01/20/2017 9:34AM

Bergman: No career end in sight for Hall of Famer John Campbell

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Muscle Diamond goes for two straight wins on Friday at The Meadowlands with John Campbell at the helm.

One has something to prove. The other has nothing to prove. Yet both are racing this winter at The Meadowlands.

Muscle Diamond, a royally bred son of Muscle Hill from Windylane Hanover, is on the comeback trail in New Jersey. His driver John Campbell, already a Hall of Famer, could be relaxing during the colder months and waiting for stakes season, as many of the top drivers have elected to do.

“I’m going to race two days a week from now until the spring,” said Campbell when asked what his intentions are. “I want to be ready when the young horses show up.”

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As for Muscle Diamond, so far the driver was happy with the returns.

“He’s definitely gotten a lot stronger,” said Campbell of the now 5-year-old stallion that will make just his 26th lifetime start this Friday night in East Rutherford.

“He’s always been an easy horse to drive,” said Campbell of Muscle Diamond.

With two wins in his first three starts since making the long comeback, Muscle Diamond may be on the long road to getting to the top of the trotting class.

“That’s why Brett  (trainer Bittle) decided to race him this winter,” Campbell said. “He wanted to see how they should stake him.”

Last week Muscle Diamond went virtually wire-to-wire in 1:54 2/5, but at times he appeared to need encouragement. “I had to get after him a little bit,” said Campbell, “But he got the job done. He’s definitely a much better horse chasing.”

There are always those who say it’s a younger man’s game and Campbell might even agree. “I’ve always said that for top drivers from different generations to compete they would have to adjust,” said Campbell.

What Campbell brings to the table today is exactly the same skills that he brought to the table some 30 odd years ago.

“People entrust me with their horses and I take that very seriously. It’s my job to go out there and do the best I can in each race for these people,” said Campbell.

What that has meant today and over the course of Campbell’s career is a driver with acute focus and a strong desire to win. There have been many drivers that were perhaps more gifted in getting a horse to travel at higher speeds for a short spell, but Campbell easily overcame because he was better at handicapping. Few drivers were able to take advantage of the strengths and weaknesses, not only in the other horses in a particular race but the other drivers as well.

To a race-watcher it was painful to view Vincent Ginsburg, an up-and-coming New Jersey-based reinsman, driving Buff as a 9-10 favorite at the Meadowlands last Friday, elect to park Campbell and his charge I’ll Have Another through a bitter half. On paper it wasn’t surprising to see a heavy favorite park out a 20-1 shot, yet the races are not always decided on paper and while the odds board suggested I’ll Have Another didn’t have a great chance, Campbell put the horse in play. Eventually Ginsburg’s charge gave way to the pressure and made a break.

Some may have viewed this scenario as Campbell having no business being on the road with a longshot. To others, including myself, his presence in the field is vital. Whether other drivers respect the horses he’s driving, they would be wise to respect the man’s decision-making prowess.

Not surprisingly, Campbell speaks effusively of the driving colony, not just in New Jersey but throughout North America. “It’s never been deeper. There are so many good drivers out there,” Campbell said.

What’s perhaps most impressive about Campbell in 2017 is his willingness to battle even knowing that many of the horses he will steer are longshots. During his peak years, especially at The Meadowlands, Campbell very often had the choice of four or five horses in a particular race. That put him in an incredible position of strength given his handicapping ability before he set foot on the racetrack. Today trainers are making more of the driving choices and that doesn’t always put Campbell in a favorable position.

“Nothing’s changed for me. It’s exactly the same. I just go out and try to do the best I can,” said Campbell.

Last year that meant nearly 1,000 drives and more than $3.5 million in earnings for the horses he steered. While the number is far removed from the brilliant streak put up between 1985 and 2002 where his horses earned in excess of $8 million for 18 consecutive years, it’s still more than respectable given Campbell’s reduced work load.

Racing during the winter is never easy for horses or horsemen, but Campbell is not complaining. “I feel great. I have no issues,” said Campbell, who has driven horses to over $299 million in career earnings.

It cannot be overstated how important attitude is in horse racing. For Campbell it’s the single greatest factor that has kept his career at an elite level for 40 years. There have been countless driving sensations that have come and gone during that period. Perhaps they had skill but lacked the staying power.

There have been many drivers that reached the top and then decided to walk away when their mounts went from 5-2 shots to 50-1.

Clearly John Campbell is still an elite driver. He’s still capable of winning on the biggest stages. The opportunity to drive the best horse in each race has long gone by the board. At the same time, the chance for a trainer to get his feedback following a race is something that shouldn’t be discounted. There’s also an implied trust that the Hall of Fame driver will give a horse the best chance at success without pushing them past their capabilities.

It may be a little early to decide on what Muscle Diamond will become in 2017, but it’s not too early to recognize that with Campbell to guide him there’s a great chance he will go far.

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