01/04/2016 12:05PM

Bergman: John Campbell still on top of his game

Lisa Photo
John Campbell (shown waving goodbye to the old grandstand) has been a fixture at the Meadowlands for decades.

The calendar may have added another year but some things seem to never change.

Watching 15 races on the first Saturday night of the year at the Meadowlands it was hard not to see the immense talent and determination of one driver. Having been an NBA fan my entire life I looked out at the East Rutherford oval to see this sport’s version of Tim Duncan.

John Campbell was winning four races on a Saturday night at the Meadowlands. The 60-year-old was in action against younger and up and coming driving stars yet didn’t seem out of place. As a matter of fact he seemed to be exactly in the right place and at the right time.

Tim Duncan, a guaranteed NBA Hall of Famer, is in his 19th season with the San Antonio Spurs. Tabbed by Shaquille O’Neal as “The Big Fundamental” some years back Duncan still manages to compete when placed into action even though at 39 years of age he’s the oldest man on the court.

What has kept Duncan in action over the last few years is a coach that has managed his playing time and maximized his performances on the court.

John Campbell, for much of the last few years, has had to manage his schedule as well. Unlike some of the younger driving stars Campbell has kept to a tighter schedule and has avoided day-night doubleheaders, something that has become the norm for the sport’s leading catch-drivers.

Duncan’s fundamentals allow him to be in the right position on the court and to help the team win in every possible way. Whether grabbing rebounds, setting picks, blocking an occasional shot or providing a patented-bank shot, Duncan can still play at a rather high level while accepting the fact that his numbers, statistically and monetarily don’t compare with his younger teammates.

For Campbell, who has pretty much made his racing career at The Meadowlands, it’s almost the same timeline. Initially he was a star in every possible way winning driving titles and major races in a manner similar to Duncan winning NBA Titles. The two have always thrived on competition and winning.

You don’t last this long in any sport without preparing and being in physical and mental shape. The key to Duncan’s longevity and accomplishments has been a dedication to preparedness and performance.

Campbell is obviously competing in a sport that requires a different kind of preparedness on behalf of the driver with the hope of matching effort given off by his horses.

While Duncan still gets to play with some of the best talent the NBA has to offer on a nightly basis, Campbell, perhaps due to his age and the level of talented drivers he must compete against, doesn’t get to drive the premier horses in each race. More often that not he’s in the bike behind a longshot nearly guaranteed to not earn a check.

For Duncan to continue to play he had to accept a lesser role on the team.

For Campbell to drive horses at this stage of his life he had to accept the reality that he would be driving fewer and fewer favorites. Some drivers that have had great careers while driving contenders in every race lose the will as they get older as the winners come fewer and farther between. Steering longshots that don’t earn a check can make any driver question just what he’s in this for.

Watching Campbell drive four non-favorites to victory was an exhibition of him giving as much consideration to the trip he was giving a horse, an owner and a trainer of a 25-1 shot as one would expect from a 3-5 shot.

It’s much easier to maintain a winning attitude when driving favorites. It’s much easier to keep your confidence at a high level when you know going in that you have a chance to win.

When the odds board gives you double-digit horses it would be natural for any driver to look at the race differently and perhaps make a mistake or two that wouldn’t get noticed because expectations were already low in the first place.

What the bettor gets when they back John Campbell is a driver that gives the same level of effort no matter what the odds.

On the post Christmas program at the Meadowlands Campbell started off a five-winner night getting Celebrity Massive up against non-winning trotters to the tune of a $129 payoff.

This past Saturday he capped his four winners by pointing Mudslide, a 27-1 outsider, into a pocket trip behind the Corey Callahan driven A Stitch In Time. For most of the mile it seemed as if Callahan was on a speed mission that would lead to victory. Certainly he had to think with a 27-1 shot on his back he would cruise home for trainer Mike Watson. But Campbell had other thoughts and although his horse wasn’t exactly full of pace he was able to squeeze whatever was left to get a nose victory.

Horses can make drivers look bad but few drivers can make horses that look bad on the program perform so well on the racetrack.

John Campbell wasn’t up against all of the leading drivers on Saturday night but you get the feeling he’s not paying attention to those details. Instead he’s looking at the program and the competition and analyzing the numerous scenarios that he may encounter on the racetrack.

While many drivers give tucks randomly it always seems as if Campbell knows exactly the type of horse and drivers he wants to follow. He also seems to be more comfortable coming first over with a horse or being extra aggressive to get a jump on the competition.

While racing two-nights a week may not be good for everybody at the Meadowlands these days it should work quite well for those allowing John Campbell to drive their horses and more than likely for those placing wagers.

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