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?"