02/04/2010 12:00AM

Catalano still walking the walk

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Barbara D. Livingston
A leading jockey in the 1970s, Wayne Catalano has trained two Eclipse Award winners and recently won his eighth training title at Arlington Park.

Wayne Catalano's story got told once already.

Kid coming up during the 60s in a double shotgun on Port Street in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Kicked out of high school for blowing up some lockers with firecrackers, and run onto the racetrack, Fair Grounds, where he tried to get into more kinds of trouble before a gruff old sage, one Jack Van Berg, scooped him up and made a horseman out of him.

Up in Michigan, where Catalano turned kingpin jockey for several years, one early newspaper headline played it like this:

"Catalano Bombs His Way to the Track."

The mid-1970s Detroit Free Press newspaper headline was called up from memory by Catalano and could be slightly off since the Cat has a way of plugging the wrong word into the right phrase, mangling a name here or there.

Catalano had his run winning a bunch of races on horseback at the old Detroit Race Course and Hazel Park, which is now for Standardbreds only. He managed to stick as a trainer of racehorses after switching careers in 1983. And, lo and behold, after wowing them with claimers and the decent horse here or there for a couple of decades, Catalano pulled the levers that made Dreaming of Anna champion 2-year-old filly of 2006.

But this story, this Catalano story, keeps churning out new chapters. By now, the man has far outgrown the poor-boy-makes-good cliche. And every time his plot starts to flag, Catalano does something else to move his story forward.

Early last year, Catalano's owner Frank Calabrese - the one who pushed Catalano's career to a new level starting in 2000 - fired him. When Catalano looked out his Gulfstream Park barn office Jan. 22, 2009, he saw a shed row filled with empty stalls.

By springtime, Catalano had cobbled together something like a 25-horse string. Old clients Darrell and Evelyn Yates had some horses, but Catalano had a new group of owners, too. By mid-summer, he was rolling again, and in September, he wrapped up his eighth training title in the last 10 years at Arlington Park. In November, Catalano-trained She Be Wild, a filly who had started out in a . And a year after Team Catalano consisted of nothing more than hope for the future and knowledge from the past, She Be Wild won an Eclipse Award - a transitional year turned on its ear.

Barbara D. Livingston

15px;">Trainer Wayne Catalano rubs the star of his current stable, She Be Wild, who won the Eclipse Award last year as champion 2-year-old filly.

Was cheering heard from all racing's quarters? Not entirely. Fellow trainers respect Catalano's horsemanship, and anyone that has known him since he first came onto the racetrack as a teenager lauds his work ethic. But Catalano, 53, has rubbed some people the wrong way since he first found work with Van Berg at age 16. Catalano has a generous side, but he has been hustling his entire life, and it's not easy to flip that switch off. His fast-talking New Orleans delivery can charm, but Catalano can come across as too brash and cocky.

"Wayne's biggest gift is the gift of gab - he's not afraid to talk to anybody, and he's not afraid to hustle anybody's owner," said Joseph "Spanky" Broussard, a 68-year-old Louisiana-born horseman who has known Catalano since his teenage years. "But he works hard, now. He's there every day. He's a good horseman."

Broussard is one among many peers, rivals, and even mentors telling a similar Catalano tale: Hard worker, loud talker.

"A little mouthy son-of-a-bitch" was how former trainer Frankie Brothers - endearingly, in this case - recalled Catalano as a 16-year-old. Brothers and Catalano worked side by side in the Van Berg barn at Fair Grounds.

"He was an ornery little shit," said Van Berg, 83, now training on a lesser scale in California.

"His mouth did kind of run a lot," said Louisiana-born rider E.J. Perrodin, 53, who followed Catalano to Michigan during Catalano's jockey career.

Here is a passage from the Hazel Park Observer as it appeared in the Daily Racing Form in May 1977: "The other afternoon, when he observed track photographer Patricia Wilson snapping a picture of jockette Jeannie Maxwell, Catalano couldn't resist a gentle reminder that he is still in control. Raising his forefinger in the air, Wayne said proudly, 'I'm No. 1.'"

Or this, from the Hazel Observer in June 1978: "As for ambition, consider that when track statisticians made a minor error in the addition on his winners, The Cat pestered them for two days before they convinced him that it was a simple miscalculation and not a plot to deprive him of a winner."

But one thing about Catalano: He might have talked the talk from the start, but both as a rider and a trainer he has walked the walk. He set records for wins during a meet at Hazel Park and Detroit Race Course. At DRC, he broke a national record held by Steve Cauthen for riding at least one winner on consecutive days; Catalano's streak reached 41.

Catalano hit the ground running as an apprentice rider in 1974 and did the same thing when he took out his trainer's license in 1983, quitting the saddle somewhat abruptly at age 27 after 1,792 winners, partly because of a bum knee, partly because, Catalano said, he had hatched a plan to train years before.

"My knee got weak, and my heart got weak in the end," Catalano said. "My heart was really into training horses."

At Arlington Park in '83, Catalano told racing secretary Bob Umphrey that he had claimed a horse and needed a stall.

"He gave me the stall, and the next thing I knew, John Franks had sent me some horses," Catalano said, referring to the prominent owner and breeder. "It was the same thing as it was last January. Scratching and clawing."

In '83, Catalano trained seven winners from 83 runners. The next year he went 27 for 190. In 1987, he had boosted his annual win total to 97; in 1989, he topped out at 131. The man could talk. The man could ride. And, it turned out, the man could train.

The training part actually began before the riding. When Van Berg took on Catalano and his brother Joe, he might have done so because they both were small, and therefore prospective riders. But before Catalano could ride, he had to work with the horses around the barn.

"My boys had to do everything," Van Berg said. "They had to rub, do leg work, clean stalls. Just like I told them - if they can't train a horse when they leave me, they've got no hope at all. [Catalano] could train horses before he ever rode his first race. I sent him over to Keeneland, and he ran the outfit for me when he was 17."

Van Berg said he learned to teach horsemanship from his father, trainer Marion Van Berg. That's going back several generations, and Van Berg kept the New Orleans boys tied on through old-fashioned routine.

"My dad always said idle hands and idle minds make bad children," he said. "If you work them hard enough, they're too tired to get into trouble."

"If you worked, Jack would give you a shot, and Wayne worked," said Brothers, 63. "Wayne learned training and riding all at the same time. He knew horses' legs in the barn before he knew how to race-ride. Most kids these days don't know that at all. He knew when to go and when to 'whoa' with them. And once he got on them, he could feel that. It was natural for him to train - it was just a question of whether he could get a break."

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Jack Van Berg gave Wayne Catalano his start at age 16, when Catalano worked at his barn in Fair Grounds.

So Catalano worked. He had nothing but respect for Van Berg, and Catalano, son of a 50-year taxi driver, a kid growing up without a clear path in life, had found something he could latch onto in more than a passing fashion. And he was good at it from the start.

"He was very intelligent," Van Berg said. "He had beautiful hands on a horse when he was riding and galloping. He was a natural on a horse."

Said Brothers: "A lot of it kind of came easy to him. It's just like any other kind of athlete - some guys get it, some don't."

Still, Catalano had a ceiling, even if horsemanship felt like "a sixth sense," as he put it. Louisiana jocks are not all created equal. Perrodin, for instance, started riding when he was 5. He'd walk out his back door outside the town of Lafayette, and there was a field with horses. At 7, he started riding match races at bush tracks. There was little horsebacking in Catalano's neighborhood down on Port Street in New Orleans.

"We were both city boys trying to play a country boy's game," Brothers said.

"I think he was mostly a good speedball rider," said Perrodin, who saw many of Catalano's rides first-hand. "He enjoyed being out there on the lead, but he did a good job. When you come to him, he usually had something left. He got things done that way. That was just a little bullring at Hazel Park, and you had to save that ground."

By Catalano's reckoning, the best horse he rode was Batonnier, a good 3-year-old of 1978. During the early phase of his training career, his best horse was Crypto Star, a foal of 1994 who won the . Still, just as a big horse came, Catalano's operation had shifted into neutral. Catalano trained 89 winners in 1991, but that number sagged to 22 in 1995, and during Crypto Star's 3-year-old season, Catalano had only 35 wins.

Then, in 2000, Catalano discovered an elixir for winning - Calabrese. A self-made owner of a successful printing business, Calabrese had an outsized personality that made Catalano's look mild. Calabrese seemed to expect to win every race he entered, and Catalano was the trainer who thought he might be able to satisfy that impulse.

Arlington Park became the Catalano-Calabrese playground. Between 2000 and 2008, the pair won 430 races there despite a brief divorce in 2004. With Calabrese supporting him, Catalano's win total surged back to 131 in 2005, equaling his best season, 1989. But in '89, Catalano needed 756 starters to amass those 131 wins; in '05, he needed 362.

And there's another story - Catalano's evolution as a trainer. He is a 20 percent winner for his career but won at a 15 percent clip from 1984 to 2000. From 2000 to 2005, Catalano boosted his win rate to 29 percent, and from 2005 to 2010, he has hit at 32 percent.

Part of his success came from the nature of Calabrese's operation, which was all about turnover during the frenzied Arlington summers. Since 2005, Catalano has put in claims for roughly 150 horses at Arlington. This revolving-door policy often required steep class drops. Win the pot, lose the horse, go find a new one - a common cycle in the Catalano-Calabrese system.

But during these years, Catalano used to preach this mantra: If this is so easy, why doesn't everyone do it? And those horses that were taken away from The Cat often failed to reproduce the form he had dredged out of them.

"I had no experience when I started training," Catalano said. "Patience, patience, and more patience is what it takes with these horses. I was running them back in a week or 10 days back when I started. We still were winning and doing good, but it was different. I heard a guy say once you don't become a trainer till you're 50. You've got to get your knowledge, your experience - and your patience."

Catalano, often with an assist from Calabrese's racing manager, Steve Leving, played the claiming game as well as anyone in Chicago. Leving would pick the spots. Catalano would get them to the spots. The horses would almost unfailingly win when it looked like they should.

"Claiming horses, they've kind of established what they are," Catalano said. "Sometimes you can make them a little better. I've got a lot of confidence in my operation and my system. We will help the horse, but you know what they are."

Catalano not that long ago often worked horses himself. More recently, he would get on the odd animal or two to feel first-hand some minor issue a rider had reported. But whether from the track apron or on the track itself, Catalano was watching, thinking, building his knowledge, and honing his practice.

"You sit back and look at it, what are you going to do?" he said. "You're going to walk them, gallop them four or five days, and then you're going to breeze them. It ain't no big secret, right? But it's all the little things in between that you change and watch."

Catalano has not often laid hands on a horse of quality, but when one has passed through his barn, the horse's talent almost always has been made manifest. For Calabrese, Catalano developed Dreaming of Anna from the start, and he did well with her younger brother Lewis Michael, now a stallion in Kentucky. Jose Adan, a horse bred and owned by Catalano and his wife, Renee, learned all his racing from Catalano and was disqualified from a win in the . He wanted what he felt was a certain win with a horse who had battled sore shins. Catalano was just as certain no one would claim the filly. He was right.

Barbara D. Livingston

15px;">Owner Frank Calabrese (left), with Catalano and racing manager Steve Leving. The Catalano-Calabrese team dominated Arlington from 2000 to 2008.

"Here's what makes him good: A proclivity for horsemanship," said Leving, who still serves as Calabrese's racing manager. "Training horses is something you get better at with experience, but it's interpretive. Catalano has the facility to properly interpret previous experiences and use that to the best advantage. He has the capability of learning the right way quickly. And he's pretty funny, too."

There are no double-shotgun houses in Catalano's life anymore. He and Renee (they have a daughter in college, Shelbi), live 10 miles west of Arlington on six acres tucked between subdivisions. Their old place has paddocks for the Catalanos' handful of broodmares and yearlings and a 14-stall barn next to the house. Catalano also has purchased an adjacent property, and inside the barn on that land sits a metal cylinder large enough to walk a horse into - which happens regularly.

This is a hyperbaric chamber where horses come to bathe in high-pressure oxygen. The chamber increases blood's ability to transport oxygen, providing a wide range of potential benefits to a racehorse. The chamber breaks no rules, the form of treatment as natural as can be, an application of one of the most commonly occurring gases on earth. Yet more than a few eyebrows have been lifted at the process, especially with Catalano's high-percentage numbers. More fuel to the fire for anyone in the racing community murmuring over Catalano's decade-long run.

"I'm a hay, oats, and water guy and always have been," Catalano said. "I used Winstrol (an anabolic steroid) on horses when I could, but everything within guidelines. I've never stepped out of bounds, and didn't need to. I very seldom inject horses. I have and I will, but that's not how I do things."

The Association of Racing Commissioners International keeps lifetime records of violations compiled by licensed racetrack personnel, and Catalano's file backs up his self-assessment. In 27 years of training, he has received one suspension for a medication violation, serving 15 days in 1992 after a horse tested positive for the vasodilator isoxuprine.

"What did they say? When steroids are illegal, Catalano is going to be in trouble," said Leving. "Well, no, it's still horsemanship."

Last Sunday at Gulfstream Park, Catalano brought She Be Wild out for her 2010 debut. She finished fifth as the strong favorite in the . Surely, the result was disappointing, but Catalano only knows how to go forward. Presuming her health holds, She Be Wild will get back to the track sometime this week. A short, balding guy with glasses and a bounce in his step will be watching her intently, plotting his next move.

"You hear people say about somebody, 'The game has passed him by,'" Catalano said. "Well, I'm not going to let it pass me by."

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