01/07/2009 12:00AM

Ritvo beats the odds


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Puttingonthemist finished second as the 9-5 favorite in Wednesday's fourth race at Gulfstream Park, but the race was a victory for her trainer, Kathy Ritvo, who really beat the odds just to be there to saddle the 3-year-old filly in the maiden claiming race on the turf.

Ritvo spent most of 2008 in and out of hospitals while on a list awaiting a suitable heart donor. She finally received the call on Nov. 13, a date she now calls her second birthday, and immediately underwent an eight-hour, life-saving heart transplant. One week later, Ritvo walked out of the hospital feeling healthy for the first time in almost seven years.

"The doctors said her heart was terribly diseased," said her husband, trainer Tim Ritvo. "And they told us she didn't have much time left at the time of her surgery."

Kathy Ritvo, now 39, received her trainer's license at Suffolk Downs on her 18th birthday. The sister of trainer Mike Petro and jockey Nick Petro, she won 164 races, including seven stakes, before being forced to leave the racetrack due to her failing health nearly six years ago. Her most important victory came with Liberada in the 1992 Budweiser Breeders' Cup at Calder, and that same year she saddled the filly in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

"In retrospect, I never realized how sick I was back then or why," Ritvo said as Puttingonthemist left the paddock Wednesday. "I just finally got to the point where I couldn't do anything at all. I was finally put on the list for a heart donor last May and was in and out of the hospital right up until the time we got the call."

Ritvo said her illness was extremely hard on her family, which includes her 15-year-old son, Michael, and 16-year-old daughter, Dominique, especially on her husband, who has had his stable split between New York and south Florida over the past couple of seasons.

"We received a lot of help from a lot of people, especially my mom, and the kids learned to pretty much take care of themselves these past few years," said Ritvo, whose husband is serving a medication suspension. "But right now I'm feeling fine, I've lost all the weight I'd put on, and every day is a great day for me. Unfortunately, I'll be on anti-rejection medications for the rest of my life and I don't know when I'll be able to go back to work. I'm just saddling horses for Tim until the end of the week when his suspension ends. But there is no greater feeling in the world for me than to be able to be out here at the track and back with the horses. And hopefully, one day, I'll be cleared by the doctors to return to work again."

Ritvo said she doesn't know if she'll ever learn who donated her life-saving heart. There is at least a six-month embargo before the identity of a donor can be released and then only if both the donor and recipient agree to reveal themselves to one another.

"I have mixed emotions about whether I'd like to find out who this person was or not," Ritvo said. "But I was allowed to send a letter along to the donor's family just to thank them for the unselfish gift they have given me. And it would really mean a lot to me, considering what I've experienced, if my story might move at least one person to donate an organ that could some day save someone else's life. Just like this new heart has saved mine."

Einstein may breeze next week

Trainer Helen Pitts reports that Einstein continues to train on a regular basis at Gulfstream Park and could have his first breeze back sometime next week. The versatile Einstein was one of the top handicap performers in the country last year, winning 4 of 9 starts including the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf for the second time along with the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs and the Grade 2 Clark Handicap there in his 2008 finale.

"The main track here is a little deeper than the one we came off at Churchill Downs, so I'm taking things easy with him for now," Pitts said. "And at the moment, we have not decided on anything just yet to get him started back."

The most logical options for Einstein's 2009 debut would either be the Grade 1 Donn Handicap over the main track on Jan. 31 or a run for his third Gulfstream Turf victory on Feb. 23.

Pitts, who has 25 horses stabled here for the winter, said she also is looking forward to finally getting her 3-year-old filly Cheer Up to the races. Cheer Up, by Smart Strike, is the baby sister of Grade 3 winner Change Up.