Cup of Coffee: Cat’s Man

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Eight minutes.

Wayne Catalano’s flight was due to land eight minutes after Tyler Wolbert’s flight July 21, three days after opening day of the Saratoga meet. The veteran trainer told his new assistant exactly what to do.

“Get your bag and go to the car rental place, I’ll meet you there,” Catalano said. “We’ll get the car and go get our place to stay.”

Wolbert, flying from Seattle, landed at Albany International, grabbed his bag and waited for Catalano’s flight. And waited.

Finally, Wolbert called Catalano.

“Where are you?”

“Renne wouldn’t let me fly, I can’t shake this cold,” Catalano told Wolbert. “Make do until I get there, everything’s fine. The barn will be set up and they’ll show you how I like things done.”

“Perfect,” Wolbert said.

A day later, Catalano called Wolbert from a hospital bed at Saint Alexius Medical Center.

The trainer rattled off instructions (if you know Catalano, he can rattle like an auctioneer) then cut it off quickly.

“… I gotta go kid, they’re coming for me.”

It was the last time Wolbert would talk to Catalano for two weeks.

Origially diagnosed with pneumonia, Catalano’s lungs were shutting down and doctors fitted him with a breathing tube and put him into an induced coma. Eventually diagnosed the H1N1 influenza virus and pneumonia, Catalano fought for his life.

Wolbert simply tried to weather the storm in Saratoga.

On his first trip back to Saratoga since working for Jonathan Sheppard in 2011, Wolbert had left his wife, Angie and his two kids, Whitney and Alex at home in Issaquah, a suburb of Seattle.

The plan was to work the Saratoga meet, then Kentucky and eventually return to California for Catalano. But now, everything was on hold. Wolbert called his wife.

“I was upset, she was upset, things aren’t going the way they were supposed to,” Wolbert said. “I kept saying, ‘No matter how bad things are for us…the Catalano family is going through something awful, I can’t imagine ever sitting next to your bed and wondering if you were going to make it, I said, we’re going to get by, we’ll be fine.’ “

First, the Saratoga-based horses were fleeing to Monmouth and Wolbert was flying home, back to being a stay-at-home dad.

Then the horses were going to stay. Wolbert went to work, trying to think like Catalano, act like Catalano. In constant communication with Renne Catalano and the stable’s Chicago-based assistant Fernando Canteria, Wolbert tried to keep it on the tracks.

“We put on the strong face but it was touch and go for a while,” Wolbert said. “You’re just waiting and waiting to talk to Wayne.”

Wolbert saddled Winter Game to win her debut Aug. 3. Owned by Coffee Pot Stable, the daughter of Sky Mesa re-rallied and split two rivals inside the sixteenth pole to win by a nose. Catalano snapped his fingers and clapped from his hospital bed. Nurses rushed in his room to see what was wrong.

“That filly took some pressure off,” Wolbert said. “After she won, I walked the long way back, two or three people asked me if I wanted a ride, I said, ‘No, I just want to walk.’ Just want to walk and look around and think about what had happened up here.”

The next day, Wolbert’s phone rang. Catalano’s name flashed on his screen. Wolbert didn’t get excited, expecting Renne who had called about payroll the week before, Wolbert figured it was about business.

“Hey, kid. How you doing?” Catalano, asked in a gravelly, weak voice.

“It’s great to hear from you, we were supposed to meet at the airport, next thing I know, we almost lost you…”

“Yeah, it was rough for all of us.”

Catalano asked a few questions, talked about Winter Game, the upcoming yearling sale at Fasig-Tipton. Tiring quickly, Catalano didn’t stay on the phone for long.

Wolbert hung up and dialed his wife.

“He’s fine,” Wolbert said. “He has all the confidence, he’s good. It’s going to be OK.”

A few hours later, Catalano called again. They call him Cat, sure because of his name, but partly because of his personality. From New Orleans, the ex jockey moves quick as a cat, talks faster, addicted to the action. Catalano tried to make up for two weeks in bed.

“He wanted to go through the sale, he calls me, then I get a text, then 10, all from him, all pedigrees,” Wolbert said. ” ‘Lonhro’s from Australia…what about hip…’ All this stuff, I was like ‘Oh my God, somebody gave him a book.’ The doctors said four weeks for a full recovery, you know Wayne, he’s trying to be back in two. He’s back on the phone, that’s good.”

As for Wolbert, he’s in Saratoga, a nation away from his wife and two kids, but running the show for Catalano. Winter Dawn is due to run in the Spinaway Aug. 31.

“I told him don’t worry about the horses, worry about healing,” Wolbert said. “I’ll bet you he’ll try to be here for that.”

It’ll be Wolbert’s 35th birthday.