ARCADIA, Calif. — Gary Stevens had never won the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic in his long career. Kathy Ritvo came close a year ago with Mucho Macho Man only to settle for second.
The veteran jockey and the trainer who got another chance at life after a heart transplant in 2008 teamed up with the hard-knocking horse to win by a whisker Saturday.
Mucho Macho Man edged Will Take Charge in a photo finish decided by a nose, making Ritvo the first female trainer to win North America’s richest race at a Breeders’ Cup that began tragically with the death of a horse in the first race.
“I didn’t know the photo was as close as it was,” said Stevens, who was 0-for-14 in the Classic.
Stevens capped his comeback at 50 in stellar fashion, surviving a photo finish in the Classic after winning the $2 million Distaff with Beholder on Friday for a sweep of the biggest races at the two-day world championships at Santa Anita.
Ritvo became the fifth female trainer to win a Breeders’ Cup race and got to celebrate a year after seeing Mucho Macho Man finish second by a half-length to winner Fort Larned.
“Thrilling,” she said.
First, though, Ritvo had to sweat out the results.
Mucho Macho Man stretched his neck to hold off Will Take Charge, trained by 78-year-old Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas.
“I was just hoping he got it,” Ritvo said. “When I saw Gary shake his stick, I was confident. He ran a fantastic race.”
Game On Dude, the 8-5 favorite who was 5-0 this year, finished ninth on his home track for trainer Bob Baffert and co-owner Joe Torre, the retired Dodgers and Yankees manager.
Baffert had an up-and-down day. His filly, Secret Compass, broke her leg in the opening Juvenile Fillies race and had to be euthanized. Then he won two races before Game On Dude lost as the favorite for the second straight year.
“When I saw him going real fast on the backstretch, I knew I was in trouble,” he said. “Then when Mike (Smith) asked him, there was nothing there. You always feel bad when you get beat, but I feel worse for the horse.”
Fort Larned wound up fourth.
Mucho Macho Man ran 1 ¼ miles in 2:00.72 and paid $10, $4.60 and $3.60 as the 4-1 second choice. The victory likely earned him champion older male honors and may get him consideration for Horse of the Year honors, which Game On Dude could have wrapped up with a win.
Current Horse of the Year Wise Dan repeated in the $2 million Mile, winning by three-quarters of a length under Jose Lezcano, a late replacement for Velazquez. He paid $3.60 to win as the 4-5 favorite.
Will Take Charge returned $7.20 and $4.80.
“It’s just a heartbreak that he lost,” said Lukas, who won his only Classic in 1999 with Cat Thief. “He did everything right. The jump after the wire we got him.”
Declaration of War was another head back in third and paid $4.80 to show.
Stevens and Mucho Macho Man started moving on the outside around the stretch turn and went after the leaders. They got in front coming out of the turn for home, with Stevens urging the 5-year-old Mucho Macho Man on with a right-handed whip.
“They give me a free roll around the far turn,” he said. “I think that might have been the winning move.”
Ritvo, a 44-year-old mother of two, waited six months for a new heart in 2008. Mucho Macho Man first put her in the national spotlight two years ago when he ran in all three Triple Crown races, including third in the Kentucky Derby.
“Kathy Ritvo is one of the most underrated trainers in the thoroughbred industry,” said Finn Green, racing manager for Mucho Macho Man’s owners Dean and Patti Reeves.
Lukas put Stevens on Oxbow in the Preakness in May, and they won.
“Gary is riding in a zone,” the trainer said. “I think we jump-started him in the Preakness pretty good.”
Last Gunfighter was fifth, followed by Palace Malice, Paynter (trained by Baffert), Flat Out, Game On Dude, Moreno and Planteur.
The 30th Breeders’ Cup got off to a troubling start, with a rare disqualification in the opening race and Secret Compass euthanized because of a broken leg.
The $2 million Juvenile Fillies went from strange to tragic over several minutes. The DQ was announced after a green screen went up in a spot approaching the final turn to shield injured Secret Compass from the crowd.
“When you lose a horse like that, it just took all the wind out of our sails,” Baffert said. “I’ve never had something like that happen on a big day. We’re all still in shock.”
John Velazquez, who rode Secret Compass, had emergency surgery to remove his spleen after internal bleeding was discovered shortly before he was to be released from a Pasadena hospital.
Ria Antonia finished second but was declared the winner of the 1 1/16-mile race after She’s a Tiger was disqualified by the stewards.
They ruled that She’s a Tiger and Stevens drifted out late, bumped Ria Antonia and Javier Castellano, slowing her momentum.
It was the first DQ of a winner since the inaugural 1984 Juvenile Fillies race in which Fran’s Valentine won and later was placed 10th.
“This is heartbreaking,” said Jeff Bonde, who trains She’s a Tiger.
Sent off at 32-1 odds, Ria Antonia paid $66.60, $29.80 and $17.40. The winning time was 1:43.02 and the margin was a nose.
She’s a Tiger returned $6.40 and $4.80. Rosalind paid $6.80 to show.
Running third at the time, Secret Compass’ front legs collapsed, slamming Velazquez hard into the dirt. Baffert’s 2-year-old filly was euthanized after sustaining a lateral condylar fracture, according to on-call veterinarian Dr. Wayne McIlwraith.
“It is the worst type of injury we get, unfortunately,” he said.
Velazquez was to ride in all nine Breeders’ Cup races, but he was replaced by other jockeys.
Baffert was smiling later when 10-1 shot New Year’s Day rallied on the rail to win the $2 million Juvenile by 1 ¼ lengths. The colt paid $23 to win, with jockey Martin Garcia earning his first Cup victory.
But the trainer’s emotions were raw.
“Just the win is exciting, but in the back of my mind, I’m thinking about that filly,” he said.
Baffert and Garcia also teamed to win the $1.5 million Sprint by a neck with Secret Circle.
Baffert earned his third win in the Juvenile, whose winner is typically tagged as the early Kentucky Derby favorite. His other entry, Tap It Rich, finished fifth.
Havana, the 5-2 favorite trained by Todd Pletcher, was second. Strong Mandate, trained by Lukas, was third.
After the early drama, 3-2 favorite Dank restored order by winning the $2 million Filly &Mare Turf by a half-length over Romantica. Ridden by Ryan Moore, Dank ran 1 ¼ miles in 1:58.73 and paid $5, $3.40 and $2.80.
Another favorite, 3-1 Groupie Doll, won the $1 million Filly &Mare Sprint for the second straight year by a half-length.
Mizdirection defended her title in the $1 million Turf Sprint for co-owner Jim Rome, the sports talk host. She ran 6 ½ furlongs in 1:12.25 under Smith, who extended his record for most Cup wins by a jockey to 20. He won two races on opening day Friday.