Horseman’s Digest #2: Braveheart

benhur.jpgThis is a profile of Mandaluyong Congressman Benhur Abalos that I wrote for the second issue of Horseman’s Digest, for release on January 23, 2007. This guy is brilliant; but what’s more important is that his heart is in the right place. Too bad I don’t live in Manda, I can’t vote for him if he runs for Mayor or Congressman again.

Can he be President? I’d be first in line to vote for him!

“We need a vision for the next five to ten years – a blueprint for improvement. But it will remain only a vision unless everyone pitches in. This is true not just for racing, but for the entire country.”

These are earnest words from one of the “young guns” of the industry, Mandaluyong Congressman Benjamin “Benhur” Abalos Jr. At 44, he looks much younger, trim and buff in a casual shirt, his eyes friendly behind thick lenses.

Over breakfast at an Ortigas café, he discusses issues that face racing today – a proposal for a revised handicapping scheme; plans for international accreditation; ways to combat the threat posed by illegal bookies. “To help the industry, we have to carefully study these things and actually do something about them.”

Abalos burst upon the racing scene just three years ago, yet in that brief period, he has gone from simple horseowner to president of the oldest horseowners’s organization in the country (MARHO, or the Metropolitan Association of Race Horse Owners) and a respected and influential force in the industry.

What led him to enter the racing industry? “I’ve always loved animals,” he smiles. “I have 30 dogs, many macaws, parrots, monkeys. I used to raise chickens. I have a fascination for horses, been riding since the late ‘80s. I could have been a vet.”

When horseowners Tony Tan and Joey Dyhengco took him to the races, one visit was enough to hook Benhur. “I acquired Dandansoy from Joey for P350,000. She was a champion, winning the Sampaguita Stakes in 2003 and and earning P2.8 million in her career.”

Other horses that he bought later on were Empire Cat, Bumpy Johnson, Cat’s Gold, Nothing Impossible, Tiger Song, Cat’s Jewel. His interest in thoroughbred bloodlines led him to start a breeding operation on three hectares in Batangas, with seven broodmares and seven yearlings at present.

Though he prefers breeding, he acknowledges that racing is important for showcasing his ranch’s produce. His racing stable has two fine young runners – Pearl Buck and the magnificent Ibarra, both island-born from Australian mares. “Suerte ako sa mares,” he says. “Dandansoy, Tiger Song, Cat’s Gold, and Nothing Impossible have really done well for me.”

His interest in racing and breeding, coupled with an innate desire to help others, has led him to embark on projects benefiting the industry.

In 2005, he raised financial assistance for the medical care of several injured jockeys and sponsored a charity race.

In 2006, he led a fearless attack against illegal bookies, enlisting the help of the National Bureau of Investigation, the horseowners’ groups, the Manila Jockey Club, and other industry sectors. While not totally eradicated, the presence of illegal bookies has significantly declined.

He has gained a reputation for toughness and courage, for not just talking about things but getting them done swiftly and effectively.

How did Benhur gain such heights of eminence in the industry so soon? Was it just because he is a prominent legislator and an intelligent man? Racing boasts of many politicians and intellectuals among its ranks, many of them more powerful and wealthy, yet none have achieved what he has in such a brief span of time.

The answer lies in his personality. Gracious, yet forceful and commanding. Gentle, yet brave and battle-ready. There is no hint of arrogance or hubris in his aura; he is sincere, eager, and concerned for others.

Standing up for what you believe in and fighting for it are very important to him. “It’s not being quixotic,” he avers, “it’s being true to yourself.”

To discover how his personality was shaped, I ask about his early years. Benhur laughs. “I was a bad boy!” he says. The look on my face tells him, “You’re kidding.” “It’s true,” he insists. “I was notorious. I founded a fraternity called Scouts Royal Brotherhood when I was in high school in Don Bosco Mandaluyong. I was almost expelled, except I promised the principal I would turn it into a social action group.”

My eyes widen. SRB was famous until my time, the late ‘80s, and beyond that. His grin is sheepish. “I wanted a way for my classmates and I to bond even until we were old. It was probably immature of me, but at the time akala ko makakatulong ako.”

As he speaks, I notice a recurrent theme that runs through his discourse, that of helping, assisting, caring. He is forever doing something to touch the lives of others in a positive way.

He mentions their family’s Ciara Marie Foundation, named in honor of his teenage daughter who died in 2004 of an E. coli infection. The organization has helped over 90 needy people who are afflicted with the same illness. As the mayor of Mandaluyong City in the mid-‘90s (the youngest ever elected in the history of the city), he implemented social programs that benefited his constituents. Now a congressman and head of the Metro Manila Congressmen, Abalos does his part to “heal our country” in the legislature and government. And there is his intense desire to uplift and reform racing.

He picks at his light breakfast of fruit and toast. “I believe it is important that you have an advocacy,” he says. “It’s all about balance. When I was young, I never let up on my studies. I wanted to excel in everything. But I wasn’t a nerd; I was good in sports. Art and culture, I was into that. I also left room for spiritual things. I was inspired by the Renaissance men of the 16th and 17th centuries who were good in everything.”

Gusto ko bilog ang buhay ko – at hanggang sa huli, may heart ka pa.”

Excellence and advocacy continued to be his watchwords for the rest of his education. He graduated from De La Salle University with a degree in History and Political Science in just three years, and went on to the Ateneo de Manila University for his Bachelor of Laws.

At the Ateneo, he served as the school year representative on the student council and was a student activist. “Na-batuta at na-teargas ako noon.”

His inspiration, he says, for taking up Law was his father, also an attorney, Commission on Elections chairman Benjamin Abalos Sr. “I took up his profession because I saw many people respected him and asked for his advice,” says Benhur. “But money can’t buy respect. You have to work for it.”

Character, though, is shaped not only by education, but also by transformational experiences that are often tragic and traumatic. For Benhur, there were three. The first happened in childhood.

“We were not well-off then,” he says. “My dad was a janitor, my lola was the locker girl at the Wack-Wack Country Club. When I was five, I went for a swim in the pool. The manager saw me and scolded my grandmother. She hid me in a locker until her shift was over.”

Benhur’s voice trembles slightly. “Inside that dark and stuffy locker, I thought, bakit ako inaapi? I just wanted to swim. My skin wasn’t different from anyone else’s, just because we were poor.” From that moment, he vowed to treat everyone equally, regardless of social or economic station in life. He promised to fight for the rights of those who were unable to do so.

It is ironic, he mentions, that when he became the Mayor of Mandaluyong years later, he was only the second person, after President Ferdinand Marcos, to be named an honorary member of Wack-Wack.

The second life-shaping event, he says, occurred in the late ‘80s, after law school. The newly-minted lawyer had set up his own law firm with friends, and soon enjoyed success as a corporate attorney with big clients such as Agfacolor. “My experiences as a ‘bad boy’ helped me with clients and people because I had been through so much before.”

He was making a lot of money from his practice and his business supplying chickens to Vitarich. Successful in his career, married, and with a growing family, he felt on top of the world. But a severe abdominal pain sent him to a doctor, who shocked him with a diagnosis of probable colon cancer, the illness that killed his grandmother and two uncles.

From 175 pounds, he shrunk to 85. Bedridden for six months, he became depressed and suicidal. He became angry at God, yelling, “Why me?” But after much soul-searching, he realized that God had given him a good life and family.

He memorized Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd”. Clinging to his faith, it gave him hope. God granted him a miracle; all signs of the cancer cleared up.

“I have looked Death in the eye,” Benhur says. “Kaya siguro ako ganito, matapang.”

The third event was the death of his beloved teenage daughter, Ciara Marie, two years ago. “I will never ever recover from it,” he says, his voice hushed, and it is only at this point of the conversation that I sense tears close to the surface, held in check by force of will.

He shows me his cellphone screen; on it is a picture of a lovely girl, face lit up in an incandescent smile. “You learn to adjust, but there will always be something missing. You move on, but your happiness will never be 100%.”

The tragedy caused him to again question God, to rage at the unfairness of it. Then – another miracle. He discovered a caller ringtone on his cellphone when he had not subscribed to such a service.

The song was Jose Mari Chan’s “Christmas in My Heart.” The lyric, “may we never forget the love we have for Jesus,” struck him to the heart. Was someone playing a bad joke on him?

Globe Telecom’s president himself assured Benhur it was just a glitch in the system. The service was on for only five days, when it is usually activated for a month. Benhur realized it was a message from Ciara. It was then that his anger at God melted, and Benhur bowed to His will.

“This event taught me the purpose of life,” he says. “It is to love and take care of your family, share your blessings with others, and then fade away.

“All these things explain my character, bakit ako lagi nagmamadali, laging nakikipaglaban for what is right and just. Yet I do not impose my own opinions on others. I always consult and discuss.”

Benhur glances at his watch, ready to dash off to his next meeting. He takes the time, though to answer my last question – what are his wishes for racing this year? “For my personal goals, I hope we have the right nicking for my horses, and that Sailaway, the stallion I co-own with Kerby Chua, will nick with my mares and help me breed the best.”

And for the industry? “I hope we will have programs that are fair and just to everyone, relevant to what is needed, and that will really address the concerns we have now.

Everything is feasible. This could be a better world to live in.” ***

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