The Inside Rail

Wayne Catalano stood still for a moment. The 62-year-old trainer leaned against the outside rail, waiting for his big horse, Farrell, to complete a circuit of the main track the day before she won the Shuvee at Saratoga. This is the only way Catalano pauses, when his horse is on the other side of the infield lake and there’s nothing else to do but wait for her.

It was a natural time to ask the simplest question.

Do you look at life differently after being sick?

It’s been four years since Catalano caught Avian Influenza on a plane ride. The bird flu nearly killed him, forcing the affable and energetic horse trainer into a coma for weeks. Catalano, a former jockey who makes friends quicker than a puppy at a picnic, was healthy, fit, vibrant, driven, and “never took a Bayer Aspirin” until that summer. He thought he had the flu, like the regular kick-it-in-a-week flu, he went to the doctor, took a Z-Pak, went back to work, ran a “good little filly” at Arlington Park; Aurelia’s Belle won the Arlington Oaks and Catalano went back to the hospital.

With Bird Flu, they say you go in and you don’t come out.

They didn’t know Wayne Catalano.

“That was it,” Catalano said. “I didn’t come out for like I don’t know how long.”

While in an induced coma, Catalano won his 2,500th career race and 1,000th race at Arlington Park; his friends would tell him later, “You beat these guys when you were in a coma.” Catalano laughs about that part but levity doesn’t last long when he thinks about the first moments of conscious thoughts. When a man talks about a sip of water like a pot of gold, a spoon full of soup like a ray of sun, yeah, you know it was dire.

“I said to my wife, ‘Slip me some ice. Just slip me some ice.’ I wanted water so bad, finally, they said I could have a sip of water, when I got that first little drop of water, I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ ” Catalano said. “I tried a little spoon full of soup, I couldn’t lift the spoon. You know when you watched Popeye, when he ate the spinach, it was like that. It felt so good.”

It’s hard to keep a racetracker down for long, once out of the coma, Catalano rebounded quickly. Days after that first spoon full of soup, Catalano was returning to form.

“I was getting better and better,” Catalano said. “They said I could eat something. I said, ‘Send out for pizza.’ The nurse said, ‘This guy is dying one day and he’s ordering pizza the next.’ They said it would take six months and my daughter said ‘You guys don’t know my dad.’ ”

Prescribed six weeks of slow and gradual rehabilitation, Catalano scoffed.

“Are you crazy, I’m not going to no rehab for six weeks. My wife and my daughter are crying, I said, ‘Listen I’ll go over there and they’ll show me what to do,’ ” Catalano said. “Once they showed me what to do, I said, ‘Listen, I’m getting out of here. I’m a trainer, I train myself.’ I go home, double up on what they showed me to do and I was back rolling. What do I know about therapy? They showed me, it was brutal, it was so hard, so hard, but I doubled up on the therapy.”

Now, life has come back around. Catalano cherishes his wife, Renee – her number comes up as “Love” on his phone – adores his daughter, Shelbi, and son in law, Farrell’s jockey, Channing Hill and his two grandchildren, Wayllen and Sawyer.

“How life is. What you always knew, but when you’re working, you’re busy, you’re riding, you’re trying to make make money, you’re trying to build a career, you’re doing this, you’re doing that, your kids are growing up,” Catalano said. “Then when you’re old, you have grandkids and you get to do it all over again, this time, you have time. How about that? It’s crazy. It’s crazy. People will tell you that, but you don’t know until you have grandkids.”

So, I ask the question again, knowing I already know the answer.

Do you look at life differently after being sick?

“I never talk about it, never think about it, when you ask about it…it makes me think about it all again. You don’t know, that was four years ago, you don’t know. You don’t know,” Catalano said. “I thought about slowing down, shutting down, easing up, live life a little differently…that went out the window quick, that was gone.”

Catalano’s voice wavered and he stopped talking, Farrell was jigging a quarter mile in front of him, out of sight. He slid his right hand under his sunglasses and wiped away tears from the corners of his eyes.