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Pandolfo: One-on-one with Eric Abbatiello
Harness driver and trainer Eric Abbatiello just won his 5th driving title at Freehold Raceway in New Jersey. While he has strong parental roots in the sport via standardbred driving legend Carmine Abbatiello, Eric didn't go into the racing business right away.
"My parents wanted me to get a college education, and I'm glad I did," Abbatiello said.
After graduating, Abbatiello worked for an insurance company and eventually became a stock broker. "One day our company announced that they were starting a new service where you could pay $9.99 a month and make unlimited trades. I looked around at my co-workers and said, 'What are they going to need us for?'"
It was an amateur driving championship win in 1999 that vaulted Abbatiello into the “family” business.
"I grew up around horses and I love being in the barns and working with horses,” said Abbatiello. “I think that being the son of Carmine, some people thought that I'd have it easy. But it wasn't. I bought a couple of low level claiming horses and worked hard."
Abbatiello's total driving victories have increased for four straight years. Driving mostly at Freehold and the Meadowlands, Abbatiello has 212 wins this year, the most of his career. He also has 35 wins as a trainer.
The 46-year-old New Jersey native took the time to touch on a myriad of harness racing topics in a recent interview.
Pandy: How important is strength to a driver? I saw you wire the field with a hard puller at Freehold and you had good control over the horse.
Abbatiello: Strength is very important. People may not realize it because some drivers may look small or lean, but driving horses every day builds strength in your arms and chest. Between the race and the scoring down period before the race, you’re out there about seven minutes with a horse. That can be a seven minute tug of war. You do that all day long and you get strong. With all the horses that I drive, both training and driving, that's all the exercise I need.
Pandy: We sometimes say that a driver has "good hands." Is that hyperbole?
Abbatiello: I think that horses do sense something through the reins from a driver's hands. But there's more to it. It’s important to try to keep a horse calm and comfortable. That's why I talk to the horse, for instance. The key is not how fast you go with them early, it’s how much air they have left in their lungs in the final fifty feet.
You look at a driver like Brian Sears, for example. He has a good technique of holding the bit in the horse’s mouth, keeping him relaxed and comfortable, and his horses tend to have a lot left for the finish. This is an important part of driving. Of course, top drivers like Sears, Gingras, Tetrick, and Campbell, they also put their horses in good spots. It's sort of a combination of the technique of communicating with your horse and race strategy.
Pandy: When I interviewed Carmine years ago, he told me that the first time he drove a horse he didn’t care what anyone told him about the horse, or how bad the horse looked in the program. He said, "I give the horse the benefit of the doubt, and I drive him like he's a good horse."
Abbatiello: He also always said, "When I get on a horse for the first time, bet him." One time an owner told him, "You won't be able to leave with this horse, he just can't leave." Well, my Dad went wire to wire with the horse and after the race he told the owner, "Got any more advice for me?"
I believe what Carmine was talking about is confidence. Horses felt more confident when he was driving them. But, you know, my Dad is just good with animals. For instance, there could be a dog that wants to bite everyone and my dad will walk right up to him and pet him and the dog loves him.
Pandy: How many horses are you training now?
Abbatiello: Right now I have eight horses that I train. I've had as many as 20, but one of my big owners got out of the business. I have a long time groom, Jose, who works with me and is great with horses. My brother-in-law Zeb helps out, and for six months a year, during the spring and summer, my Dad is at the barn every day, so I have good help. During the winter he lives in Florida.
Pandy: Besides your driving titles at Freehold, you've won the Open several times at Yonkers and you've won sire stakes races. What's the difference between driving the half mile tracks as opposed to the Meadowlands?
Abbatiello: At the Meadowlands there are no breathers, especially when there are ten or more horses in the race. There's a lot of movement. Post position isn't as important. And, it's harder to wire the field. If you use your horse too hard early, you may not have enough left, but at the same time, there are no easy first quarters, so it's tricky. The key to the success of the Meadowlands is the ten-horse fields. Gamblers like that and Jeff Gural knows it.
Pandy: The outside flow seems to be pretty good at the Meadowlands and other tracks this year. It seems to me that it's improved.
Abbatiello: The breed is more refined. The horses are better gaited. The equipment, the bikes, the shoes, the wheels are better. The trainers are sharp. Years ago bettors used to throw out horses that were coming off a two week break. Not anymore. The trainers have the horses ready.
Pandy: What was your most memorable win as a driver?
Abbatiello: In May of 2011 I won my 1,000th race and my Dad was in the winner's circle. That was a good moment. Another one that comes to mind is when I won the 2012 Super Bowl Final at the Meadowlands with the trotting mare Dontevenknowmymame. She was owned and trained by Owen Eiler, Jr., who is a police officer in Philadelphia.
To find out more about Pandy’s handicapping theories check out his www.trotpicks.com or www.handicappingwinners.com websites, his free picks at handicapping.ustrotting.com/pandycapping.cfm or write to Bob Pandolfo, 3386 Creek Road, Northampton, PA 18067.
Great Read - As a kid I was a huge Carmine Fan. When he visited Ceil Hiel's house in Hicksville, NY it was like a rock star visiting.