He climbed into the saddle with an agility surprising in a man his age.
Easing his two bum knees around the sides of his darkly handsome ex-racehorse, Harlan Abbey settled for a moment, and then suddenly, the steed spun on his heels, and bolted.
Almost immediately, Abbey lost hold of the runaway horse, and was flung rudely to the earth.
But as he caught his breath and regained his bearings, the senior equestrian just had to smile.
What a great ride it had been.
No, not the one that dumped the 79-year-old father of three—who was mere weeks away from total hip-replacement surgery. But all the other great ones, taken over decades on ex-racehorse Thoroughbreds who had come into Abbey’s full life, adding a spark of excitement and joy.
“As a child and even as a young adult, I dreamed of having my own horse,” Abbey recalls.
From his earliest childhood memories spent accompanying his father to the racetrack, and while stationed in Seoul, Korea, as a sergeant in the Army, it was the horse that took center stage in Abbey’s imagination.
As a boy, he admired the athletic Thoroughbred from afar, and when he was older, he began riding lessons in earnest. By the time he transferred for assignment in Korea, he was so accomplished that he spent his off hours learning to jump fences.
Sire: Imperial Falcon
Foal date: March 5, 1990
Winnings: $156,580“I rode at the courtesy of the Korean Mounted Police,” he says. “I saw other riders jumping and I asked a boy who spoke excellent English how to do it and he was the one who said, ‘When you get to a fence, kick.’ ”
That off-hand piece of advice would eventually inspire the future journalist to pen two books filled with the wisdom and advice of some of the best riders. Abbey authored Horses and Horse Shows and Showing Your Horse, after returning to the United States and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism at the prestigious University of Missouri School of Journalism, and a master’s at Northwestern.
Eventually he settled into a lengthy reporting career at the now defunct Buffalo Courier-Express, where, in addition to his regular journalistic duties, he began a column on horse racing that is still published today.
“At The Track,” which appears in the Welland (Ontario) Tribune and the Niagara Falls (Ont.) Review, is a fun read offering profiles on jockeys and horses running at Fort Erie.
And his close proximity to the racetrack also brought a succession of personal riding mounts. He owned Parting Do Much for 15 years, and when he died in 2000, he bought Big Red Rum, who sadly colicked and died a short time later.
Imperial Bandit, a regally bred dark bay came into his life in 2001. Bandit had raced 82 times, even running in the esteemed Queen’s Plate, and earned over $150,000. Abbey, then 71, and a widower, couldn’t imagine not having a riding horse.
“I went to the (Fort Erie) to look for a horse and there were a lot to look at,” he recalls. “A friend of mine saw Bandit and said, ‘Buy that one!’ and I did. He ran his last race on Sept. 29, 2001, and I rode him two days later.
“He had a little buck in him and I admit I was a little afraid. So, we more or less did what he wanted to do.”
Sticking to trails near his home in the woods, Abbey whiled away many happy hours riding Bandit.
“He was a wonderful riding horse with super gaits,” Abbey says. “I had a friend who told me he could be a show horse at Madison Square Garden, as long as someone else rode him.”
Although nobody else in the family was bitten by the horse bug—his daughter rode with him on Father’s Day, and his two sons had even less interest—Abbey has stopped puzzling over why his inborn love wasn’t “transmitted down” through his children.
Instead, he was content to be the odd duck among his family and non-riding friends, while being completely embraced at his longtime barn, a place where nobody batted an eye when the older gent from Chicago arrived at the barn with yet another off-track Thoroughbred racehorse.
“I’d been with the same stable and the same people there for 30 years, so nobody thought anything of it when, at age 71, I showed up with Bandit.”
But three years ago, while sitting in the dirt after being thrown one last time, Abbey realized that perhaps it was best to leave the sport to the young.
After all, a lifetime of riding, capped by eight glorious years with Bandit, including championships at two small shows, was enough for this indefatigable reporter and rider, who is now 82.
“After I’d recovered from my first knee surgery, I remember asking my surgeon when I could start riding again. And he replied, ‘Why would you want to?’ ”
He could have replied that he rode for his mount’s unflappable hacking style, his soft, collected canter, and for the joy of feeding him peppermints, making his breath so sweet.
But, instead, he finally hung up his tack, and retired Bandit to Florida with his original owners. And although he misses the horse “nearly as much as he misses his wife,” Abbey’s life is so much the richer for having had such a great friend.
“To think that I was able to win two hack championships, albeit at small shows, with a beautiful and beautifully-moving horse who had won 14 races and ran in the Queen’s Plate was simply beyond belief,” Abbey says. “Getting Bandit after my wife died was the best recovery medicine that any doctor could have prescribed.”