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."