ELMONT, N.Y. — Trainer Kathy Ritvo rightfully has some high standards when it comes to assessing toughness.
It took the diminutive blonde all of about six months following her heart transplant in November 2008 before she was back whirling her way around the barn area. Three years after doctors wondered if she would ever make a full recovery from cardiomyopathy, she is set to join Shelley Riley as the only female trainers to campaign a horse through the entire Triple Crown.
So when Ritvo speaks in reverential terms about the mettle Mucho Macho Man has shown the past five weeks, they are words worth heeding even if they aren't completely unbiased.
His June 15 foaling date makes Mucho Macho Man the youngest member of Saturday's Belmont Stakes field, but his status as the baby of the class has not prevented him from being one of the season's more durable 3-year-olds.
The son of Macho Uno joins Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and Preakness Stakes victor Shackleford as the only horses slated to compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown this year — the first time that many have contested all the classics since Monarchos, Point Given, A P Valentine and Dollar Bill in 2001.
It takes a certain kind of fortitude for a horse to show up and be competitive in all three classics. Following his third-place run in the Derby, Mucho Macho Man was sixth in the Preakness after losing his left front shoe.
Next to fellow Belmont Stakes contender Isn't He Perfect, who has 13 career starts, Mucho Macho Man is the most seasoned horse in the field with 10 career outings.
His relatively ample experience, Ritvo said, is the product of a work ethic that rivals that of his trainer.
"He loves to work, he loves his job and he is doing really well," Ritvo said. "He loves to train and if they're up to it, you have to let them do their job. If they're ready to run and they're 100 percent, why would you pass it up?
"I think it's an amazing feat to be able to run in these three races and have a horse that competes. He always has that long stride and he never seems to get tired."
The grind of getting through the Triple Crown can take a toll on a horse, but the connections of Mucho Macho Man take issue with the notion it has hit him harder than some.
Standing more than 17 hands with a lanky frame that resembles that of a marathon runner, Mucho Macho Man will never be mistaken for a horse who carries a ton of extra flesh. NBC commentator Donna Brothers remarked prior to the Preakness she thought the colt had lost weight since the Derby, but Ritvo and majority owner Dean Reeves counter if they thought he had taken a step back, he wouldn't have been in the starting gate.
"It's like going up to a 7-foot basketball player and telling him he looks a little thin after he's played basketball the whole season," Reeves said. "I think that's how Macho is, he's never going to be to where he's totally overweight. Believe me, that horse is checked inside and out and he's in really great shape. It's a real tribute to what Kathy has done to keep him without a blemish."
Now, Mucho Macho Man has to prove that his talent matches his professionalism.
Since winning the Grade II Risen Star in February, Mucho Macho Man has had a couple of excuses for his three straight defeats, including losing another shoe while finishing third in the Louisiana Derby.
His pedigree suggests the Belmont's 11/2 miles won't be an issue. And if Mucho Macho Man can get his long, grinding strides in full gear and not get too far back, Reeves believes the racing world is going to see the start of something special.
"Well we know we have a tough horse and he has quickness, he has stamina," Reeves said. "We just haven't gotten him in that right situation yet to really prove what type of horse he is. I do believe he is the best 3-year-old in the country, and when we get to the end of the year, I hope he's proven that."