The other day a New Jersey life insurance salesman traveled out to Colts Neck, N.J. to pay an unwanted call on harness horse driver Carmine Abbatiello. After an exchange of sharp words, Abbatiello screamed, "I'm gonna turn my dog loose on you if you're not out of here by the time I count to 10."
"But Carmine..." pleaded the insurance salesman.
"Two, four, six, eight, 10," bellowed Abbatiello. And with that, he did turn loose his dog, Gus, a Rottweiler so mean that he snarls at the rising sun, and the race was on. The salesman vaulted atop his car just in time, leaving Gus to go nuts down below.
This vignette in the high-speed life of Abbatiello, one of his sport's best drivers, speaks volumes. You may have noticed that he counted to 10 by twos; Abbatiello prefers not to waste time and is always looking for an edge. And you may have noticed that he turned his dog loose. Abbatiello is solid brass and doesn't make idle threats—or boasts.
August 9, 1981
How good are you, Carmine?
"Oh, I'd say on a scale of 10, I'm an eight."
Only an eight?
"Yeah, but there aren't any nines or 10s."
So you're the best?
"Well, when you're good, you're good."
So what's the difference between you and the other drivers?
"About two seconds."
Indeed, Abbatiello, whose hands somehow transmit to horses the seriousness of this business of winning, is as close to a perfect harness driver as there is. Yet, anomalously, he isn't widely known. Most athletes—and a first-rank harness driver is indeed an athlete—complain that if only they could perform in the spotlight of New York instead of, say, Seattle or San Antonio, they would be famous. But Abbatiello performs only in New York, and while he is well recognized there, his identity doesn't carry much beyond the banks of the Hudson. He points at a colt across a pasture on his farm. "I tried to name him 'Almost Famous,' just like me," he says with a laugh. The U.S. Trotting Association didn't approve; it was Abbatiello's luck that somebody else had already registered a horse with that name.
Abbatiello simply suffers from being too New York, a superstar who takes no road trips. He almost never drives at tracks other than Yonkers and Roosevelt; he has no interest in Grand Circuit racing and the sport's showcase events like the Hambletonian and the Little Brown Jug. "Why should I go anywhere else?" he asks. "I'm here with the best and beating the best."
The numbers back him up. At 45 years of age he's second in career wins (4,723) behind his archrival, 43-year-old Herve Filion (7,751), and third in money won ($28,997,160 as of last week) behind Filion ($34,161,011) and the legendary Billy Haughton ($30,873,757). But Abbatiello surely will pass Haughton in the next few years. "Carmine is second to none," Filion says charitably. After winning a recent race, Filion called over to Abbatiello, "The cream always rises to the top." An unimpressed Abbatiello responded, "So does the crap." But in a gentler moment, Abbatiello admits, "I'd rather be in a race without Herve. He may not beat you, but he'll be in the photo with you."
What it boils down to is that Filion, who performs at many tracks in the U.S. and Canada, has the finesse, while Abbatiello, who stays home, has the aggressiveness. In fact, he's widely considered the most aggressive driver ever, which is why he's also conceded to be the best driver on half-mile tracks, where aggressiveness counts for a great deal.
In 11 of the last 13 years, Abbatiello has won more than $1 million; he gets 5%. Since 1975 he has been the sport's leading money-winner twice and never worse than third, and three times has won more than Filion. Financially, he had his best year in 1980, finishing second in purse money won with $3.3 million, which put about $165,000 in his pocket. "Going in circles is kind of silly," Abbatiello admits, "but the money's good." Last year he was leading driver at Yonkers for the third time in a row and the fifth time in his career; six times he has been tops at Roosevelt. Predictably, 1981 is going well. At the close of last weekend he already had won 196 races and $1,542,284.
Abbatiello thinks it's no trick analyzing his success: "I drive a lot so I win a lot." That's true, as far as it goes. He commutes from his 48-acre spread in New Jersey to Roosevelt (a 150-mile round trip, and four hours or more behind the wheel) or Yonkers (only a 124-mile round trip) more than 250 nights a year. The other day his 12-year-old son Eric, said, "Why don't you stay home tonight?" Carmine, aghast, replied, "Stay home? I might have a chance to win one." His goal is to average one win a night in four or five drives. He does that, easily; in 1980, for example, he was first 391 times.
Even though he is the most sought-after driver in New York, Abbatiello knows that if he doesn't drive, somebody else will. And if that somebody does well, he'll get to drive the horse next time out and Abbatiello won't. That's why until a couple of months ago he'd never taken his family on a vacation. Day after day he jumps in his new Mercedes 300 SD around 4 p.m., fights the god-awful rush-hour traffic to the track, races all evening and then drives back home, arriving by 2 a.m. Late one recent evening, another motorist pulled alongside Abbatiello on the Belt Parkway near Kennedy Airport and hollered, "Come on Carmine, let's race."
Discussing what makes Abbatiello so good, Stan Bergstein, executive vice-president of the Harness Tracks of America, says, "He has that intangible something he conveys with his hands through the lines that keeps the horse alive. He's so confident of his judgment on the track that he doesn't drive according to preconceived notions, and I think he conveys that feeling of confidence to the horse. And he never loses because of lack of trying. He does all this with a lot of horses who aren't that brave."
Abbatiello's brother, Tony, who's president of the Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association of New Jersey, as well as a standardbred owner, says, "I don't believe you develop the talent my brother has. The only thing that happens with experience is the skills get a little better. With Carmine, he has that little extra snap in his wrists." An admiring Del Insko, a veteran driver recently passed by Abbatiello on the alltime money list, says, "It's just ability he was born with, plus he very seldom uses poor judgment." That's why savvy New York bettors generally subscribe to the theory: When in doubt, bet Carmine. To which Abbatiello responds, "Yeah, then they boo the hell out of me if I have the favorite and lose or if I beat the favorite. New Yorkers are wonderful."
But at Roosevelt, after a win, Carmine is laughing as he says, "I'm just so good I scare myself." He's the absolute master of bold, sweeping, unexpected moves that leave opponents muttering. Another top New York driver, Lucien Fontaine, says, "He loves to beat us, but I can't tell you how much we love to beat him."
Buddy Regan, one of New York's best trainers, stands in awe of the man who drives most of his horses. "Carmine gives every horse a chance to be a racehorse," Regan says. "That makes him a bettor's friend. If he's driving the 2-to-5 favorite, he won't let some 10-to-l shot suck along and beat him at the end." To this end, Abbatiello isn't shy about using the whip. After he won a recent race, driving hard, by a nose, one of his rivals groused, "Well, one step past the wire, I beat him." That's the way Abbatiello is. Just when the horse has nothing left, he wrings one more little burst to the wire out of it and leaves the other drivers telling what-if stories.
That style leads to sniping that Abbatiello, who has a reputation for tough but fair racetrack conduct, abuses horses. It's true that if an owner has a horse he wants to baby along in hopes of cashing a few checks for third-and fourth-place, Abbatiello isn't the right driver. Trainer Mike Santa Maria comes to Abbatiello's defense: "Some guys do say he abuses horses. I say he tries to win." With that, Santa Maria turns over a horse to Abbatiello moments before a race and says, "If you're so great, let's see you win with this thing." Abbatiello does.
So, does he have any faults? "Sure," says driver Jimmy Marohn. "He wins all the races." In truth, Abbatiello wins only about 20% of the time, which is still enough to cause plenty of consternation among his colleagues. His brother concedes, "He's overly aggressive. If he were a golfer, he wouldn't be trying to make the cut. He'd be trying to win the whole pot." Other horsemen privately cluck that Abbatiello really isn't one of them. He is, they say, "just" a driver—a hired gun. Horseman, to most racetrackers, means getting up at the crack of dawn or earlier, going to the track to train, taking a few hours off and then coming back at night for the races. Abbatiello sleeps until 9 a.m., putters around the house and then goes to the races. He trains a few horses, but not enthusiastically or often.
It's his alleged lack of horsemanship that in part has kept him out of the sport's Hall of Fame, where he obviously belongs. Abbatiello also "lacks statesmanship," according to one insider. "He doesn't care whether he is liked or disliked. All he wants is to be the best driver. He says he is, and, by God, he is." Abbatiello gives the Hall of Fame slight a sneer, points to his family room wall and says, "See, I'm in the Italian Hall of Fame. Besides, they don't have to put me in the Hall of Fame to tell me how good I am."
More than anything, Abbatiello is denied his due because of his indictment in 1973 on race-fixing charges involving exotic betting. Neither he nor any of the other 12 drivers who were indicted were convicted of anything. Four cases were dismissed, one was thrown out by a judge, and eight defendants, including Abbatiello, were tried and acquitted. It's now generally agreed the charges smacked of grandstanding by the prosecution, and that while there's wrong-doing in harness racing, these allegations weren't supported by the facts. Abbatiello is stoic about it all. "Anytime money is involved, there are those who say it's crooked," he says. "I've heard people say they don't think Bingo is on the level."
O.K., Carmine, when you die....
"I'll never die. The Lord has in mind a lot of suffering for me to do. A lot."
Well, in the unlikely event you ever do die, will a lot of friends show up at your funeral?
"Naw, just my family."
Could be. A USTA official, pleading anonymity, says, "I don't have a very high opinion of him. He won't lift a finger to help anybody else. Carmine is for Carmine." Bergstein says, "He can be kind of a rough-cut guy, but there are bits of polish. I guess I'd say he has a nice patina to him."
He really does. Knocking around the tracks with him is an adventure in candor, Abbatiello having reached that level of success which enables him to say anything to anybody. After a losing drive at Roosevelt, the owner of the horse questions Abbatiello.
Owner: What do you think of him?
Abbatiello: I don't think he's much stock.
Owner: If you had gotten him out instead of being locked in, he might have won.
Abbatiello: There's no way this horse could have won.
Owner: What shall we do?
Abbatiello: I don't know, but I'll tell you one thing.
Abbatiello: This horse ain't nothin'.
Later, Abbatiello says, "Owners want to be lied to, but I won't do it."
Another owner who had just paid $70,000 for a horse who finished badly, asked Abbatiello what he thought of the animal. "You watched," snapped Abbatiello. "He's a pig."
On another recent occasion, Abbatiello, thoroughly steamed after sitting behind a horse of no talent, walked over to its owner and said, "If your idea is to make me look bad, your horse did a good job at it." He spun on his heels and marched away.
Yet Abbatiello, who is very nearly always the most visible driver on the track because of his flashing red silks, isn't a prima donna. Says Marohn, "Carmine would rather race a 20-to-l shot from the eight hole than sit in the paddock watching." Says Abbatiello, "I'll drive anything for anybody." But only in a race. He irks other drivers not only by his refusal to get up early in the morning to train horses but also because he won't even warm them up himself before a race. Trainers do the job for him. "If you warm them up, you see them do a little of this, a little of that, something wrong here," Abbatiello says. "My philosophy is to drive every horse like he's a good horse. Bad horses get lucky too, you know. Anyway, I'll worry about the race when I get behind the starting gate. This way I'm a surprise to them and they're a surprise to me. It's best."
Abbatiello has the ideal temperament for a driver. "I don't get nervous," he says. "Why should I? I have everything to gain and nothing to lose. If I don't win anything, well, I'm right where I was two minutes ago when the race started. I haven't lost nothin'." Many drivers carry stopwatches to gauge the pace; Abbatiello feels he doesn't need a clock. "I go as fast as I can all of the time," he says. "I'm always in a hurry. A watch don't make me go faster. See, what I really enjoy about racing is hearing all that screaming and swearing—behind me."
There are those who think that the main problem an owner or trainer has when he gets Abbatiello is Abbatiello's mouth. It's a typical New York mouth—loud, insistent, outrageous, arrogant. Years ago, when he made a rare trip out of New York to drive at Windsor (Canada) Raceway, he won five straight races. When he was asked about that streak, he managed to antagonize an entire nation by saying, "I think I'll move here. These guys are easy."
Yet despite his passion for winning, he can lose and not lose his cool. On a hot night not long ago at Roosevelt, he was second but cheerful, saying, "It could have been worse. We could've been third." Later it was worse. He was eighth. Said Abbatiello, "Somebody has to be eighth and I'm willing to take my turn—but not often." Then he wins: "Ah, such an easy game." Again he loses: "Whoops, it's not as easy as I thought."
Win or lose, this racing is terrific stuff for a kid who grew up on Staten Island, dropped out of high school after his junior year, rolled dice and pitched pennies and was chastised by his father, who said, "Without an education, Carmine, you'll be a bum." The younger Abbatiello thought he had reached Nirvana when he was driving a scrap-metal truck for $100 a week, take-home $75. But he got laid off and, while he was on unemployment, turned to the horses because of the interest his brother, Tony, had in them. After falling off a rodeo pony in the first lesson of an abortive attempt to learn how to ride thoroughbreds—Abbatiello's nose was the first part of him to hit the ground—he discovered the more stable sulky. Since then, he has been hit in the mouth with a flying horseshoe and been kicked twice by yearlings. Small wonder none of his top teeth are homegrown. He also has been thrown off his sulky many times, breaking his right elbow in 1976, and two weeks ago fracturing his left wrist in a pileup that resulted in the death of the horse he was driving. The accident kept Abbatiello off the track for 14 days.
Injuries aside, Abbatiello's decision to switch to the standardbreds was certainly fortunate. The Colts Neck spread he bought with his winnings 12 years ago for $90,000 is now worth $500,000. These days he has his eye on a house near Colts Neck that sits on only eight acres. He circles it in his car and stares at it. His wife, Marie, says, "It looks like a castle." Which is where a king should live. But Abbatiello shakes his head and says, "A half million for that. I don't know. But it doesn't sound so bad if you say it fast." Then he complains about another property, 72 acres with four houses, a racetrack and a theater. "The guy wanted $1 million," Abbatiello says. "I offered $800,000. Later I said, 'Let's compromise.' He said, 'Fine, $950,000.' That ain't a compromise, is it?"
Back home, he dabbles at moving a fence and sundry trivia. He even cleans the pool and mucks out stalls.
Why not have somebody else do that?
"Then what would I do?" says Abbatiello.
It's all Norman Rockwell. There's his pond with the Canada geese; there are his horses; there's a tire swing hanging from the big maple in the front yard; there's a sign in the kitchen that says, "Happiness is catching. We get it from each other"; there's Gus, snarling at the wind. And there's Abbatiello, leaning on a fence, reflecting:
"Yeah, sure, I'm proud of myself. I've come a long way. But I stuck it out when a lot of other guys quit. I once went 60 races without a win but I didn't panic. I kept driving, because if you're not in the race, you can't win. But I'm just a guy who wants to make a living with two kids, two dogs, one crow and one wife. And honestly, the most important thing in racing is how good the horse is. I never forget that."
Still, when an onlooker remarked of a horse, "He's a great athlete," Abbatiello piped up, "So am I."
Later, down at Ralph's bar not far from Abbatiello's home—the main decoration in the joint is a picture of Carmine—Marie explains her husband's success, "There are a lot of people in this business who are busy wishing. Carmine is busy doing it." Which makes Abbatiello smile and say, "You know, in a bad week I make $1,000. Pretty good for a high school dropout, huh?"