10/28/2004 12:00AM

Catalano a do-it-yourself horseman

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CHICAGO - Wayne Catalano, 48, maybe 5-foot-6, somewhere around 150 pounds, balding, bespectacled, with a cock-of-the-walk bounce in his gait, boarded first-class passage last Friday evening at O'Hare International Airport. He slept on his flight to Kentucky, but if his seatmate had asked the nature of Catalano's business, would his answer have been believed?

Catalano was traveling to Lexington for about 73 seconds worth of work. He would toil on horseback. Where else? Saturday morning, he would put on his chaps, don a helmet, and get a leg up on a 4-year-old filly named Tamweel for her final workout before the Breeders' Cup Distaff. She went in 1:13.60, as Catalano steered and focused, guiding the filly onto the best sections of an uneven racetrack. He controlled her every step, felt and processed each move Tamweel made. That was why Catalano refused to outsource Tamweel's workouts, even while she has been at Keeneland, and he at Hawthorne.

"Nowadays, the trainers get high tech," Catalano said. "They've got their earphones, their microphones, their walkie-talkies. I figure, I'll just do it myself. Of course it makes a difference. You don't think the trainer watching on the sidelines can feel if she's hitting 100 percent?"

Catalano, child of a double shotgun house in New Orleans's rough-and-tumble Ninth Ward, left school in seventh grade. He started walking hots on the Fair Grounds backstretch. He has gone through successful incarnations as a jockey, and now as a trainer, and with Azeri opting for the Breeders' Cup Classic, Catalano and Tamweel have a legitimate shot in a Breeders' Cup race.

"He's one of the few trainers that's a horseman first and a trainer second," said Mark Cornett, who engineered Tamweel's purchase early this past summer and owns half the filly. "It's my own personal opinion, but he's one of the top five trainers in the country."

Catalano has never been to the Breeders' Cup, and it's surprising he's here now, since Tamweel was unknown two months ago. She's a Gulch filly bred in Kentucky by the Shadwell Farm of Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum of Dubai, and like most of the Sheikh's horses, she began her career on the European turf. Tamweel won a couple minor races over English courses last summer, but she was culled, and wound up in California this spring. Cornett bought her for $200,000 after Tamweel's sharp dirt win June 10 in a Hollywood Park allowance race, and her ownership is divided 50-50 between Cornett's Turf Express Inc. and Darrell and Evelyn Yates.

"I bought her for Wayne," said Cornett, who employed Catalano last winter after a split between Catalano and his longtime patron, the Chicago owner Frank Calabrese. Now, Catalano and Calabrese are back together, and Turf Express has shifted its operation, selling much of its lower-level stock to focus on the Tamweels.

"I really thought she was this kind of horse when we bought her," Cornett said. "I mapped it out for her to run in the exact series of races she's run in."

Tamweel has yet to win a graded stakes, but she was second to 2003 Distaff champ Adoration in the Arlington Matron, and set the pace before giving way to Azeri in the Grade 1 Spinster on Oct. 10 at Keeneland.

"When I first got her, she was on the go button all the time," Catalano said. "She's relaxed. We took our time with her. We walked, we stopped, we put her with the pony, we'd let her stand out there. She's matured."

Catalano also is aging well. Tuesday, he worked three horses at Hawthorne; he had breezed two the day before. "I work three-quarters of a mile, it doesn't phase me," Catalano said.

He has been at this, one way or another, for 37 years, without letup. "I got no hobbies. I eat, sleep, and breathe racehorses, that's it," said Catalano. "The little time I have left over, I spend with my wife and my 14-year-old daughter. What's retirement? Seven days a week, 365 days a year, 4 a.m. every day - that's retirement. If for some reason I don't go to the track, I'm up at 4 anyway."

Sometimes, Catalano struggles to find the right word for a thought. He has called O'Hare airport, 'O'Hara,' the Vosburgh Stakes the 'Vosburo,' and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, Jerry 'Hollsendorfer.' But beyond the rough edges, Catalano gets it right.

"A man, Jack Van Berg, once told me, 'The harder you work, the luckier you become,' " he said.

Catalano still is working hard. This might be his lucky day.