Story originally published on June 2, 2013, on DanonymousRacing.com
Arlington Heights, IL – Channing Hill is a changed man. A good woman can have that effect and Hill has found himself one very good woman.
“She has pretty much turned me around,” Hill told DanonymousRacing.com. “She keeps me in check and she keeps me focused on what I want to achieve.”
If the goal was to achieve the kind of success Hill first experienced early on his career, then Shelbi Catalano has already had a huge impact. Not only is she Hill’s support system, she’s also the daughter of one of the most successful Chicago-based trainers ever, Wayne Catalano.
“That doesn’t hurt,” Hill said, with a laugh.
Both trainer and jockey have done plenty of laughing of late – all the way to the winner’s circle – at Arlington Park. A month into the meet, Catalano is already well on his way to another training title, while Hill finds himself at the top of the jockey standings.
“I can’t even really take a lot of credit for being at the top,” said Hill. “I know that sounds like I’m trying to be as humble as I can be but, in all honesty, Wayne and a lot of people have just been putting me on these horses that are hard to get beat.”
The humility expressed by Hill reflects his evolving maturity. He speaks with greater respect for those responsible for his growth as a rider and as a person. Hill candidly admits the path to get here was filled with poor judgment, lack of focus and even bouts of excessive drinking.
A Logical Career Path
Hill was born and raised in Nebraska. The son of Alan Hill, a jockey who rode for nearly 40-years, Channing developed a natural love for horse racing. A few days after turning 16, he rode in his first professional race.
He continued to ride at Prairie Meadows in the Summer between his Junior and Senior year of high school. Unlike many jockeys, who ride for years on smaller tracks before jumping to a larger circuit, Hill had an opportunity to move to New York almost immediately after high school.
“Especially, coming out of Nebraska,” Hill reflected, “you see so many people who work all their lives and don’t even get an opportunity to run in a graded stakes race, let alone win one.”
“It really puts into perspective how lucky I have been,” concluded Hill.
Hill lacked that perspective early on in his career and who could blame him? He spent his first four full years of riding as a mainstay on New York’s racing scene (10 % winning percentage from 2005-2008) . Meanwhile, he saw apprentices, and even accomplished journeymen, get chewed up and spit out on the fiercely competitive circuit.
“I would think, that can’t happen to me,” said Hill. “I may have gotten a little too big-headed.”
His bravado only grew when, in 2008, he won the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes at Pimlico, aboard Sweet Vendetta. To date, it’s his biggest win and his most cherished, because his father Alan was in attendance and also won the same race in 1975 on My Juliet.
Later that Summer, Hill’s stock continued to soar when he won the Grade 1 Forego at Saratoga. He would tack on more than a half a dozen other stakes wins in 2008, racking up a career-high $6.1 million in earnings. He was just turning 21 and his potential seemed limitless.
Long Nights and Setbacks
Although business was good in New York, Hill tried to move his tack to California in early 2009. The plan, in retrospect “was silly,” according to Hill. He admits to not being locked in mentally at the time.
So, Hill came back East and bounced back and forth between riding in New York and Monmouth Park in New Jersey. He had varied results and started getting fewer calls to ride quality horses.
“When I was out East, my priorities weren’t all together, ” Hill said. “Obviously, I wanted to be successful but I also wanted to go out and I wanted to be silly.”
For a guy in his early 20’s, with good looks and time to kill, there are plenty of outlets for silly behavior in New York City.
“I was probably out drinking too much… I didn’t want to wake up in the morning,” said Hill. “All in all, my attitude was very poor.”
Then, in 2011, Hill suffered a setback on the track when he broke his ankle at Monmouth. He was out three months. When Hill returned in early 2012, he opted for a change of scenery, landing at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, AR. There, he finished 15th in the jockey standings, winning 10% of his races.
Hill hoped his career was back on the upswing after the Oaklawn meet, when he decided to take a shot at riding in Chicago. He made the move with agent, Jay Fedor (who had brought him to Oaklawn). But Hill was dropped by Fedor shortly after getting to Arlington, when Fedor became Robby Albarado’s agent. Incidentally, Albarado was one of Hill’s idols growing up.
” He was a really big influence of mine… so, how can you be too upset when you get fired for one of your idols?,” Hill said, while laughing and reiterating he has no hard feelings over the experience.
Hill tried to stay positive and he was about to get a boost from a woman who would be responsible for getting him back on track, quite literally.
Someone To Go Home To
Last year was far from a banner year for Hill. He won just 30 races. That was his lowest total since 2004 (his first year riding), a year in which he had just 293 mounts (60 fewer than in 2012).
“It’s easy when you win 30 races in the whole year, to go ‘this isn’t what I want’,” said Hill. “I really had an opportunity to reflect on what I wanted out of this game and what I wanted to be.”
Hill realized he wanted to be a better rider, as well as a better person. So, he decided to stop drinking completely. He’s been alcohol-free since last September. The decision came just before a short stint riding in Saudi Arabia, where Hill joked, “it’s a little easier over there – they don’t give you the chance (to drink).”
By Winter, Hill started feeling better, had an easier time keeping weight off and, most importantly, he’d found someone to confide in. With Shelbi Catalano, he could talk about his struggles and work through the pressure that comes with being a jockey. Fortunately, for Hill, Catalano already knew a thing or two about life at the track.
Hill and Catalano met early in the Arlington meet last year and began dating in July. Hill moved in with Catalano upon returning to Chicago for the current meet and he told us “things couldn’t be going any better.”
“It’s nice to have someone to look forward to go home to,” said Hill. “And with the support from Shelbi… I get up at 5:30 every morning now and I’m anxious to get the work and I’m anxious to get the job done.”
Hill also has the further incentive of knowing that he’s going to get quality mounts when he rides for Wayne Catalano. Early in the meet, the two have already hooked up for a nice score in the Grade 3 Arlington Matron, on May 25, with Imposing Grace.
“It was nice to get that first stake win out of the way, so that people know that I’m capable of doing it,” Hill said, with a laugh. “It was great, especially coming with Wayne and the family.”
Throughout the course of our interview, not a minute goes by without Hill stopping to thank the people who have helped him reignite his career. He expressed gratitude, not just to Shelbi and Wayne but to Mike Monroe, his agent in New York, and Mike Hushion, a New York based trainer who has served as a mentor to Hill after a difficult 2012.
“I wouldn’t take back last year for nothing,” said Hill, in another moment of reflection. “It really just gave me perspective on how easily people can overlook you.”
Experience has taught Hill that true perspective can often be distorted when one is soaring high. It took hitting bottom for Hill to learn some important life lessons which have him firmly grounded and focused like never before.