May 19 2014

A New Spin on Mucho Macho Man’s Breeders’ Cup Win

MMM Signed2

Mucho Macho Man (signed by Gary Stevens)

What do Gary Stevens, John Lies, Craig O’Bryan, Kathy Ritvo, Temeraine, Kentucky Downs Racetrack, and Mucho Macho Man all have in common? They all played a part in winning the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Now admittedly, Mucho Macho Man was the main ingredient in this recipe for success. However, as with any good recipe, there were a number of subtleties that contributed to the savory result. This is a story about one such subtlety and explains the connection between the horses, racetrack, and people listed above.

Before I begin the story, let me explain that I was personally present at Kentucky Downs for Acts Two and Three. For that reason, I offer some of my own commentary on events as they unfolded on those days.

In total there are five acts to this story, and although the outcome of the final act is probably known by most readers, I doubt very much that any of the preceding acts are common knowledge.

Act One: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at Kentucky Downs Racetrack in Franklin, Kentucky.

Gary Stevens comes into town to play in a charity golf tournament with some legends of the game, including Pat Day, Chris McCarron, Eddie Maple, and Randy Romero. They are chased off the course by lightning after 8 holes of play. Later that night, Gary attends a Q&A session at Kentucky Downs Casino, where he and Randy Romero are talking about the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff between Personal Ensign and Winning Colors. Gary later described it to me as “one of the greatest races of all time.” And after watching it again, it’s hard to argue with him. The video replay appears below if you would like to see it one more time (or maybe for the 1st time).

Personal Ensign completed a perfect career (13 win in 13 starts) by winning this race, and was subsequently retired. In the process, Gary Stevens finished 2nd by the slimmest of margins. Twenty five years has passed since that day and much has happened to Gary … including a 7-year retirement from riding, followed by a comeback this year at 50 years young. A Breeders’ Cup win in 2013 will validate everything he went through to make that implausible return to racing.

Act Two: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at Kentucky Downs Racetrack in Franklin, Kentucky.

Gary Stevens is scheduled to ride two horses at Kentucky Downs. He has never ridden at Kentucky Downs and is anxious to get a couple of races under his belt before riding in the $400,000 feature race coming up on Saturday. But things don’t go exactly as planned. In Gary Stevens’ own words:

I had gone out and walked the course on Tuesday morning before the golf tournament. It was hot and humid and I’m walking this course, and I’m like son of a gun this is different. It’s like riding in England man. I was soaking wet when I came back after walking the course, from the humidity.

So I get up on Wednesday and it had cooled off nice. I was supposed to ride two horses that afternoon, late in the day. Got to the jockey’s room early and this big squall started coming in and that’s the day they had the lightning strike there inside that tent. I took a picture on my phone of those clouds coming in, and sent it to Tom Proctor. I said, “Buddy if you’re on your way, you might better turn around.” He sent me a text back and said, “I’m in the middle of that right now.” And then they cancelled the races. So I missed the opportunity to ride over the course before I rode in the big race on Saturday.

Since there are no races on Thursday or Friday, Gary loses all opportunity to get a ride over the very unique Kentucky Downs course before Saturday’s big race. He will have to rely on his skills and experiences over similar European race courses.

Act Three: Saturday, September 14, 2013 at Kentucky Downs Racetrack in Franklin, Kentucky.

Fans at Kentucky Downs

Kentucky Downs – Sept. 14, 2013

The feature race of the day is the $400,000 Kentucky Turf Cup. Gary Stevens is riding a horse called Temeraine. In direct contrast to Wednesday, the day is stunningly beautiful. The weather is in the mid-70s, the sun is shining brilliantly, music playing from a live band, and the patrons are spread out over the grass. A scene you can only imagine in your head.

John Lies, the track announcer comes on the air before each race and discusses the upcoming race with Gary West, who is stationed in the paddock. John’s style is comforting and informative. I have to confess, I usually block out all on-air commentary when I’m at the racetrack, but I sensed John was different. After two or three races, I turned to my wife and said, “This guy is good … whoever he is.” And she replied, “Yea, I really like his style.” Now, as a longtime fan, there weren’t many things John said that I didn’t already know. But it was just how he said them that kept my attention … and, as I looked around the crowd, it was apparent I was not the only one listening to what he had to say.

The Kentucky Turf Cup is a 1 ½ mile long race, a marathon … a race of endurance and skill … for both the horse and jockey. Here is Gary Stevens’ description of the race and how it unfolded.

It’s a very unique racetrack. I had walked the course, but I’d never ridden a race. Here I am riding in a $400,000 race and you’re going over hill and dale and a long left-handed turn, and uphill in the straight-away. I’d gone from 4th up to 3rd place, and then we start the long turn going downhill, and then we’re like a half mile out and it’s like the cavalry charge was on, and everybody moved … and I let them go. I’m thinking I can’t start riding this horse this far out … not only will he not finish, but I won’t finish either.

So, we got inside the final 3/16th of a mile and the rail kind of drifts back in, and I was down on the inside and a small opening happened and I was able to slip through on the inside and got up in the final strides. And John (Lies) hit it with the “Hall of Fame ride from Gary Stevens.” It was one of my better rides, but I had the horse that was game enough to go in the small opening and have the stamina going a mile and a half to get the job done.

Now that you’ve heard Gary’s description, below is the video of the race. Just a warning, the first 20 seconds of the video are a bit shaky. But, after that it clears up.

As you heard, at the finish line, John Lies made the “Hall of Fame” comment. I later had the opportunity to ask John for an explanation of why he “hit it” so emphatically at the end of the race. Here is what he told me:

Three main reasons why Gary Stevens’ ride on Temeraine was excellent: he sensed there was no pace up front and had his late-running horse closer to the leaders early because of it.  He resisted the urge to move too soon around the final turn and waited when other riders were getting involved. And, he saved every inch of ground on both corners and squeezed through a tight opening along the rail in the final furlong rather than shifting ground or altering course on a horse who had never won beyond 1-1/16 miles before … and he gets up to win a 1-1/2 mile marathon by a head. In short, he needed to give his horse all of those advantages in order to win that race.

So, it wasn’t just some bombastic comment that John was adding in at the end of the race. He had processed all of this as the race was unfolding, and landed the perfect comment at the end to sum it up, calling it a “Hall of Fame” ride. In my opinion, it was a “Hall of Fame” race call as well.

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Act Four: Days after the Termeraine race somewhere on the Santa Anita backside in California.

Craig O’Bryan, Gary Stevens’ agent, is visiting the barn of Kathy Ritvo, the trainer of Mucho Macho Man. He introduces himself, and he tells Kathy that Gary is interested in riding her horse in the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita on September 28. Kathy makes a comment that she is surprised that not one agent had come by the barn to that point, and she feels that she has one of the best horses in the country. According to Gary, Craig pulls out his phone and says, “I want you to watch this race.” He had the Temeraine race from September 14 on his phone. He says, “I want you to see what you can have … if you get one of the greatest riders …” He put the whole spiel on … you know, that’s the agent’s job. So, Kathy and Finn Green (Racing Manager for the owners Dean and Patti Reeves) watch the video race replay on Craig’s telephone, hearing John Lie’s race call. Afterward Kathy says, “You’ve got the mount.”

So Mucho Macho Man goes on to win the Awesome Again Stakes impressively by more than four lengths, setting him and Gary Stevens up nicely for a legitimate shot at the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Act Five: November 2, 2013 at Santa Anita Race Track (Breeders’ Cup Day)

Exactly 25 years after Gary Stevens lost by the slimmest of margins aboard Winning Colors, he has five Breeders’ Cup Race mounts. The first is aboard She’s A Tiger in the $2 million Juvenile Fillies race. Despite crossing the finish line first, they are disqualified and placed 2nd. Gary later told me, “I’ve never been disqualified in a $2 million race before. I had to get rid of it man. I had to go back into the Jock’s room and start thinking about the other horses I had to ride. I thought it was a questionable call and it was tough … tough on my owners. But, I had to get it out of my brain and concentrate on what was coming later in the day.”

So, later in the day, this story comes to a conclusion with the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Below is the video replay of one of the most exciting races in Breeders’ Cup history. Mucho Macho Man is #6 .

Of course, there are many nuances to this incredible Breeders’ Cup finish. Kathy Ritvo is the survivor of a heart transplant. Gary Stevens completed his comeback year after having been out of racing for seven years. Finn Green overcame numerous personal problems to be the racing manager for the winning owners. There is enough in there for a movie script. Pay attention Hollywood.

But, for me, in telling this story … I’d like to call attention to the efforts of one track announcer, John Lies. I’m sure that John would say that his part was a small one. But, who really knows for sure which jockey Kathy Ritvo and Finn Green would have chosen had they not heard John make that enthusiastic “Hall of Fame ride” race call?

Maybe this story is a lesson for all of us, who might consider our part small in the whole scheme of things. When you are tempted to feel that what you have to say doesn’t matter, think again. Speak true, be emphatic, and believe that your work can and sometimes does make a big difference.


Coincidentally, I had written a prior article about Kentucky Downs and specifically about the two days mentioned (September 11 and 14) in this story. Click here to revisit my Kentucky Downs story. In a follow-up conversation I had with Gary Stevens, he had this to say about his Kentucky Downs experience:

It’s definitely one of the more demanding racetracks that I’ve ever ridden at, with the uphill climb down the backstretch, the long drop-down turn, and the long straightaway. I can’t wait to go back! Hopefully I’ll get an opportunity to ride something again there this year. It reminded me of a fair atmosphere, just laid back, it was cool. I loved it.

As I mentioned in this story, I was so impressed with John Lies during my visit to Kentucky Downs that I tracked him down and did an extensive interview with him in October of 2013. Click here to learn more about John Lies, an up and coming race commentator.

Finally, earlier this year I did a full interview with the Hall Of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, in which he discusses pre-race preparations, the importance of jockey safety, how he manages the ups and downs of the business, and his personal account of the events on Breeders’ Cup 2013. Click here to read, Gary Stevens – You’re Only As Good As Your Last Ride.

Neal Headshot2
By Neal Benoit

5 comments on “A New Spin on Mucho Macho Man’s Breeders’ Cup Win

  1. Hello, my name is Crystal Fernung and my husband Brent and I own and operate Journeyman Stud in Ocala, Florida. I enjoyed your article which I found through Jockey World’s Facebook page.
    While I truly enjoyed your article I have only one critic, no mention of the breeders of Mucho Macho Man.
    It is something that has always bothered me about our industry. We hear who the trainer is, who the owner is, who the jockey and groom are but not much about the breeders who “created” the horse in the first place, at least not in most story lines.
    Carol and John Rio are the kind of breeders that make up the real backbone of our industry. People who actually make their living breeding horses, the leather for the shoemaker…if you will. The breeders of a horse from purchase of the mare, breeding and gestation, to public sale sometimes have invested 3 years in that animal at time of sale.
    Brent and I still actually foal all of our mares and during this time of year can have 3 generations on the ground out of a particular mare, the suckling, yearling and the 2-year old we are getting ready for a training sale.
    As breeders we watch them take their first steps, run across our fields with other foals of that year learning how to be a horse and put the tack on their backs for the first time.
    We have known the Rios for many years and while not having a stallion operation, are much the same as Brent and myself. They have worked hard to make their way over the years and I just wanted you to know their story as well as their commonality to Mucho Macho Man.
    Crystal Fernung

    • Hi Crystal. Thanks for writing in your thoughts. One of my goals is to raise awareness among fans about the many people that play a role in putting this show on. Your comments alone help to do that. Beyond that, I hope to have the opportunity to meet and interview people like yourself so we can get into more details about what you do … and why you do it. Here is a link to an article I wrote recently explaining my approach in raising awareness.

      • Hi Neal, I completely agree with your comment of our need to raise awareness among fans. As chair of the Equine Alliance of Marion County in Florida we have a weekly radio show each Friday that is geared toward 101 teaching to our business owners and citizens. We also have our Facebook page Horse Sense that we use to do the same. One by one the voices of the few can become the voices of the many and our industry can not only survive but prosper. I look forward to reading more of your articles

        Crystal Fernung

  2. I’ll add another tidbit: Craig O’Bryan was at Mucho Macho Man’s stall to get picture of the horse at a friend’s request. Jessica Lighthill is a big fan of MMM and texted Craig, who didn’t even know the horse was at Santa Anita. The whole story can be found here:

    We are all RTIP (Race Track Industry Program) alums, and it’s great to see individuals already shaping the industry 🙂

    Bailey Gallison on

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