Wayne Catalano Fighting His Way to Top

(Fair Grounds Release)
Growing up in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Wayne Catalano learned early to fight for what he wanted. Sometimes he fought with gloves, sometimes the situation called for bare knuckles. It was the kind of neighborhood where you didn't back down.

"Life started out hard for me," Catalano said. "My mother raised five kids by herself. We weren't exactly what you call rich."

An average student who did not care for the stuffy confines of the classroom, Catalano drifted to the racetrack at the age of 15. He had tried boxing and was too small for football. Seeking any kind of edge, he thought maybe his small size could help him become a jockey.

Still too young to obtain a license, Catalano was introduced to trainer Jack Van Berg one morning on the Fair Grounds backstretch. Catalano walked hots and groomed horses while waiting his turn to gallop and ride horses.

"Jack Van Berg was a gentleman and a great horseman," Catalano remembers. "He was very disciplined and he worked you very hard. It paid off for all the guys that came up under him."

One of the other grooms in Van Berg's barn at the time was a kid named Frank Brothers. Brothers worked his way up through the Van Berg ranks to become a trainer. Catalano's dream was to ride the horses he rubbed.

"The racetrack life was all new to me," Catalano said, "but I figured that I had a great opportunity to be around a man like Jack Van Berg. He paid so much attention to detail. Everything was the horse with him. Everything. Give the horse the best of everything and the harder you work the luckier you get. He was an awesome teacher."

After a long boot camp of walking, grooming and galloping horses at "Van Berg University," Catalano won his first race as a jockey on May 20, 1974 at Churchill Downs. An accomplished career followed as Catalano caught fire on the Midwest circuit of Detroit, Chicago and Kentucky.

During one hot streak, Catalano won at least one race for 41 consecutive days, breaking Steve Cauthen's record for 38 straight winning days. In 1978 Catalano was second to Cauthen as leading rider in North America.

"I was Sham and he was Secretariat," Catalano said, slapping the dust off his leather chaps. "I was right in there behind the big guy."

A bad knee slow to heal ended Catalano's riding career in 1983.

He started training one horse. One horse led to two and before long Catalano was training a public stable on the Illinois circuit. "My real shot in the arm was when I got some good horses from John Franks," Catalano said.

One problem remained and it was residue from his natural aggressiveness as a rider. Quick from the gate as a jockey, Catalano was just as fast to drop horses into the entries. "In the beginning, I had a tendency to be a little overanxious," Catalano admits.

An echo from his mentor, Van Berg, got Catalano into a lower gear. "When you learn patience is when you learn to become a good horseman. Even though the horse is doing good, you still have to wait," Catalano says.

Having learned to see the bigger picture, the 46-year-old Catalano has earned the reputation of a top trainer. He has been the leading trainer at Arlington Park five times. This past summer, he won his second Arlington Park training title in the past three years, saddling a record 64 winners.

"The Cat" currently has 26 horses in training at Fair Grounds and is intent on buying and claiming more. He has the stable pointed in the right direction with nine wins, eight seconds and four third-place finishes from just 39 starters.

Bettors have learned to respect a Catalano first-time starter. "We put in 100 percent effort to win," Catalano said. "We run an aggressive stable. When we take a horse over he's ready to fire."

Catalano came home to New Orleans and won the 1997 Louisiana Derby with Crypto Star.

"He was a neat, easy-going horse and the long stretch here at Fair Grounds was perfect for his running style," Catalano remembers of his deep closer. "It was one of those times when you knew your horse was going to run big. The way he was acting on the morning of the race, you could tell he was pointed on go."

This year's edition of "hope springs eternal" is a 3-year-old colt named My Calabrese. A colt by Wild Again out of the Grade I winning mare Silver Maiden, My Calabrese is what makes it easy for Catalano to arrive at Barn 31 so early each morning.

"This youngster shows us some promise. In this game, every trainer is always waiting and looking for the big horse. That's the prize that we all shoot at. You get the big horse and you got your ticket to ride. You're on your way."