06/29/2017 5:46PM

Giwner: A pre-retirement conversation with Hall of Fame driver John Campbell

Lisa Photo
John Campbell will race at The Meadowlands for the last time on Friday.

After four decades, Hall of Famer John Campbell will hang up his driving colors for good in July to take over as the President of the Hambletonian Society. While his official retirement begins on July 1, he will make an appearance at Goshen Historic Track in New York on July 2 in the Hall of Fame Trot and on Legends Day (July 30) at Clinton Raceway in Canada.

An Ontario native who now resides in New Jersey, Campbell sits atop the all-time leaderboard among drivers with $299,873,491 earned by horses under his guidance and he is ninth in wins at 10,665. He is the co-youngest driver ever to be inducted into the U.S. Harness Racing Hall of Fame (at 35, 1990) and was voted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1987.

Campbell’s accolades also include multiple Driver of the Year awards, a long reign as the leading driver at The Meadowlands, the sport’s marquee track since its inception in 1976, and an amazing six Hambletonian trophies, the most coveted prize in Harness racing.

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Just days away from retirement, Campbell took the time to reminisce and look ahead when I spoke to him on Monday (6/26).

Derick Giwner: Would you say that your career exceeded expectations?

John Campbell: Oh yeah, for sure. When I was a kid growing up, Yonkers and Roosevelt was the Mecca. There wasn’t even a Meadowlands or any of the purses The Meadowlands brought with it once it started, so I was racing in and winning races that never even dreamt about when I was a kid. So, yeah, it was far more than I could’ve ever imagined.

DG: Do you have any regrets along the way or anything you wish you would have done differently?

JC: Yes and no. Certainly there are things I wish I would have done differently. There is no sense looking back; I can’t change them. I’ve never been one to dwell on the past, but yeah, there are always races you wish you could have done something different or decisions you made with horses that turned out to be wrong. As far as regrets now, I don’t have any.

DG: Were there any races that eluded you during your career?

JC: I never won the Provincial Cup when it was going on at Windsor. That was my home track before I came to The Meadowlands and I could never get that race won.

DG: What about the $300 million mark in earnings? It seems like you will come up short. Does that bother you?

JC: It doesn’t bother me. I would’ve liked to have gotten it but I knew I would’ve needed to get really lucky in stakes this spring and it just didn’t work out, but it isn’t something that is bothering me in any way, shape or form. In fairness, they never counted my Elitlopp win with Mack Lobell, which I find mindboggling.

DG: It seems likely that at least a couple of drivers behind you will pass the $300 million, wouldn’t you agree?

JC: I don’t think there is any doubt. I think there will be more than one guy who gets to $300 million. I hope they do because they only reason they won’t is if Harness Racing falls on difficult times. I hope there is more than one guy who gets there and if the purses stay where they are, there is a pretty good chance they will.

DG: It seems like as opposed to others you managed your career and the number of starts. Was that by design?

JC: It wasn’t at the time, but I’m not so sure if I had the options of Yonkers, Chester (Harrah’s Philadelphia) and Pocono like they do now, that my starts wouldn’t have been quite a bit higher. It was more a business decision I was making at the time, but with the option of those slots in New York and Pennsylvania, I would’ve had more starts than I did in a lot of years.

DG: When you first started, being a trainer/driver was the thing, yet you developed exclusively into a catch-driver.

JC: I was a trainer. When I came to The Meadowlands I brought 14 horses with me. I trained horses up until 1985. My stable got big in the early 1980s and the last two or three years it got very small, down to five or six horses. Then I gave it up in 1985.

DG: Did you give up training because you were doing so well driving?

JC: I was doing well and I was so busy just driving. I really didn’t have time for training and it really didn’t make any sense from a time or business standpoint to have a stable.

DG: Would you consider giving me the top three pacers and top three trotters you’ve driven?

JC: Top trotters . . . certainly Mack Lobell . . . Pine Chip . . . might be Peace Corps. Pacers . . . certainly Artsplace . . . Real Desire . . . and maybe Art Major. I know I’m leaving some horse out.

DG: Do you have a favorite moment that stands out?

JC: All of the Hambletonians are so special. They really are. Maybe the first one with Mack (Lobell) and winning with Tagliabue, when Jim (Campbell, brother) trained him, and Glidemaster because it came along at a really opportune time for me in my career. I was trying to reinvent myself and that came up. I think those three and then just below that would be the Elitlopp with Mack Lobell.

DG: Have you started doing any work with the Hambletonian Society yet?

JC: I’ve just gone down to the office two or three times just to see how the inner workings go, make contacts and pick Moira (Fanning) and Tom’s (Charters) brains. I’m getting started and there is a lot of work there all the time. I certainly have the upmost respect for what Tom has done there during his career.

DG: Are you prepared for that time of workload and schedule change?

JC: I’m aware of what it is going to take.

DG: Are you going into this new position with any set goals in mind?

JC: Not really, because, obviously, there is stuff in the industry that needs to be addressed or corrected. We need more people moving in the same direction, so to speak. Having said that, we at the Hambletonian Society really have no power to say do this or do that. We can influence, but we don’t have ultimate decision making except for our stakes, the Hambletonian and the Breeders Crown. For me to set goals is really unrealistic because you are relying on what other people are going to do.

DG: Do you think that your reputation could help you bridge together some of the different areas of the industry?

JC: I’m hoping I can. Certainly I’m going in optimistic. I’ve talked to almost everyone in the industry at one time or another, so there is a respect there that I will get calls back, but at the end of the day you have to get things done, and if I don’t those calls back won’t continue.

DG: William O’Donnell also announced he will retire and make Legends Day at Clinton in Ontario on July 30 his final card of racing, the same day when you will make your last appearance in the sulky. You guys have plenty of history together. Is him hanging up his colors the same day meaningful?

JC: It is kind of apropos and it is going to be fun to stop the same day as Billy. We have a lot of history together and we are very good friends, so it is going to be special.

DG: You always hear about ballplayers that retire and find it very hard to get playing the game out of their system. Do you feel like you’ve gotten it out of your system?

JC: I’m going to miss it. I’m going to miss the opportunity to be in those big stakes and if some of the guys I drive regularly for come up with a good horse, I’m going to think, geez I could’ve had that one. But I’m very content with my decision. It is the right time for me. I think I’ve pushed the age limit farther than most and still been able to compete. I think it is very good timing-wise, so in that regard I don’t have any regrets. But I am going to miss it. You can’t compete as long as I have and just say you’re not going to miss it.

DG: Any thought in the back of your head that maybe two years from now you may want to try to drive again?

JC: Absolutely not. You don’t step away from something that takes so much timing and is physically demanding at 62 and take two years off and come back right where you left off. That’s not even a thought.

DG: I hope you succeed fabulously in the new position and congratulations on a spectacular career.

JC: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.