For trainer Michael Catalano, Jr., one more rebuilding project
by Doug McCoy
Michael Catalano Jr. has been training horses for almost 30 years and it’s been a career full of twists and turns, surprises and — unfortunately — more than its fair share of disappointments.
Take the story of Catalano’s stable this meeting at Delaware Park. The veteran horseman came into Stanton loaded for bear. He had more than 30 horses in his string, topped by more than 20 runners owned by Arkansas owner-breeder Richard Hessee.
With a large number of young horses in the Hessee contingent, horses that would fit a racing program that used a high number of maiden races, the Hessee runners would have ample opportunities to run, and Catalano felt Hessee had a good chance to be top owner at the 81-day meeting.
“I really thought we had a good chance to win both the trainer and owner titles,” Catalano admitted.
But as often happens in racing, conflicting personalities and philosophies can change the dynamics of the trainer-owner relationship.
“This winter Mr. Hessee came to me and asked me to take over the training of his horses,” Catalano recalled. “He had a number of young runners, and I’ve had good success developing babies in the past so we started working to get the horses ready for this meeting and I was very optimistic about the meeting and how we would do.
“But as time went on it became apparent there were big personality conflicts as well as strong differences of opinions on how the horses should be handled between myself and Mr. Hessee,” he continued. “Eventually it became clear our working relationship wasn’t going to work and we parted ways.”
Hessee, who won with six of the 20 horses that ran under his name at the current meeting, sold a large number of his runners to trainer Jamie Ness, including the promising 2-year-old Old Fashioned Club, who romped home by more than eight lengths for Catalano in his only local start. As a result, Catalano went from having 35 horses here to just three head.
“It was a tough blow to handle for sure,” Catalano admitted, “but if something’s not working, it’s just not working, and that was the case with the Hessee horses. I’ve always been a horse-first kinda guy. I deal with my horses on a one-on-one basis; each has their own story, their own personality, and their own set of problems and challenges. Business plans are great for products and services, but when it comes to horses you have to listen to the animal.”
But as he has often during his time on the track, Catalano has regrouped since parting ways with Hessee and is very quietly having a very good meeting. He has sent out 14 winners from 61 starters for a solid 23 percent win rate and 66 percent of his starters have finished in the money, the highest percentage among the top 10 trainers at the meeting.
The stable has won five races in the last six weeks, and while there aren’t any superstars in his string, the horses rarely run a poor race. Candy Express has won two of her last three, Rediscover has a win and second from his last two outings, and Ring Necked has second and third in his most recent races. That third-place effort came in a starter allowance mile and 70 yard route run in a very fast 1:39.82.
“I’ve had support from people like Nick Sanna, who has given me a few horses to train, and the Blackstone Stable from Florida, who have also been with me a long time,” Catalano pointed out, “It’s as hard to find good owners as it is to find good horses. I’ve had to stop training full time at times because I’ve got four kids and you’ve got to think of the family, but I have every confidence in my ability to get the job done.”
The search for good owners, Catalano points out, is a timeless one in the industry.
Catalano recalls a conversation he once had with the great Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens. Jerkens recalled a call he had received from a new owner who wanted to add his input on how his horses should be trained.
“Allen told the guy, ‘I get $85 a day to train your horses. If you want to add your opinions on a daily basis, then the day rate goes up to $170 a day.’”
And so the search goes on, for owners who will share his confidence in his ability to get the job done, something, Catalano said, which requires patience, and a little bit of luck.
“I’ve got people like David Jacobson (prominent New York trainer) who send me horses they feel need a different approach to get turned around, so people in the business know me, they know I can produce,” he said. “Now I’m like a lot of guys in my position. I’m always hoping the phone will ring, and it will be someone who will give me the support and space to build a solid stable and show what I can do.”