On Harness Track, The Son Also Races His Father Is A Living Legend In The Sport. Eric Abbatiello Wants To Make A Name For Himself.

Posted: March 21, 1997

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Eric Abbatiello is wearing mud-splattered colors instead of a tailored suit, and he's surrounded by hay and horses instead of computers and a ringing telephone.

A resident of Cherry Hill who is employed as a stockbroker in Conshohocken, Pa., Abbatiello wants to be a harness driver.

He's following the tracks of a legend. Abbatiello, 28, is the son of Carmine Abbatiello, a member of the Harness Racing Hall of Fame and one of the sport's most successful and popular figures. The elder Abbatiello is sixth on the all-time wins list with 7,159 and 10th on the all-time money list with $50,201,484 in winnings.

Carmine Abbatiello, 60, owns and breeds horses on his 60-acre farm in Colts Neck, N.J. But he still adds to his imposing statistics by racing three times a week.

``This is a tough business to follow in a legend's footsteps,'' said Bob Heyden, the Meadowlands historian, statistician and handicapper. ``A lot of guys have failed. You expect them to be good, and the odds are so much against it.

``Carmine, of all the people I have known, was born with it. He has an innate sense of a horse's ability. He is somebody a lot of people want to be.''

In the 1970s and '80s, when Eric Abbatiello was growing up, his father was the leading driver at Yonkers and Roosevelt Raceways. Carmine Abbatiello transcended his sport, starring in a beer commercial and being featured in Sports Illustrated.

Away from the spotlight, Eric grew up cleaning stalls, grooming horses and training the animals at dawn on an empty track.

``It gets in your blood,'' Carmine said. ``It got in Eric's blood. He wants to get back to the horses.''

So how serious is Eric about pursuing his father's sport? He already has his amateur license and is pursuing his provisional license. In four qualifying races, he has finished as high as third.

``A lot of guys, the way they get into this business is buying a horse and racing him in the amateur circuit,'' Eric Abbatiello said. ``That's what I'm going to do. I've been involved with horses my whole life. If I can get a few races, in a year or two I'll be racing at night, that kind of stuff.''

Originally, Eric Abbatiello intended to try harness racing after graduating from Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, N.J. Carmine and his wife, Marie, insisted that Eric attend college, and he graduated from Catholic University.

``That was a smart thing to do,'' Eric said. ``If I hurt myself, at least I have a college background to fall back on.

``Being a broker is fun. You deal with people, and they have to have a lot of trust in you. That's what I think is the best part. You can always do both. I don't think I'd give up one for the other.''

Eric's two pursuits are not as diverse as they may appear.

``They are very similar,'' he said. ``You are independent. You work on commission and you have to earn everything you get. Nobody is going to give you a salary. That's with horse racing, too. You have to earn every single dime.''

Eric already owns horses with his father, but he would prefer to claim or buy his own horse.

``You could use one of those horses,'' Eric said. ``But you aren't racing for any money [on the amateur circuit]. Why would you take a horse who can race for money and race him for no money? You eat the cost for a while so you can get your license.''

Now that Eric Abbatiello has a college degree and a successful career, Carmine doesn't mind that he's back in the business.

``I really wanted him to get away from it,'' he said. ``He was going to college. He had to get a decent job. The horse business today is tough.

``He wants to come back to the horses. I said, `Make money and race on the weekends.' Eric is good. Eric can read a watch real good. He knows how to control a horse. Eric listens - that's the biggest thing. He does what I tell him. Eric is going to be good.''

At the Meadowlands last week, Eric, Carmine and trainer Robert Siegelman stood in the tack room at Siegelman Stables and discussed the health of the various horses.

``Believe me, we take better care of these horses than ourselves,'' Siegelman said.

There is danger for drivers in harness racing. People have been killed - and Carmine has broken his share of bones.

``It's like a race-car driver; you have to worry,'' Eric said. ``It's a living someone has chosen.''

Horses and harness racing are the family business. Marie Abbatiello handles many of the financial affairs on the farm. Eric's sister, Victoria, competed in equestrian events and now works on a farm in Arizona.

The family is close, and the bond between father and son is as tight as a photo finish.

``We enjoy each other's company,'' Eric Abbatiello said. ``You get to work in the same business with the same interests. Most people you see in the business today are from the horse business. Everyone starts off young. In the summertime at the racetrack, every father has his son there.''

But not every father has more than 7,000 wins, and not every son has been waiting more than 15 years for his own chance on the track.

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