02/18/2013 1:26PM

Bergman: John Campbell is proving he's still got the goods


If you wanted to look at Hall of Famer John Campbell’s driving career statistically, you’d have to believe he was on the way out. The soon-to-be 58-year-old saw his mounts earn above $4.3 million in each year between 1982 and 2010. The consistency and efficiency of Campbell is unmatched in the sulky sport. Yet for those who look at the hourglass and see the sands of time slipping through, the years of 2011 and 2012 where Campbell’s mounts earned just $2.5 and $3.8 million would have you believe the end is near.

Then, with a sudden burst of energy, Campbell emerges in 2013. The man who pretty much made the Meadowlands the mecca of harness racing as its leading face through the 80’s and 90’s, came back to race this winter and was welcomed to the plate by a string of longshots to drive. Cold weather and cold horses have a way of discouraging even the most determined drivers. But Campbell didn’t get to this place in the harness universe without an intense will to win. He’s fought back from severe injuries time and time again and now as the Meadowlands finds itself in the midst of a betting resurgence Campbell is a major player again.

Look no further than this past Friday night where he piloted three winners. He returned on Saturday and was in the hunt in almost every race regardless of whether driving longshot winners (32-1 shot Hang Ten in the Exit 16W) or betting favorites.

What some drivers have learned with age, Campbell had in his twenties. His physical ability remains as solid as it was back then, but nearly all those who watched him in his theoretical prime gave Campbell the highest marks for racing strategy. “It’s important to be prepared and focused before you go out to drive,” said Campbell when we spoke Friday morning.

That focus can be difficult for some. You have to respect Campbell in the fact that here’s a guy who once commanded the top one or two horses in each race at the Meadowlands. In 2013 he finds himself in the same position pretty much as newcomers Eric Carlson and Corey Callahan-- driving longshots on a regular basis and needing to figure out a way to get checks.

Campbell seemed more than pleased with the stock he’s been driving and credits much of his live mounts to the ABC system put in place this year. He’s been given credit from the horseman’s perspective as one of those who favored the switch, but he modestly backs off from being any seer. “It’s not as if the other system was working. I thought what do we have to lose,” Campbell said.

“I thought if we presented the product in a better fashion the handle would go up,” said Campbell in regard to the incredible impact the shift has produced. “When you look at the odds-board and see so many horses at 5,6,8-1, when you’re driving a 12-1 shot you figure if things go your way you have a chance to win.”

The creation of evenly matched fields is the biggest benefit this season at the Meadowlands but it wouldn’t be nearly as attractive if just one or two drivers were winning all of the races.

It’s somewhat ironic that Campbell has joined the leader board this winter. He by no means believes he should be a major player.  “I came back figuring I would struggle during the winter while hoping to have a chance to race some of the good two and three-year-olds this summer. I really don’t have the same connections as I once did with the overnight horses.”

Campbell’s recent success may be an added boon to him this summer as more and more trainers realize his uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time.

Campbell appears more aggressive on the racetrack leaving the gate with more frequency and brushing horses to the front down the backstretch. At times in the past few years he has appeared more passive going up without cover but he doesn’t see much of a difference in his strategy.

“I think there’s a misconception out there that today’s drivers are more aggressive. I think what you’re seeing is that the horses can be driven much differently today than we could in the past,” Campbell said. The obvious difference is the animal. Today’s standardbreds hold their speed much better than those 20 years ago and whether it’s better equipment, better nutrition or improved sulkies, the difference has been stark.

Campbell also offered this surprising note. “I think sometimes driving a horse first over is better than being second over. If you’re sitting on the outside waiting for cover and it doesn’t develop to pull you into the race it’s costly. Second over only works when the first over horse can bring you right up to the leaders,” said Campbell.

There’s been a much broader array of winners this year coming from off the pace and Campbell suggests that perhaps a little bit of a softer racing surface has helped contribute to the change. He’s also perhaps the most major proponent of keeping holes closed. It’s nearly impossible to find a situation where Campbell lets a horse in front of him willingly. There have been cases where other drivers have allowed holes but Campbell believes the judges have done a good job of penalizing those individuals.

“I think keeping the holes closed certainly helps a lot in giving horses coming from behind a better shot. When you can force horses to move to the front it tends to quicken the pace,” Campbell said.

Looking ahead for the summer Campbell should be back behind the one of the top rated three-year-old pacers in North America Odds On Equuleus. He guided that son of Art Major to a fast closing second place finish in the $1 million Metro last September.

This past year he also enjoyed great success driving for veteran conditioner Bob McIntosh. He drove the top three year old pacing colts Dapper Dude and Thinking Out Loud as well as the gritty pacing filly Shelliscape.

With his expertise behind young horses and trotters Campbell should be able to secure some solid prospects come this summer.

“When those horses stop coming I’ll know it’s time to hang it up,” Campbell concluded.

The gold stopwatch can be put on hold for now.

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