COLT’S NECK, N.J. — Anthony “Tony” Abbatiello, a United States Trotting Association director for 25 years and chairman of the board from 1997 to 2003, died Oct. 19, 2017, at his home in Colts Neck, N.J., after complications from heart failure. He was 89.
Abbatiello, the son of Italian immigrants, started in the sport by acquiring 457 acres in what is now known as Colts Neck, where he built a home, a training track and paddocks for his pacers and trotters.
He had returned from battle in Korea, where he rose to the rank of captain, winning numerous battlefield commendations including the Combat Infantry Badge, Silver Star, Bronze Star with Valor, two Purple Hearts, Presidential Unit Citation, Korean Campaign Ribbon with four Battle Stars, and the Korean Service Medal.
Colts Neck is now rife with mansions, including that of Bruce Springsteen, but then, the township was rural and welcoming to a young man who became one of the most respected members of the harness racing community and for whom the $500,000 Anthony Abbatiello New Jersey Classic at the Meadowlands was named.
Abbatiello was co-founder of the SBOANJ in 1960 and served as the group’s president for nearly three decades.
The development of the Meadowlands, harness racing’s premier racetrack, was also a project for which Abbatiello provided not only his backing but his racing expertise. When the advertising company preparing its campaign for the opening of the track in 1976 wanted to demonstrate the Sports Complex’s proximity to New York City, it was Abbatiello who was called upon to sit behind a horse as they filmed him crossing the George Washington Bridge, emerging from the Lincoln Tunnel and pacing on the tarmac at Newark Airport.
Abbatiello retired as a trainer several years ago but since 2005, has been a member of the New Jersey Racing Commission.
He previously served on the Board of Managers at Rutgers University for a dozen years and the advisory committee of the Federal Land Bank for approximately 18 years.
Along the way, Abbatiello was an acknowledged industry leader both on and off the racetrack. As a trainer, he conditioned many top horses, including a pair of near million-dollar earners, Newt Lobell and Taurus Romeo.
Off the track, he was also the first chairman of the New Jersey Sire Stakes board of directors, chairman of the American Horse Council in Washington, D.C., and a trustee of the Harness Racing Museum in Goshen, N.Y.
On July 2, 1995, he was inducted into harness racing’s Hall of Fame in Goshen, becoming half of the first brother tandem so honored. His brother, Carmine, was a 1985 inductee.
Other awards during Abbatiello’s distinguished career included Harness Horsemen's International’s Man of the Year, the New Jersey Horse Council’s 1982 Horseman of the Year, the 1988 Clem McCarthy Good Guy Award, the United States Harness Writers Association’s 1992 Proximity Award and selection to the National Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame.
In 2006, the Standardbred Breeders & Owners Association of New Jersey renamed the New Jersey Classic for Abbatiello.
Several times a year Abbatiello invited special needs and inner city kids for a day in the country and a chance to fish for blue gills in ponds on his farm. He also maintained several animals for their enjoyment, including a miniature donkey named Pepito, who gently took treats from children.
Abbatiello was preceded in death by his wife, Kathleen, and he lived until his death on 70 acres of Five Point Farm that he retained. On the balance of the property, luxury homes were built on roadways named for harness racing greats like Hambletonian and Messenger.
Abbatiello is survived by three daughters, Jean (Craig) Sardoni, Christine (John) Whelan and Lisa (James) Locke; grandchildren, Ava and Michael Sardoni, Shane and Jack Whelan and Abigail and Ian Locke; brothers, Carmine and Matt; sister, Sadie Merillo; and several nieces and nephews.
Visitation will be from 4-8 p.m. on Oct. 24 at the Higgins Funeral Home in Freehold.
A military burial will be private on Oct. 25 at the Brigadier General William C. Doyle Memorial Cemetery in Arneytown, N.J.