SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Mucho Macho Man is as big as thoroughbreds get, so the name couldn't fit better. At 17 hands, 3 inches -- a "hand,'' an equine measurement from ancient Egypt, is about 4 inches -- he towers over opponents. As a 4-year-old, his performances finally have begun to approach that stature.
Trainer Kathy Ritvo's colt has won four of his last five races, including the Grade II Suburban Handicap, and is the 8-5 morning-line favorite for Saturday's $750,000 Woodward Handicap at Saratoga. He's never earned a Grade I trophy, and neither has she, and maybe the time is right to make that breakthrough together. "This is what we've been working for,'' Ritvo said, "and hopefully, we can make it happen for him.''
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As Mucho Macho Man dominated the Suburban by 2 1/2 lengths July 7 at Belmont Park, Ritvo enjoyed a career moment. "My hands were shaking when I saw how easily he was running and how much horse Mike Smith had,'' she said. "It's great seeing him put together so many good races in a row. I have to pinch myself.''
To Honor and Serve (2-1) and Stay Thirsty (5-1) will try to rebound from subpar races in the Suburban.
Ritvo, 43, is easy to root for, a soft-spoken mother of two who had a heart transplant in 2008. Mucho Macho Man is her first marquee horse, and to maximize his potential, she needed lots of patience. After rallying for third in last year's Kentucky Derby, he was sixth in the Preakness and seventh in the Belmont before getting a five-month layoff.
"I think we've figured him out now by giving him more time [6-10 weeks] between his races,'' Ritvo said. "He's been maturing and handling it so well. He's starting to fill out and get these great muscles in his back.''
A year ago, "Macho'' was out of the picture after losing seven of his previous eight starts. Stay Thirsty had just stamped himself as Saratoga's horse of the meeting by sweeping the Jim Dandy and the Travers Stakes. Stay Thirsty will try to end his 0-for-4 skid in the 1 1/8-mile Woodward on a track he loves (3-for-4).
"Stay Thirsty is rounding back into his best form,'' leading trainer Todd Pletcher said. "He's training as well as he ever has. Based on his form at Saratoga, I think he's one of the horses to beat, if not the horse to beat.''