Woodward Preview: Mucho Macho Man takes aim

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Kathy Ritvo watched Mucho Macho Man walk toward the barn after training Friday morning and oohed like a fan, not a trainer. “See those muscles up across his back? See them?” she asked. “Three months of jogging.”

Always big, long-legged, fast and full of potential, Mucho Macho Man won his third career start at 2 and competed in all three Triple Crown races last year. Then he took a vacation, spending five months away from the races. He jogged, he chilled, he worked on those muscles. Mostly, he grew.

Last November, in his return from the bench, he won an optional claimer at Aqueduct. This year, he’s flown up the ladder with wins in the Sunshine Millions Classic in January, the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap in March and the Suburban in July. The only real blemish was a third in the Alysheba at Churchill Downs in May. At 8-5 in a field of seven, the 4-year-old son of Macho Uno goes for his first Grade 1 in today’s Woodward. In three of its last four runnings, the $750,000 race has been won by the eventual Horse of the Year (Havre de Grace, Rachel Alexandra, Curlin), and Mucho Macho Man would boost his chances significantly with a victory.

Ritvo is just glad the race has finally arrived, bumping fists with Reeves Thoroughbred Racing’s Finn Green after training Friday. Their job is done. The horse is ready. The preparations complete. He will walk out of his deeply bedded and high-banked stall at the end of Ritvo’s barn on the far turn of the main track this afternoon – as ready as he can be.

Off since a July 7 romp in the Suburban, Mucho Macho Man has owned Saratoga in the early morning. He trains at 5:30 to avoid the crowds at Oklahoma, at first standing like the Seabiscuit statue (one that chews on a ring bit the way the cool kids crack their gum) along the rail, then jogging the wrong way past the wire, turning and stepping into a slow canter. Friday, he swished his tail and played through the early stages, but was nothing but business on the second trip through the stretch for exercise rider Nick Petro.

In addition to those gallops, Mucho Macho Man has worked five times at Saratoga, including Oklahoma moves of 47 seconds for a half-mile Aug. 12, and 1:00 4/5 for 5 furlongs Aug. 19. He went to the main track Aug. 26, getting 5 furlongs in 1:02 4/5.

Ritvo and Green both list their horse at 17-3, and he’s at least in the neighborhood. He looks big in his stall. He looks big walking the shedrow. He looks big drinking huge gulps from his water bucket. He looks big standing outside the barn. On the track, he’s still big but he’s got a balance, a flow to him. Big? Yes. Awkward? No.

“He’s put on a lot of muscle,” said Ritvo about how her horse has changed. “He’s definitely getting bigger and better every day. He looks really good. He was always very sensible, but now he’s smart. He’s just strong, strong in his mind and he’s strong in his body now too.”

Mucho Macho Man won the Grade 2 Risen Star last year at Fair Grounds, then finished third in the Louisiana and Kentucky Derbies. Bred by John and Carole Rio, the bay colt wound up sixth in the Preakness and was a well-beaten seventh in the Belmont mud. Ritvo called for a break and drew up a 2012 schedule with Green, who was hired as the racing manager for Patti and Dean Reeves this time last year.

“We were pretty straightforward with our approach,” Ritvo said. “Coming off a 5-month layoff gave us a lot of confidence. He definitely likes the time between races because he likes to train so much. We didn’t think about the Whitney (Aug. 4). We made a plan last year and we mapped out all his races. We had backups – if this didn’t work, we could go here – but we stuck to the plan and so far it’s been great. Hopefully it will continue.”

For Green, the Woodward is a chance to extend that plan and confirm his opinion of the horse.

“He’s a cool horse, a neat horse,” said Green. “I was around him in Florida at the end of his 2-year-old year. I loved the horse, I thought ‘Wow, he’s huge.’ He reminded me of a lot of horses from my childhood. Late Bloomer, Stage Door Johnny, Bowl Game, the bigger horses from back then that were two-turn horses. The first thing I thought when I saw him was ‘This is going to be a good two-turn horse, but he’s going to need time.’ He had raw ability, a lot of it. What Kathy’s done in the last 10 or 12 months, having the time, and the way she trains him, has really made a difference. He’s got muscles in his back that big horses don’t get. It gives him a different look, a different appearance. You try to do everything right with them, and hope it works out.”

Mucho Macho Man starts from post three with Mike Smith, who joined the team in the Suburban – in part because of the jockey’s touch with big, long-striding horses.

A few stalls to the favorite’s outside in the gate will stand another big, long, strapping horse. Five-year-old gelding Cease puts his 3-for-3 Saratoga mark on the line while looking for his first graded stakes win for trainer Al Stall. The bay has run just 12 times in his career, but exits a powerful tally in an optional claimer here July 25.

Like Mucho Macho Man, Cease needed time to catch up to himself and didn’t start until late in his 3-year-old season for owners/breeders Adele Dilschneider and Claiborne Farm. He won twice here last summer, just missed in the Hawthorne Gold Cup in October and was fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Marathon. This year, the son of War Chant won the Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston, chased Wise Dan home when fourth in the Ben Ali and was fifth in the Louisville Handicap on turf in May.

Stall likes what Saratoga does to his horse, though he’s not just here for the weather.

“His coat is really slicked-up right now and he looks good,” said the trainer. “He makes you look at him. He runs pretty well everywhere, it’s not just here. He’s been in some bigger races. He’s got some hair on his chest, he’s seen some tough horses. I don’t feel like I’m throwing him to the wolves. He can take it. We went from a one other than to the Hawthorne Gold Cup, almost won the thing. He’s all right.”

Cease breaks from the outside in the seven-horse field for Joel Rosario and is 10-1 on the morning line.

Favored in his last four starts, Live Oak Plantation’s 2-1 second choice To Honor And Serve looks to rebound from losses behind strong performances – Shackleford’s Met Mile May 28 and Mucho Macho Man’s Suburban July 7. The 4-year-old son of Bernardini opened 2012 with a powerful score in the 1-mile Westchester at Belmont. Trainer Bill Mott dialed up a half-mile tightener in 49 4/5 seconds at Oklahoma Monday. John Velazquez gets back aboard for the first time since winning an optional claimer here last summer.

Jim Dandy and Travers winner Stay Thirsty finished fifth behind the favorite in the Suburban but returns to the scene of three of his four career wins for Repole Stable and Todd Pletcher. The 4-year-old starts from post five at 5-1 for Javier Castellano. Trainer Rick Dutrow brings Trickmeister in off a fifth in the Whitney four weeks ago. The lightly raced 5-year-old won a small stakes here in 2010 and defeated Stay Thirsty in the Vanlandingham at Belmont in May. Irad Ortiz takes the ride at 6-1 from post four.

Our Sugar Bear Stable’s Gourmet Dinner returns to the races two weeks after finishing fourth in Monmouth Park’s Iselin for trainer Bruce Brown. The 4-year-old son of Trippi boasts more than $1 million in career earnings. Alan Garcia rides from post two at 30-1.

WinStar Farm’s Rule breaks from the rail while looking to erase the sting of a 25-length defeat in the Whitney. The 5-year-old son of Roman Ruler won the Grade 2 Monmouth Cup in his 2012 debut and captured the Birdstone before finishing third in the Woodward here last summer. Ramon Dominguez rides at 12-1.