Former Tampa Bay Downs Association Official Catherine Dimino, who succumbed to pancreatic cancer on Jan. 31, uplifted all who knew and loved her through her grace and courage.
Jeff Lopez, who shoes horses at Oaklawn Park and on the Kentucky circuit, makes the drive from Hot Springs, Ark., to Louisville in about 8 hours.
All that keeps him from getting lost are memories of his late fiancée Catherine Dimino, who died in his arms on Jan. 31 after a valiant three-year fight with pancreatic cancer. She was 32.
“I still think of things to tell her and it hurts all over again when I tell myself I can’t call her,” Jeff said in a recent e-mail to the Tampa Bay Downs Publicity Department. “Then I think of what she would say and I feel better.
“Focusing on work and driving help clear my head, but when I don’t have anything to do it’s tough, because I would be talking to her or coming home to her. Losing her is losing my best friend.”
Her co-workers in the Racing Office at Tampa Bay Downs from 2014-2017 experience similar bittersweet emotions when they think of Catherine, who never seemed to be affected by the often stressful atmosphere involved with taking entries and filling races. Hard as it is to imagine life without her, they are uplifted by Catherine’s loving, generous spirit – both before and after her illness.
Catherine Dimino at trainer William Bradley's farm in Frankfort, Ky., with her beloved Rat Terrier, Lola
Gerry Stanislawzyk, the Stakes Coordinator at Tampa Bay Downs, recalls how he and other Racing Office officials were reluctant to talk to one caller who never seemed to run out of things to discuss, including the weather and the price of hay. “Catherine started answering his calls, and she would sit there and talk with this guy for 15 minutes and answer all his questions,” Stanislawzyk said.
Although she did not come from a racing background, Catherine was an accomplished youth equestrian who took riding lessons and practiced as a working student at Revere/Saugus Riding Academy near her hometown of Malden, Mass. As a girl, she won her first competition on a retired racehorse.
She studied Equine Sciences at the University of New Hampshire and Business Management at Salem State, graduating in 2011 from Mount Ida College in Newton, Mass., with a Bachelor’s Degree in Equine Management.
Which qualified her for her first job on the racetrack: as a post-race sample collector at Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts (known less delicately as a “pee-catcher”).
“When they hired her, I thought she was going to get bored real quick because she was so smart,” said current Tampa Bay Downs Association Official Joelyn Rigione, then working at Suffolk. “But you could tell she liked it by the way she interacted with the horses. She was very quiet, like a horse whisperer, and the horses seemed to love her.
“You couldn’t give her anything that she didn’t know how to do, or wasn’t willing to learn,” Rigione said.
“My family has always been involved in racing,” noted Jeff, “and Catherine’s family wasn’t involved with racing. But she loved working at the track and wanted to learn more every day.”
Catherine in the Tampa Bay Downs paddock
With her show horse background and love of animals – she dreamed of re-training retired Thoroughbreds for second careers – Catherine fit in from the start. She proved a quick learner, soaking up the intricacies of dealing with owners, trainers and jockey agents on a day-to-day basis. Stanislawzyk welcomed her assistance with the voluminous paperwork associated with taking nominations for stakes races, saving him time and frustration. “She would do anything to help anybody,” he said.
“Catherine always went the extra yard,” said Allison De Luca, the track’s Racing Secretary. “I can remember 100 times going crazy with my computer, and she would straighten out whatever needed to be fixed.”
After Suffolk Downs was sold for real estate development in 2014, Catherine was hired by Churchill Downs to work in its Racing Office, an assignment that meshed perfectly with her winter/early spring job at Tampa Bay Downs. “Getting offered a job at Churchill Downs was the icing on the cake,” said her mother, RoseAnne Dimino, in an e-mail. “Her dream was to work the Kentucky Derby.”
Jeff, who met Catherine at Tampa Bay Downs in December of 2015, says she felt a kinship with everyone she met. “She cared so much about people and could carry on a conversation with anyone,” he added.
Whether those talks were about family, jobs, horses or the future, Catherine’s genuine concern and warm smile made her someone people trusted. Friends used her as a sounding board and someone to counsel them through their difficulties. “She was always there for you, no matter what you were going through,” said close friend and former roommate Jenn Moore, a Tampa Bay Downs Association Official.
Catherine and Jenn often went out together, hitting the beach or a night spot, or checking out the Tampa Bay area’s numerous attractions. But their friendship blossomed into more than a series of good times.
“Catherine would be the first to sit up with you all night while you cried,” Moore said. “We would text each other back and forth in the office if there was something we didn’t want to talk about in front of everybody, and I’d kick her chair if she didn’t answer fast enough.”
Catherine, left, ready to trip the light fantastic with friends Chelsey Coady, center, and Jenn Moore
“Catherine was a true friend with a true heart,” RoseAnne Dimino wrote. “She was a great listener and shied away from drama and conflict. If you confided in her, you knew that it would never go further than her ears.
“She had a magnetic personality that immediately put you at ease. She never judged anyone; she was very accepting of everyone, warts and all.”
When it came to shoeing horses, there wasn’t much Catherine could tell Jeff. It’s a job that requires a fierce attention to detail, thoroughness, a strong mind and body and the ability to shake off the inevitable kicks from fractious horses. While it can pay well, the hours are long and the risk of injury is high. And mistakes, even small ones, can lead to poor racetrack performances or injuries that result in less business.
Hardly something she would be expected to understand, despite her own experience with horses. Yet once they started dating, she helped Jeff find a perspective he was missing.
“I’m a really big nerd and keep to myself a lot and focus on work, and I’m always in my head thinking of how I can do a better job or what I have to do the next few days,” he wrote.
“After meeting her, I’d come home and learn to wait until early the next morning (to resume thinking about the job). “I learned there is only so much I can do in a day before I need to stop, rest and start over the next day.”
Her family and her racetrack friends were thrilled when Catherine and Jeff began dating. “They were always together, and when they weren’t together, they were texting back and forth,” Moore said. “It was kind of funny because after they started going out, it was like we were never going to see her again. But we were OK with it because she was so happy.”
Moore recalls Catherine’s mom telling her how comfortable she felt knowing she had a devoted boyfriend, co-workers she liked and trusted and a job she loved, working with horses.
Catherine began working at Churchill Downs as a racing official a few months after they met, enabling them to be together most of the year.
"They were a match made in heaven"
“Sometimes I’d leave (Tampa Bay Downs) a month early, but it gave me time to set up our apartment in Louisville,” Jeff said. “Then she would get there and add life to it. She was like my sanity. …I’d come home to the TV on, candles lit, she was always cooking something, and music going. It was like walking into heaven.”
Catherine’s reputation as an extraordinary cook spread far and wide. When she stayed with De Luca in Louisville, she cooked a meal of spaghetti and meatballs “because she knew that was my favorite. I watched her make the sauce, and it was incredible. It was like nothing to her,” De Luca said. “Just the right amount of everything.”
“Chicken marsala was her best meal,” Rigione said. “Her mother said she made better Chicken marsala than she did.”
“Watching her cook was like someone doing magic,” Jeff remarked. “It was fun to watch her make a meal out of anything she found.”
Catherine and Jeff got engaged in the summer of 2016, shortly before she became sick. Their future included horse racing, their friends, her dogs Lola and Rex, and buying a small farm where she could pursue her ambition of adopting and re-training off-the-track racehorses.
Jeff calls those moments together, snuggling on the couch and discussing their dreams, “the happiest time of my life – nothing seemed real. It was an all-too-perfect life, the best dream you could imagine.”
“They were a match made in heaven,” Rigione said.
The idyllic romance was dealt a blow in the fall of 2016 in Louisville. Catherine began complaining of stomach pains and frequent itching, and her face and eyes took on a jaundiced hue. She was reluctant at first to visit a doctor, but was finally convinced of the need to seek medical help.
A CAT scan revealed a shadow on her pancreas, and her mother flew to Louisville to bring her home for treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. In May of 2017, her doctors recommended the removal of the mass in her pancreas. Two months later, after enjoying time with Jeff, she returned to Boston for a Whipple procedure – a major operation that entailed removing half of her pancreas, along with her small intestine, bile duct and a small portion of her stomach. Only then did her doctor say the words everyone dreaded hearing: pancreatic cancer.
Catherine began a regimen of chemotherapy, amazing everyone with her courage, grace and resolve. She stayed at her family’s three-story home in Malden, also home to her siblings Tommy and Marie and their families. Throughout the ordeal, she would drive or fly back to Kentucky between treatments to be with Jeff.
“She was so determined and brave, it was inspiring to see,” he said. “I did truly feel helpless. I told myself the only thing I can do now is work, support us and do anything nice for her I could do. If she wanted it, she got it. If I couldn’t go with her on a trip, she was able to take her friends. It just made me happy to see her smile.”
Through the most trying times, Catherine never lost her sense of humor.
“After the Whipple procedure, she joked that she wouldn’t be able to wear a bikini because she had a scar that went from here to here,” Moore said. “I told her we could come up with a good story, like a shark or a bear attack. She always found a way to joke about it to make things lighter.”
“I thought if anyone was going to beat cancer it was Catherine, because she was young and had a great attitude,” Rigione said. “Her personality and her smile never changed. She kept us strong.”
In September of 2017, another scan revealed two spots on her liver. Her cancer had progressed from Stage 2 to Stage 4. She started a more aggressive form of chemotherapy every two weeks for about six months, followed by radiation on her pancreas and liver.
In March of 2019, she got the “all-clear” to go live a normal life. But that diagnosis was premature. “Two months later, they found the spot on her liver had grown back,” RoseAnne Dimino said. Chemotherapy was started again, but her cancer had become resistant to the previously successful treatment. Catherine agreed to undergo a clinical trial, since such a treatment had saved the life of her father, Tom Dimino.
“She was on the trial for six weeks, but even though it was working on the spots on her liver, they found cancer on her lung,” RoseAnne Dimino said.
A routine biopsy on her liver caused a blood clot and fluid on the liver. Treatments were stopped until the complications cleared up, but that never happened.
Catherine’s desire to help other cancer victims helped her keep fighting. Throughout her treatment, because of her youth and otherwise good health, she was asked many times to be interviewed for research purposes. “They used her bloodwork for research,” said her mother. “She hoped to go back to school to be an oncology nurse because she was inspired by the people who had helped her.”
“The survival rate for Stage 4 pancreatic cancer is very low,” Jeff wrote, “but she kept fighting and hanging on. She wanted to inspire others with this disease and let them know there is hope and a chance of keeping it managed.”
In her final months, Catherine welcomed each day with the indomitable spirit that had drawn in so many people, dedicating to fighting for all she cherished in life. “I have no doubt in my mind if Catherine did not get sick, she could have achieved absolutely anything she wanted to do,” Jeff said. “She was happy and was just figuring out what she wanted out of life. Then life just said no.”
But not before she made a lasting difference.
“Her going to Tampa changed her life and changed her as a person,” said her mother. “Before, she never wanted to leave (Massachusetts). But she got that opportunity to work at Tampa Bay Downs, and I’m thankful because it meant so much to her.”
Ask anyone Catherine Dimino met, and they’ll return those thanks in full measure.