The greatest stallion who never was.
by David Mattia
This year, I am dedicating my Christmas Birthday to all the discarded, neglected and abused horses — the ones who fall through the heartbreaking cracks despite the best efforts of hundreds of people who have dedicated their lives to rescuing them. This holiday season, and throughout the year, try to remember these horses, and the people who try so hard to help them. Donate what you can afford.
This is the story of a beautiful horse who fell through the cracks. Remember that there are thousands just like him.
On a cold winter day in late December circa 2000, Aber Gatto, a stud horse with an illustrious pedigree yet to be fully realized, was dead. He’d slowly starved to death within the confines of the paddock that would serve as his temporary crypt until some well-meaning people came around and properly disposed of his bones.
Too proud, and too weak to break through the paddock boards, and despite his gnawing hunger, he probably waited quietly by the gate for a meal that would never come. I assume this to be true because that was his nature from the very first day we met. He’d always stand with patient grace and wait for you to notice him. It was almost as if he never really wanted anything.
Eventually, deprived of hope, crippled by his emaciation and the freezing cold, Aber Gatto, the greatest stallion who never was, walked to the middle of his paddock prison and died.
Owing to the horrific nature of his demise, try not to debate me when I refer to him as the greatest stallion who never was. It’s just my opinion – partly rooted in sentiment but based also on common-sense probability.
In an adjacent paddock, the two mares to which he’d been bred were also dead. They too had been starved. I wonder which was the first to perish. The Wicked Witch of the West said, “The last to go will see the first three go before her.” I try not to think about it, but that’s the kind of wickedness and childlike fear that curls up inside of me whenever I talk about this. But wait, it gets worse.
Having been nourished just enough by their mothers’ last dying drops of milk, two fillies, forcefully weaned by death, emaciated, stunted, barely alive, stood weakly nearby as the ravenously ugly turkey vultures picked away at the remains of mommy and daddy. Rescuers, better late than never, removed these pitiful fillies from the paddock and sent them somewhere. I don’t know anything about their fate because that’s the annoying undercurrent to this entire story. Apart from the certain fact that this horrific thing occurred, no one seems to know a whole lot of details, or perhaps they’ve chosen to forget them.
All of this happened on an overgrown and lonely piece of land that looked, by this time, more like a horse farm in the aftermath of Chernobyl than what it really was — a secluded patch of awfulness set in the tenderly rolling hills of western New Jersey.
I should stop here and apologize to the vultures because they aren’t ugly. They’re miraculous birds, gifted with a unique talent for turning ugliness into beauty both for themselves and for the unfortunates who have fallen beneath them. As grim as the task assigned to them by nature might seem, the earth will never know a better grief counselor than a hungry vulture. When soaring aloft, they magically lift their own ugliness and the ugliness in their bellies high up into the heavens where everything is made beautiful by both distance and the limitations of human vision. It’s an amazing trick when you think about it.
The American environmental essayist Edward Abbey wrote, “Let us praise the noble vulture. No one envies him. He harms nobody, and he contemplates our world from a most serene and noble height.”
So, who was Aber Gatto, and how did this awful thing happen to him?
The second part of this question, “how did this awful thing happen to him” is easy to answer because this kind of thing happens to domesticated animals all the time. Humans buy or acquire animals and then they don’t feed them. Sometimes it’s done out of outright cruelty, but in my experience with seriously abused horses, there is usually an element of human madness or lunacy attached to something as bad as what I described about Aber Gatto and his small family. Add complete ignorance to insanity, and you’ve got all the ingredients you need to kill a horse in the worst way possible.
Despite the courageously charitable work done by a whole lot of people in the racing industry, there will always be some horses who are overlooked because their neglect is tucked away where no one can see it. Racehorse rescuers cannot always intercede on behalf of these horses because they are invisible. Rescue for re-homing often arrives too late because a lot of abuse goes unreported — even by people who witness it.
Hey, if you know horses, you know what abuse and neglect look like, and when you see it, say something. No amount of abuse or neglect is acceptable or “part of training a racehorse.” There are people out there who can help. Call them! Tell them! You know who they are. Yes, you can even dial 911.
The first part of the question, “Who was Aber Gatto,” is a long story, but I’ll do the best I can.
Aber Gatto was a gift given to me by an owner, now deceased, who was a nice enough guy. He came to me as an unraced 3-year-old after he’d been rehabilitated from a serious injury he’d accidentally sustained while training down as a very promising freshman in the Steve Elliott barn.
His injury must have been bad because my owner bought him directly from his owner, a prominent breeder named Tom D’Altrui. The price was $1,000. What was I going to do with a thousand-dollar horse? I absolutely didn’t want a horse like that, but I instantly changed my mind when I saw him.
The year was 1993, and while I’d already had three high-caliber horses when I was still very young, this colt was different. He looked more like the ones I would see in bigshot barns or in the paddock before million-dollar races. He was the spitting image of his sire, Abercrombie. His dam, Dawn Delicious, was the Niatross sister to Hall of Famer Leah Almahurst. His grandam, another Hall of Famer, Liberated Angel, is one of the most celebrated broodmares in history.
I needn’t go into details about this impeccable breeding because all of this will jump off the page for people who know those kinds of things. Suffice it to say that Aber Gatto’s very immediate family is harness racing uber-royalty. Does the name Western Ideal ring a bell? Yeah, well, while he is part of this illustrious family, he wasn’t even born yet. You can look this all up. It’s a treasure hunt.
As you read on, you might think I am making outrageous claims for a horse who raced only 21 starts, with five wins, two seconds and one third, and $11,000 in earnings, but remember how he died. Please indulge me and be kind to his memory. There is often a story behind the story.
Recently, I spoke to Elliott and he filled me in on some important details about the horse who was originally named Abercrumbun. Somewhere along the line, his name was changed to Aber Gatto.
This is what Steve told me:
“Of course, I remember him… the Abercrombie colt. I remember that he was a great looking colt who came to me as a yearling from D I Farm. He never sold in any yearling sale. He was a homebred – a really talented colt and he did everything right. He was a super colt.
“He was gorgeous…slick… smart. Just a real good horse with a lot of talent. One day I turned him out in the field with a set of leather tendon boots and I don’t know how he did it, but I guess he got into something or jumped around or whatever and the boot tore right through his tendon. His tendon was practically severed. To this day, I think about that whenever I turn a horse out in the field. I remember what happened to that colt and I’m still a little paranoid every time I turn a horse out. I have gotten very protective about things like that since then.”
Okay, now we know why his price was only $1,000. He was a reclamation project. In hindsight, his injured leg didn’t look at all menacing. It’s the kind of leg harness racehorse trainers see all the time. He wasn’t lame in any sense of the word, but it was patently clear that this was, at the very least, a career-limiting problem.
I can’t recall what I did, or if I did anything special at all with regards to his training. I remember only that I trained him for a few months without a hitch, and in November 1993, he qualified beautifully at Freehold. Keep in mind that the only thing I knew about this colt was that I’d quickly grown very fond of him, and I knew he would be mine for life.
It was the aftermath of his qualifier, however, that clued me into the fact that this horse was attached to plentiful amounts of inner-sanctum prestige and curiosity. In other words, there were people out there who knew who he was and were interested in him.
In that first qualifier, Billy Bresnahan drove him to a death-grip second-place finish. The race time wasn’t all that impressive, but the way he acted and strongly closed in the race was totally unexpected. Billy got off the horse wide-eyed and said, “Where the hell did you get this horse?”
Then, back in the paddock, people started coming around to give him a quick look-over. It’s not unusual for horsemen to be interested in a very late blooming 3-year-old, but this was a little different. I won’t mention the names, but at least three trainers on the high end of the industry spectrum asked me, “Is this the colt who used to be Abercrumbun?”
From there, with Billy Bresnahan driving and educating him, Aber Gatto won his maiden race, and a handful of others. He won by nine lengths at Yonkers with Luc Ouellette in the bike. His time was 2:00, but it was all Luc could do to hold him. I am not overstating this.
After that, he raced poorly at the Meadowlands, but he came out of the race a little sick. Two weeks later, I discovered that he fit a nice race at Yonkers. My close friends said, “Pray for the 8-hole. At least he’ll pay a price.” I am not a bettor, but oddly enough, he drew post eight.
Anyway, it was a Tuesday afternoon card and it was, at the time, the coldest day in the history of Yonkers Raceway. I can’t believe they even raced. The temperature was 4 degrees below zero – on the Fahrenheit scale – and the wind was at least 30 mph. Rejean Daigneault, a driver I like a lot, took him back at the start, but then tipped him out and cruised, three-wide down the entire length of the backstretch, to an easy victory with no urging whatsoever.
For some strange reason, he paid over $50. For all intents and purposes, he should have been about 3-1 but he went off at 25-1. I can only assume that it was the overlay that dreams are made of.
A few weeks after that, I started to worry about his bad leg. He wasn’t getting sore, but I was worried just the same.
With high hopes, I entered him into the Sagamore Hill Series at Yonkers. He finished fifth in the first leg and sixth in the second. His race times of 1:56 were impressive, but by this time, I started to suspect that he was protecting himself. He was every bit as good or better than any horse in that series, but he failed to fire in both races. I think there was a third leg, but I skipped it.
In a sense, I feel like he was cheated in the Sagamore Hill Series, because even with his fifth- and sixth-place finishes, he was somehow eligible for a $25,000 consolation, about which I was totally unaware. I was told that the race secretary called over the barn speakers for entries, but I was stabled in New Jersey. How was I supposed to hear that? Someone should have at least called me. They always seemed to know how to find me when they needed a horse to fill a race.
Anyway, a horse that Aber Gatto had easily beaten, became the sole entry in what was a one-horse walkover simply because I didn’t enter. Do you know what Aber Gatto would have done in a 2-horse race? It would have been a joke.
After the Sagamore Hill debacle, I made the decision to stop with him. I may have raced him a few more times, but I really don’t remember. What I do remember is that Aber Gatto, over the course of a year, had taken a shine to the filly stabled next to him. She was a filly by Marauder named Backinthehighlife. Her greatest accomplishment in life, besides being the smartest horse that ever lived, was winning a maiden race at Freehold.
Having resigned myself to the fact that both horses were mine for life, I did a crazy thing. I bred Aber Gatto to his girlfriend. It was all done naturally, and the resultant foal, This Island Earth, a tiny thing that I didn’t even bother to race until he was a 5-year-old, eventually went on to win 31 races. He took a half-mile mark of 1:57.2 and paced in 1:53 at the Meadowlands.
Now, here is where the Aber Gatto story gets foggy.
For some reason, someone attached to me, found this “guy” who wanted to breed his mares to Aber Gatto. The guy seemed intelligent and sincere, and he had a big training farm about an hour’s ride from the Meadowlands. The place looked nice enough, and what the heck, maybe Aber Gatto would make a name for himself. Naturally, I thought it all seemed a little nutty, but it was an opportunity for the horse, and it would have been unwise to keep him racing. That tendon injury was an accident waiting to happen. So, for a token amount of money, my owner-partner and I handed him over to the nice guy.
As I walked back to my car, I noticed a crack or a fissure in the training track. It was just a small crack in the stone dust, but there was a weed growing up through it. It sounds ridiculous, but at the time, I felt something was wrong – as though this seemingly trivial thing, a fissure with a weed, was a harbinger of bad things to come. Of all the things that happened the last time I saw Aber Gatto, that weed is my most vivid memory. I can’t even picture the guy who took him, but I can picture the weed.
Kindly note that I am referring to the guy as “the guy” because this story is in no way meant to incriminate him or blame him for what happened to Aber Gatto. The truth is that I don’t know the sequence of events that led to Aber Gatto’s death. I only know what I’ve been told by reliable people, and from what I remember reading in newspaper articles that, for some strange reason, are no longer Google-able.
Aber Gatto’s first foal for this guy was a filly named Sister Chris who came out of a non-producing Troublemaker mare. Sister Chris was a nice enough racehorse. She won 18 races, took a mark of 1:58 and earned about $30,000.
And that was the end of Aber Gatto’s stud career. Bred to two totally nondescript and poorly bred mares, the kind that nobody would ever breed, Aber Gatto produced two real racehorses. What are the odds of that? The two foals obviously didn’t inherit any talent from their dams, that’s for sure.
I wonder what Aber Gatto would have produced if he’d been bred to good mares and hadn’t starved to death. I’ll never know, but I cling to my mantra that he was the greatest stallion who never was. It’s the only comfort I can get from knowing that I was partially to blame for what happened to my beautiful horse.
If only I had paid attention to that weed growing out of the crack in the track. Why did I leave him in Chernobyl and trust him with a stranger when I swore that he would be mine for life? So, because I was stupid, Aber Gatto is dead. On January 1, 2020, Aber Gatto would have been 30 years old. Kindly omit flowers.
Merry Christmas, Aber Gatto.