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Pilgrims Toner Takes On Invitational Foes

Published: April 2, 2010 10:12 pm ET

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An unconventional training regimen has helped Pilgrims Toner move up the class ladder from claimer to invitational winner at Meadowlands Racetrack.

The six-year-old son of The Panderosa bids for his fourth straight victory in the $32,000 fifth race invitational on Saturday night. He is rated as the 8-5 morning line favourite from post two with Yannick Gingras listed to drive.

Pilgrims Toner is one of a handful of horses trained by Frank Catalfamo, who owns a taxicab company in Highland Park, NJ. Catalfamo claimed the pacer off previous trainer Richard Paradis for $50,000 on February 20.

"With Pilgrims Toner, I was looking to claim one, and I try to do some research," Catalfamo said "People told me he was a sound horse. Harry Landy pointed out that Casie Coleman had the horse for a week, she really liked him and was looking to claim him back. Plus, Josh Green kept claiming him, so he must have liked him. So, I heard he was okay and decided to take a shot. There were four claims in on him the night we got him. We were the lucky shaker."

Pilgrims Toner has won three of his four starts for Catalfamo and partners Joe Spezio and Robert Mills, police officers in Highland Park, and Pat Daley, a retired cab driver from New Brunswick.

"The first night we raced him and he finished third [March 27], he was really good that night, but Yannick Gingras said he couldn't hold him," Catalfamo said. "In fact, I think he choked. I changed his driving bit. He had a straight Riegel bit on, and I put a snaffle bit on to control him better."

Along with Gingras' skills in the sulky, Catalfamo credits his unusual training program as the key to the pacer's success.

"He's just responded to what I do, which is a little unconventional," he said. "Your normal routine is to jog a horse five miles and train a couple of trips three days out. What I do with this horse is jog three miles, then turn the right way and train two miles. The last half-mile I make him get up on the bit, and maybe go a half in 1:08. I do that every day, along with the basics. It's stamina building. It worked with the last couple of horses I tried it with.

"His 1:49.2 mile [March 20] was very impressive, but it was warm that night [62 degrees]," he continued. "He came back last week to win in 1:50 and it was colder [41 degrees]. He made a vicious, three-wide move, but the horse has just flourished. I can't complain with post two in a six-horse field going for $32,000 [on Saturday night]. Last week, Yannick just sat back and made his move. In a small field you can make your own race."

Catalfamo, 53, spent many hours of his childhood at Freehold Raceway, where his father, Frank Sr., raced horses. The junior Catalfamo apprenticed under many of the sport's leading horsemen, including Herve Filion, Carmine Abbatiello and Barry Abrams. He worked for Carl Le Cause when the latter won the inaugural Meadowlands Pace with Escort in 1977.

"I had a chance to learn from some of the best," Catalfamo said. "I always had one or two horses on my own. I own a taxicab company with 15 cars in Highland Park, which borders where I live in Edison. I drive in the morning a few hours and then I take care of the horses. I was stabled at Johnson Park [Piscataway], but it was flooded out during that storm on March 13. So, I moved Pilgrims Toner over to Gaitway Farm [Englishtown]."

One of the trainer's best performers was Kennans Josh, a $40,000 claim who banked nearly $200,000 for Catalfamo and his partners.

"I did well with him for a couple of years," he said. "We had all put in $10,000 to claim Kennan's Josh. He was claimed from us, and then it took three weeks to find Pilgrims Toner. It was all luck. There's a shortage of horses. Everybody knows every horse. The claiming game is tough. But it's nice to spread the wealth around to a little guy like me with a bunch of other guys who love the game. That's exactly what this is all about. We're just having a little fun."

Catalfamo also assists his friend Donald Maiorano with the trotter Soapy Sap.

"I ship the horse and we kind of work together with that one," he said. "I would need more help to take on any more horses, and I do need to hire some cab drivers. Once I get settled at Gaitway, I'll probably look to claim another one."

(The Meadowlands)

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