(Originally published in the November 5, 2011 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
On a leaden morning near the end of the Keeneland fall meet, Wayne Catalano stood in his usual spot on the track apron, peering intently into the drizzle. When a dark bay filly materialized along the outer rail, her irregular blaze discernible in the gloom, the trainer sprinted to meet her as she walked off the track.
“I need to check on the big girl,” Catalano said as he headed to the gap.
That would be Ken and Sarah Ramsey’s Stephanie’s Kitten, winner of the Darley Alcibiades Stakes (gr. I) and an early fancy in the Nov. 4 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (gr. IIT). A winner of two of four starts, including her solid 11⁄2-length Alcibiades score, the daughter of Kitten’s Joy has proved a model pupil in Catalano’s program for young horses.
Indeed, Stephanie’s Kitten represents the latest Catalano juvenile to matriculate from the “program” into a Breeders’ Cup race. The New Orleans-born trainer has had Breeders’ Cup successes before with She Be Wild, surprise winner of the 2009 Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I), and Dreaming of Anna, the front-running chestnut who captured the 2006 edition to conclude an undefeated season. Both fillies earned Eclipse Awards as champion juvenile fillies of their years.
In addition to Stephanie’s Kitten, Catalano will saddle Coalport, another Ramsey homebred, in the Juvenile Turf (gr. IT). Tequila Factor is a third possible starter if the son of Pure Prize, newly acquired in a partnership for Darrell and Evelyn Yates, draws into the field.
Finding all well with Stephanie’s Kitten after her mile-and-a-half morning gallop, Catalano took time to talk about his 2-year-old program as he prepared to ship his stable west to Churchill Downs. The hard-working, congenial “Cat” concluded the Keeneland meet with five wins, a number he described as satisfactory.
“It’s a horse paradise over here,” said the 55-year-old, whose main base is Arlington Park, where he has won nine training titles. “If you can win the grade Is, you’ve had a good meet. The horses ran well, and I’m looking forward to the Breeders’ Cup.”
A former jockey and Jack Van Berg protégé, Catalano maintains a stable of 60 horses, about 30% of them juveniles. His clients include the Ramseys and Yateses, West Point Thoroughbreds, Team Valor, and Gary and Mary West.
Though known for his skill with juveniles, Catalano trained Crypto Star, who won the 1997 Louisiana (gr. III) and Arkansas (gr. II) Derbys. To date he counts 88 stakes victories from his nearly 2,200 wins as a trainer.
Most 2-year-olds come to Catalano from farms or training centers “with a quarter mile in them, if that much,” he said. Once the juveniles arrive, he and his staff assess them physically and review notes that might have accompanied a horse. “We get the opportunity to bring them along within our own program.”
The program aims to produce a juvenile that can get five-eighths of a mile by mid-season. “If we get them up to a good five-eighths, we like to get a schooling race in them,” he said.
“They’ve all got to keep making the next step forward. We do like to run them.”
Stephanie’s Kitten, named for a Ramsey granddaughter, passed all her tests as she progressed from spring to summer.
“When we got her up to five-eighths of a mile, she started showing she had some talent to me, my staff, and the clocker,” Catalano recalled, adding, “Of course, you’ve got to get them to the races.”
Stephanie’s Kitten made her first start in July at Arlington, breaking poorly and getting checked on the rail to finish third. In August she broke her maiden on the turf and then ran third in the Sept. 17 Natalma Stakes (Can-IIIT) at Woodbine in her stakes debut.
In the Alcibiades, Stephanie’s Kitten had John Velazquez in the irons after his mount scratched, and he guided her to a wide, late-running rally to defeat Heart of Destiny.
Since the Alcibiades, Stephanie’s Kitten had a work at Keeneland, a bullet :59 for five furlongs Oct. 20.
In addition to training well, the filly has matured physically. “She’s filled out a little bit,” the trainer said. “She’s done well.”
Stephanie’s Kitten is just one of the prolific Kitten’s Joy offspring Catalano has trained. While he acknowledges they come in different sizes and shapes, he said, “What they do come in is ‘runner.’ They all seem to have some talent and fit somewhere.”
If Stephanie’s Kitten has progressed according to plan, Coalport, a son of Kitten’s Joy, is still a grade behind. He brings just two starts, including a good second to Animal Spirits in the Bourbon Stakes (gr. IIIT) at Keeneland Oct. 9, into the BC Juvenile Turf. “He doesn’t have the experience,” Catalano acknowledged.
Nevertheless, the Breeders’ Cup remains a seasonal goal for Catalano and his juveniles, and if previous results are any indication, his pupils tend to peak at the right time.
“We’ve been fortunate with young horses,” Catalano said. “We’ve had great opportunities with nice clients.”