Hall of Fame driver John Campbell: last drive in New Jersey
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — Hall of Famer John Campbell is getting behind the sulky one last time in New Jersey after arguably the greatest driving career in harness racing history.
The 62-year-old Campbell is scheduled to drive in five races at the Meadowlands Racetrack on Friday night in what are scheduled to be his final drives in the state where he rose to prominence in the late 1970s.
“This is more than I ever dreamt about as a kid,” Campbell said Thursday afternoon. “When I was a kid all I dreamt about was driving horses for a living. At that time Yonkers and Roosevelt were the mecca in our sports. But when the Meadowlands came along that changed everything. I decided to go there in ’78 and try to make a living and all these things happened to me.”
It was the perfect place and the right time for a young man who quickly became the favorite go-to driver for many of the sport’s best trainers.
Campbell is retiring as the winningest driver in harness racing history with almost $300 million in purses, about $84 million more than the retired Ron Pierce, who ranks No. 2.
Campbell has led North American drivers 16 times in purses earned in a year, won 23 races worth at least $1 million, posted 10,665 wins, won 48 races in the Breeders Crown series, 32 Triple Crown races, a record seven Meadowlands Paces and a record six Hambletonians. He has driven seven horses named Horse of the Year.
Campbell admits he will miss two things.
“The competition and winning,” he said. “I have never lost that feeling of when you win a race. It’s special. It doesn’t really matter, even if it is not a big race or doesn’t mean that much. Winning still means something to me. It means for that race you are better than anybody else.”
Campbell has had that feeling a lot since he started driving in the early 1970s. His first winner was a horse named Noble Will in 1972 in Western Ontario, a horse trained by his uncle, Ray.
“I use the term professional loosely because it was an experience win, I wasn’t getting paid for it,” Campbell joked, adding the horse paid more than $90 to win. “I didn’t get a lot of hometown support.”
The Canadian will drive at Goshen in New York in a non-betting race Sunday and race one final time in his native Ontario at Clinton Raceway in late July. He will then replace Tom Charters as president of the Hambletonian Society, the group that runs the Hambletonian, the Hambletonian Oaks and the Breeders Crown.
Campbell knows that harness racing faces an uphill battle, especially in New Jersey. Out-of-state tracks are getting a leg up on the Meadowlands because they get added money from slot machines at their facilities.
“Everything has changed,” said Campbell, who has seen daily crowds of 20,000 at the Meadowlands dwindle to a couple of thousand a card in the last four decades. “When you are relying on another source of income to support your industry, and that is something we have to deal with; but I still think we have something to offer the betting public. People still like to bet on our races and there is an entertainment value.”
Campbell received Canada’s Meritorious Service Medal in 2001, the first driver to receive the award created by Queen Elizabeth II. The award recognizes a deed or activity performed in a highly professional manner or to a very high standard that brings benefit or honor to Canada.
He was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2009. He was the youngest driver elected to the Harness Racing Hall of Fame, when he was honored in 1990 at the age of 35.