Fountain of Youth S. (G2), trainer Kathy Ritvo decided to ship MUCHO MACHO MAN (Macho Uno) to Fair Grounds for the $300,000 Risen Star S. (G2). The plan worked to perfection on Saturday when the 7-2 shot drove to a 1 1/2-length victory over Santiva (Giant's Causeway), boosting his graded earnings to $270,000 and solidifying his credentials for a starting spot in the Kentucky Derby (G1).
Mucho Macho Man was complimenting not only To Honor and Serve, who beat him convincingly in both the Nashua S. (G2) and Remsen S. (G2) last fall, but also Dialed In (Mineshaft), who most recently defeated him in the January 30 Holy Bull S. (G3) at Gulfstream. In the one-turn mile of the Holy Bull, Mucho Macho Man was bumped hard at the break, argued the pace, and never settled en route to his fourth-place finish. Ritvo removed the colt's blinkers for the first time in the Risen Star. Whether it was the equipment change, or simply stretching back out to two turns, Mucho Macho Man tracked comfortably in the Risen Star.
But that was not the only change for the colt. Regular rider Eibar Coa was seriously injured in a spill at Gulfstream on Friday, and underwent lengthy surgery Saturday for a broken vertebra. Picking up the mount was Rajiv Maragh.
"I had been on him already in the morning, so I am a little bit familiar with the horse," Maragh said. "I've seen him run many times, so it wasn't hard to get acquainted with him."
As the confirmed front runner Decisive Moment (With Distinction) led the way through slow fractions of :24 3/5 and :49 1/5, Mucho Macho Man was poised right off his flank in second. Santiva was also forwardly placed, while slight 2-1 favorite Rogue Romance (Smarty Jones) and 2-1 second choice Machen (Distorted Humor) were held up back in the field.
Turning for home, Decisive Moment began to fade, and a scrum ensued among Mucho Macho Man, Santiva and longshot Liondrive (Lion Tamer). Mucho Macho Man had his head in front through six furlongs in 1:13 3/5, but Santiva briefly appeared to take command at the top of the stretch. Mucho Macho Man, however, was still just lengthening stride. Staying on powerfully inside the final furlong, Mucho Macho Man drove clear of Santiva, went on to finish 1 1/16 miles in 1:43 4/5 on the fast track, and rewarded his loyalists with $9.20, $4.80 and $2.80.
"In the post parade he did everything right that you would ask from a horse," Maragh recapped. "He settled but he was pretty focused, so he was giving me all the right signals.
"My horse cooperated and settled in well behind the leaders, and once he settled, I expected him to make a big finish and he sure did."
"He relaxed great today -- perfect today," Ritvo said. "I had a lot of confidence in Rajiv. He's been on him before with my husband (Tim Ritvo) in Saratoga, when my husband trained him, and Rajiv's a professional, a 100-percent professional. A great rider. And I want to wish Eibar Coa a speedy recovery. I'm very concerned about him and I wish him all the best."
Santiva's connections were pleased with his runner-up performance in his comeback, his first start since capturing the November 27 Kentucky Jockey Club S. (G2) at Churchill Downs.
"I thought he ran dynamite," jockey Mike Smith said. "Me and the winner drew away from the field, which is pretty impressive. That's tough to do down this long lane."
"We'll ship back Monday to Palm Meadows," trainer Eddie Kenneally said of Santiva. "We'll just look at all the options then and come up with a plan as to where we should run him next. But I'm happy with the way he ran today. The winner had an edge -- he's had a race already this year and we haven't had that. We'll benefit from our race today and move forward, we expect. He handled the track fine, and Mike said he did everything right. I think he's an improving horse."
Rogue Romance closed belatedly for third, 1 1/4 lengths adrift of Santiva.
"(Rogue Romance) ran good," trainer Ken McPeek said. "They had him in a bit of a box there with nowhere to go and then, I don't know, it was a good solid race. The horse ran good and he overcame some obstacles to run as well as he did. We're happy.
"We're going to keep all of our options open. We don't have anything set in stone. He drank about a bucket of water coming off this race and we're looking at this as one step of many and he'll be fine."
Machen, who checked in another 1 1/2 lengths back in fourth, was suffering his first defeat in his stakes debut.
"It was a great trip, really had a smooth trip" jockey Jamie Theriot said. "I mean I'm following the winner the whole way, I'm turning for home and laid off him and I thought I could pounce on him, but my horse just couldn't get by him, I just think he got outrun today. It was the first time I really had to bang on him. The other two races he did it very easy, well within himself, but he's good, he'll improve after this race."
"I thought he ran OK," trainer Neil Howard said. "It was a tall order for a lightly raced colt. I was pleased enough. He's only had two wins and he hasn't really been battle-tested like the rest of these three-year-olds, and I think that this race will benefit him tremendously."
Decisive Moment tired to fifth. Pants on Fire (Jump Start), the near-misser in the Lecomte S. (G3) last time at Fair Grounds, was a non-threatening sixth, trailed by Lecomte third Action Ready (More Than Ready), Justin Phillip (First Samurai), Sorgho (Storm Cat) and Liondrive.
Mucho Macho Man's first stakes victory improved his record to 7-2-3-1, and he has $310,643 in total career earnings. The bay finished second in his debut last July at Calder, yielding grudgingly to Gourmet Dinner (Trippi), the eventual winner of the Delta Downs Jackpot S. (G3). After that effort, Reeves Thoroughbred Racing bought an interest in the colt from Dream Team One Racing Stable, and they now campaign him in partnership. Mucho Macho Man was subsequently transferred to Tim Ritvo. After a third-place effort at Saratoga in August, he romped by four lengths at Monmouth in September. Kathy took over the training role when Tim took a position at Gulfstream, and he showed promise when garnering runner-up honors behind To Honor and Serve in the Nashua and Remsen.
Bred by John D. and Carole A. Rio in Florida, Mucho Macho Man was a late foal with a birthday of June 15. He is out of the stakes-winning Ponche de Leona (Ponche), who has subsequently produced a yearling filly named Mucho Mans Gold (Gottcha Gold) and a newborn filly by Chestertown Slew. Tracing the female line further back, this is the family of multiple Grade 2-winning millionaire Guided Tour (Hansel), multiple Grade 2 heroine Possible Mate (King's Bishop) and Grade 1 queen Dream Empress (Bernstein).
Mucho Macho Man could return for the March 26 Louisiana Derby (G2).
"We could," the trainer said. "I'm just going to go back and see how he comes back, and then we'll make our plans -- but he likes the track and I like it here!"