09/25/2013 3:08PM

Bob Pandolfo: Refreshing Q&A with John Campbell

USTA Photo
John Campbell suggested some good ideas on Little Brown Jug Day.

The Little Brown Jug is one of the greatest days of the year in the sport of Harness Racing. And although it did not have national TV coverage again this year, Jug day does have its own media clout.

Once again, Sam Mckee hosted the simulcast program from the Delaware Fair with his broadcast colleagues Dave Bianconi and Ellie Sarama.  Mckee and his crew keep it lighthearted and interesting. Others who participated in the interview and handicapping sessions this year were track announcer Roger Huston and Hoofbeats Editor T.J. Burkett, and they both did great jobs, in my opinion.  Huston has been the track announcer at the Jug for 34 years and his enthusiasm for the sport is on full display during Jug week.

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On Jug day last week, the USTA broadcast a live interview with Hall of Fame driver John Campbell. This was part of the USTA Speaker Series. Campbell answered questions from the audience as well as from moderator T.J. Burkett.

I thought this was one of the best harness racing interviews I've ever heard. Campbell, who is now the President of the Grand Circuit, did not mince words or try to sugarcoat his responses.

Here are some of the highlights from the Q&A session:

An audience member from "Down Under" mentioned that in his country the distance (longer than a mile) races are generally regarded to be more entertaining and better betting races. He asked Campbell why we don't try it here.

Campbell said that he is all for races longer than a mile, but "we missed the boat on distances races." He said that the sport should have added distance racing 40 years ago but now it's too late. "Our fan base is used to the one mile distance now . . . and it's difficult to get the horsemen to embrace racing at a longer distance. It's unfortunate because I think that longer distance races would have added another dimension for the handicapper and increased our handle. But to put it in now, it's almost like that horse has left the barn."

An audience member told Campbell that the sport really needs a commissioner.  Campbell basically said that it’s never going to happen. "We're fractured from the governing standpoint. Every state has its own racing commission with their own rules and nobody wants to cede any of its power . . . doing the right thing or the common sense thing has nothing to do with the racing commission because it's a government. You're dealing with state law. It's frustrating and it holds the industry back, but I don’t see it changing."

When asked about what can be done to get more people to the track, Campbell said, "I don't think that people are going to come to the track like they did years ago. It's an impossibility. There are too many options for the gambling dollar."

He stressed that instead of attendance, the sport needed to focus on handle.  Campbell said, "We have to have a product that's more bettable and increase revenue through the simulcast signal.  We need a tote board that's looks between 3-1 and 15-1, not 3-5 to 90-1. You have to have something that people want to bet on." He also added that this is one of the reasons why the handle at the Meadowlands was up sharply this year; more attractive betting opportunities.

On coupled entries, Campbell said, "I think one of the biggest problems we have is the way we group horses together. The tote board reflects that. We have to make it an attractive bet where if a guy is going to bet a few dollars he's going get something back rather than have these 3-5 shots where you can't bet on them or you can’t bet against them."

Campbell also said that he believes slots will come to the Meadowlands in the next two to five years. He stressed that if the Meadowlands gets slots while Jeff Gural is running the track, the Meadowlands could be back to its glory days.

Someone asked him how we can improve the product on half-mile tracks. "I'd be willing to try different things," Campbell said.  "Certainly a staggered gate would be one of them. Another idea, if I were running a half-mile track, I'd pay a $1,000 for the leader at every pole. So if you went wire to wire you'd get an extra $4,000. That would really step up the fractions and it would bring the closers into play. It might not work, I don't know, but if a guy got parked and he got a chance to get his nose in front at the half to get an extra grand, it’s going to change the complexion of the race. We haven't taken enough chances. You have to try different things."

I thought Campbell’s reference to a tote board that's between 3-1 and 15-1 as opposed to 3-5 to 90-1 was an interesting perspective. Big longshots over 40-1 win in today's sport, something that you rarely saw when Harness Racing was in its heyday. The reason for this is the odds-on favorites. When a heavy favorite breaks stride or gets a tough trip and loses, sometimes an inscrutable longshot gets lucky and wins at a monster price. But this is not the type of longshot winner that generates handle. When Harness Racing was at its peak, a good handicapper could bet on horses that were anywhere from 3-1 to 15-1 and the bets made sense. In other words, you could take shots on logical overlay and longshot bets. When horses are winning that pay $80, people are ripping up tickets. And when a lot of 3-5 shots win, it erodes churn and handle. So Campbell hit the nail right on the head.

I also liked his ideas of improving half-mile track racing. Campbell stressed that the tracks don't try different things. He did mention that Yonkers tried mile-and-a-sixteenth races. But I think Campbell made an excellent point here. Half mile tracks, and some five eighth tracks, just don't have an attractive betting product. Yet they keep doing the same thing that isn't working. Why not try something different?

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As you know, the top 3yo pacer in North America, Captaintreacherous, skipped the Jug this year. When talking about the Little Brown Jug, Campbell stressed that the race needs to have a million dollar purse. I'm not sure that a higher purse would have enticed Captaintreacherous into the race. There is more at play here than the money. The Little Brown Jug is a heat race and in today's sport the horses are coddled much more than they were years ago. Some owners are simply not going to race their horse in heats, especially with the Breeders Crown coming up a month later.

In my opinion, the Little Brown Jug should consider starting the race further back in the stretch. Maywood Park does this and it has helped make the races less biased. For example, at Freehold and Yonkers, posts 7 and 8 win only 8% of the one mile races. At Batavia, posts 7 and 8 combined to win less than 6% of the races. But at Maywood, which has a 200 foot run up before the start, posts 7 and 8 have combined for 15% of the wins. This is a huge improvement. This type of change would help lure the best horses to the Jug. All half mile tracks should be doing this.

The important thing is to attract the best horses and put out the best product possible. If you notice, when Campbell talked about a top notch product, he pointed to a wide open betting race. In this year's Little Brown Jug, due to a couple of top colts skipping the race, Vegas Vacation looked like a stand out and he paid $2.60 winning his first heat and $3.40 in the final.

There's a lot more to the John Campbell interview and I strongly recommend that you listen to it at www.vimeo.com/ustrotting/videos. The title of the video is USTA Speaker Series with John Campbell. If you can't find it, email me at pandy@sharphorses.com and I'll email you back a direct link.

To find out more about Pandy’s handicapping theories check out his www.trotpicks.com or www.handicappingwinners.com websites, his free picks at handicapping.ustrotting.com/pandycapping.cfm or write to Bob Pandolfo, 3386 Creek Road, Northampton, PA 18067.