Derby's sentimental favorite has local appeal

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – When Dean Reeves – the young, impetuous model of 1976 – traveled to his first Kentucky Derby, the experience was just one Zach Galifianakis away from being a total blur.

Today, all grown up and a responsible businessman living well in Suwanee, Reeves will be sitting among polite society for the 137th Derby. He is the majority owner of 12-to-1 shot Mucho Macho Man. Along with the other fortunate owners, he’ll have a third-floor box seat overlooking the front stretch, America’s great horse race finishing at his feet.

But back then, Reeves was working two jobs, learning the family construction business by day and by night, tending bar at a long-gone joint off I-285 called the Jolly Ox. Strange plans are hatched in places with such names.

A couple of buddies had a doozy. After their shift at the Ox, they’d load up the best available car and drive overnight from Atlanta, arriving at Churchill Downs at the dawn of Derby Day without tickets, lodging or sleep.

Once there, they scored some tickets to the infield, a rowdy place where gambling, alcohol and mud make a witch’s brew. “Of course it was packed. I might have had a glimpse of a horse go by,” Reeves remembered.

The story ends late that night, 35 miles south of town, where the adventurers collapsed in the only hotel room they could find, the one with the shattered window that no one else would take.

Well, 25 has turned 60. And with age came the realization that, yes, box seats and creature comforts beat a patch of beer-soaked ground just about every time.

“The view is going to be pretty nice up there,” Reeves said, imagining his perch Saturday.

The beast that has elevated Reeves to his seat in horse racing heaven is a tall, leggy young’n, the youngest in the field, not turning 3 until June. He is a consistent horse, with seven top-three finishes in eight lifetime races, including one stakes win (February’s Risen Star in New Orleans).

And now that his owners have put up billboards around their city declaring him a hometown favorite, Mucho Macho Man has built the rarest of bridges – between Atlanta and a really big horse race.

There are all kinds of victories involved in just getting this horse to the post. His Florida breeders first feared that the late foal was still born. He lay motionless for minutes in an Ocala field, until suddenly popping upright and attempting to take his first steps at a wobbly gallop. His trainer, Kathy Ritvo, was near death herself just three years ago, until a heart transplant in 2008 saved her. She attempts today to become the first woman trainer to win a Kentucky Derby.

These narrative undercurrents have made Mucho Macho Man one of the sentimental favorites of the race.

Looming as a prickly challenge is the very unsentimental business of determining which of 19 horses is worth a $2 win ticket.

This Derby has been classed as one of the most wide-open ever, with many promising horses left behind injured or ailing. Beyond the usual uncertainties that come with any Kentucky Derby – a crowded field multiplying the factor of racing luck, the tumultuous environment testing lightly raced horses – there is no super horse here begging to have a movie made of it.

“You can look at the odds and see that. That’s why the favorite is [an ordinary] 4-to-1. I think it’s pretty open,” Reeves said.

Another owner has likened this race to the randomness of a lottery.

Dialed In, the winner of three of four starts, including the Florida Derby, is the morning line favorite.

The second favorite, at 9-to-2, was Uncle Mo, who owner Mike Repole called “probably the best horse in 10 years.” He was scratched Friday because of stomach problems.

The nerve-fraying nature of coaxing a fragile young thoroughbred to the Derby starting gate has been thoroughly demonstrated this year. Wood Memorial winner Toby’s Corner began having issues with his left hind leg last week. Two horses that had beaten Mucho Macho Man along the way – Gourmet Dinner and To Honor and Serve – also were eliminated from Derby contention by leg problems.

One horse’s slight limp is another horse’s opportunity. There are only four entries left in the Derby field with better morning odds than the 12-to-1 Mucho Macho Man. Nine are listed at 30-to-1 or higher.

Amid the chaos, the head of Reeves Racing knows with absolute certainty a few things:

  • Paying $210,000 last year for a 70 percent share in a horse that had finished a game second his first time out has turned out to be a whole lot more fun than putting that sum in a money market fund.
  • The first horse of his Derby trifecta bet is a given: No. 13, Mucho Macho Man. The rest of the ticket, however, is giving him some problems. "I have been so focused on my horse I haven't done any handicapping at all," he said.
  • This will be Reeves' 24th Kentucky Derby. He began going as a young man on a whim and as the years passed and his means grew, Reeves found more and more comfortable ways to watch a race. This year, for the first time, he arrived as an owner. He spent his early mornings last week on the backside rail, thrilling to the sight and sound of his horse clopping past during a workout. He spent his evenings partying with family and racing friends. Thursday night he even dressed up as one of the Village People to lip-synch "Macho Man" during a gathering at a farm near Lexington. Saturday, one of the best boxes in the place is reserved for him. And Reeves will say without hesitation that is about as good as it can possibly get.

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