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?