The craziest gold nuggets occasionally surface in the Land of Twitter. Last Saturday, Angie Stevens, wife of comeback jockey Gary Stevens, plopped down a gold mine, packaged in a tiny, neat tweet anyone could have easily missed. When I saw it, I got goosebumps. For a golden thread spanning 75 years and a day connects two of the most inspirational turf stories our country has ever witnessed: the stories of Mucho Macho Man and Seabiscuit.
November 2, 2013
Kathy Ritvo is a small person with a quiet grace about her. She smiles a lot too. After battling fatigue for many years, she was diagnosed in 2001 with cardiomyopathy, a degenerative disease that weakens the heart muscle and had claimed both her father and brother. Though progressively failing over the next 7 years, she managed to keep herself going, along with a stable of Thoroughbreds, her husband and two teenage sons, until early 2008. At the 11th hour in November 2008, and given only two weeks to live, she received a new heart. Have faith in possibilities of the impossible. It has now been 5 years.
In June 2008, while Kathy lay in a hospital bed, a mare named Ponche de Leona gave a final push in a Florida stable, and her foal emerged. It was a colt. But he was not breathing. Or moving. The farm managers talked to him, prodded him, massaged him. No response. He was a stillbirth, and his onlookers began accepting the reality. One person then prayed over his lifeless heap, and to their sheer shock he awoke, jumped up and started running around—not just standing, but running. Who gives the horse its strength? In disbelief, one of his onlookers uttered “Lazarus.” His name eventually became Mucho Macho Man. But his Bible nickname stuck.
Gary Stevens had everything a retired jockey ever hoped. He was broadcasting for national networks. He was acting in Hollywood films. But there was one thing missing, a void that could not be filled—the horses. I wanted to see if life ends at a certain age… it doesn’t. In a move that stunned the racing world, he announced his comeback out of a 7-year retirement this year at the ripe age of 50—near elderly in the tough world of jockeys—with breathtaking success. He’s won more than 5,000 races in his career, but the Classic had always eluded him… his sights were set.
On November 2, 2013, the trio walked onto the track at Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Against bigger trainers. Against more favored horses. Against younger jockeys. But they were confidant. They believed in each other. Thundering down the homestretch, three horses battled head-to-head as they neared the wire. Mucho Macho Man gave one last lunge. He won by 3 inches.
The trainer was told she wouldn’t live. The horse was told it was dead. And the jockey was told he was too old. Horse, rider, trainer and owner became an inspiration to a struggling country, symbolizing just how much is possible when courage is summoned, faith is offered, and fear pushed aside. Because sometimes the greatest miracles surface when we have the courage to call anything possible.
November 1, 1938 (Seventy-five Years Earlier)
An undersized, depression-era horse that people gave up on, Seabiscuit was often the butt of jokes in his barn. You are what people believe you to be. Wracked with conformational flaws and declared ‘lazy,’ he was therefore subjected to a grueling schedule of claiming races, where he could have been purchased via a claim for only $2500. Nobody did. He was simply running to cover his feed bill.
A new, unorthodox trainer named Red Pollard showed up on the track. Necessity is the mother of all invention. Tom Smith was a quiet cowboy whose livelihood on the back of a horse was dying a slow death with the invention of the automobile. So he came to the racetrack because all he knew—and really cared about—were horses. Irony plays a tough hand at times. His new employer? An automobile mandate named Charles Howard. But even Howard started as a nobody. He was all about seeing potential in unlikely places. He saw it in this trainer, and hired him.
Red Pollard was a scrappy, half-blind jockey, who was abandoned at a Montana racetrack at 15 years old by his Depression-ladened family. He battled his perceived inadequacies and questioned his abandonment. The Why Question is a haunting one. Match made in heaven. Horse and rider with similar struggles were introduced. The team was set.
On November 1, 1938, The Greatest Match Race of the Century at Pimlico was set. Seabiscuit, the sentimental favorite of America, was, true to fashion, not the favorite. His lone competitor, War Admiral at 4-1, loomed over the scrawny, small Seabiscuit. Over 40,000 people watched in the stands. Four million listened on the radio. In a herculean effort, David beat Goliath that day in a Cinderella story for the ages.
Horse, rider, trainer and owner became a lifeline to a hopeless country, symbolizing what heights can be realized when people start believing in the Nobodys. Because there is always a Somebody waiting to be woken up in a Nobody.
Santa Anita was home to Seabiscuit’s last race, the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap. After recovering for two years together at the Howard Ranch from outside injuries, both horse and jockey returned for this final comeback, and won. A greater ending to Seabiscuit’s story could not have been written.
In his honor, a life-sized bronze of Seabiscuit stands in the center of the Santa Anita paddock as a continual reminder that all Nobodys are Somebodys waiting to be believed in.
How appropriate it is that 75 years and 1 day later, Seabiscuit’s presence loomed in that same paddock, watching over another unlikely trio of impossibilities, as Ritvo, Stephens and Lazarus walked into the tunnel to claim their piece of history, and show the world once again that all things are possible when faith and belief are undaunted.