08/06/2014 4:36PM

Catalano battles back from bout with H1N1 influenza

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Barbara D. Livingston
Wayne Catalano is perennially among the leading trainers at Arlington Park.

HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. -- Aurelia’s Belle had just won the Arlington Oaks on July 19, and her trainer, Wayne Catalano, walked slowly out of the winner’s circle and through the tunnel underneath the grandstand leading from the racetrack to Arlington’s paddock.

Catalano, a former jockey, usually walks fast. He bounces on the balls of his feet, raising himself to his full height, a proud walk, a challenging strut, a young man’s gait. But the bounce was flat that afternoon. Pale, subdued, Catalano walked slowly through the tunnel, a walk he has taken thousands of times at Arlington, where he has won more than 1,000 races and 11 training titles.

The next morning, Catalano’s wife, Renee, drove him to the emergency room. Catalano, who turned 58 on July 24, had been feeling sick almost two weeks. He had taken a Z-Pak, a dose of antibiotics, to no effect. He had waited, hoping the illness would lift, but it did not, and after being discharged with a course of home treatment that Sunday, Catalano was back at the hospital two days later, on Tuesday, July 22.

His condition had worsened, had become desperately acute. Catalano’s lungs were shutting down, failing to circulate ample oxygen to his body. He was laid down in a hospital bed, fitted with a breathing tube, sedated and eventually sent into an induced coma. Wayne Catalano, a man who never seems to stop moving, did not get up again for almost two weeks. Stricken with a severe case of the H1N1 influenza virus and accompanying pneumonia, he almost did not get up at all.

“They told me I was knocking on heaven’s door,” Catalano said Tuesday afternoon, reclining in a bed in the intensive care unit at Saint Alexius Medical Center about 12 miles west of Arlington.

Minutes earlier, a nurse had removed an oxygen line running to Catalano’s nasal passage: For the first time in two weeks, he was free, his body unencumbered by the trappings of medical technology.

“I walked a little yesterday, and I walked a little more today,” Catalano said. “That first sip of water I had when they gave me a swallow test, nothing ever tasted so good.”

Barring unforeseen setbacks, Catalano is out of the woods, remaining in intensive care only because the hospital lacked regular bed space. Wednesday, Catalano was scheduled to be moved to a room in the rehabilitation and physical therapy wing of Saint Alexius. He hopes to be discharged in days. If it were up to him, he would be out already.

“I’m going to do what I have to so I don’t have to come back in here,” said Catalano.

Catalano, who grew up in the rough-and-tumble Ninth Ward of New Orleans, started working for trainer Jack Van Berg at Fair Grounds in 1972, at age 16. Two years later, after learning to ride, he took out a jockey’s license. Following a decade in the saddle, Catalano quickly moved into training. He and Renee have taken a few short vacations, but Catalano, fanatically devoted to work, always stayed plugged in. “I ain’t never had a day off,” he said.

Catalano doesn’t smoke, stays relatively fit. He never had more than standard-issue bugs growing up, and, amazingly, never was seriously injured riding more than 10,000 races as a jockey. “I never broke a single bone,” he said. “I had a spill once and it knocked my equilibrium off, but that was the worst.”

The terrible illness came out of nowhere.

Catalano slowly began regaining consciousness Tuesday, July 29, but did not start communicating clearly until last weekend. Fog clouded his thoughts. Catalano doesn’t remember anything between July 20, when Renee took him to the emergency room for the first time, and Aug. 2.

But by this past Sunday, Catalano’s head had cleared. On the television hanging above his bed, he watched his first-time-starting 2-year-old Winter Dawn win the first race Aug. 3 at Saratoga. His traditional exuberance was muted, but Catalano will never get enough of winning.

Catalano wears his ferocious drive to win on his sleeve. His brashness has rubbed lower-key horse-people the wrong way at times. But the outpouring of support since the seriousness of his illness became known has overwhelmed him and Renee, who essentially moved into the hospital from their nearby farm to stay with her husband. Catalano’s emotions still run raw. His voice cracks when he mentions the response from colleagues, both friends and rivals. “I think 10,000 people reached out. It was unbelievable,” he said.

The performance of Catalano’s staff during his absence strikes just as close to his heart. Catalano’s operation sprawls wider this summer than ever before, strings running simultaneously at Arlington, Churchill, Keeneland, Monmouth, and Saratoga, but things hummed efficiently, even with Catalano completely out of contact. Between July 20 and Aug. 3, the stable had nine wins and five seconds from 28 starters.

“We have the team in place, and I call them more than the A Team. I had the full SWAT team out there, and I needed it,” said Catalano.

Catalano’s Arlington-based assistant, Fernando Canteria, has worked for him for more than 15 years. “It’s not just that he’s been with me so long, but he’s been by my side, watching and learning. He’s a bright young man. He knew what to do. He thought like I would think,” Catalano said.

When Canteria came to St. Alexius on Monday, it wasn’t just to visit his gravely ill boss, as he did several times, but to go over business. Catalano began calling owners Sunday. He is back on the job. In a green gown and socks the same yellow hue as his stable color, Catalano rested Tuesday with mobile phone at hip. The hospital staff had tried to ban the device; Catalano persisted. He’s lost 10 pounds during his ordeal, still looks gaunt, but the way Catalano sees it, a few days of physical therapy, and he’ll put this all behind him. He’ll be bouncing around on his toes again, back where he belongs, at the track.