06/26/2013 11:39AM

Keith Gisser: Campbell helps clear the air on Grand Circuit present and future

USTA Photo
Grand Circuit President John Campbell says his organization is open to change.

Last month, I came down pretty hard on the Grand Circuit and its expansion to include all stake races. But I was so flummoxed by the seemingly poor decision that I did not offer much in the way of what could be better.  They say if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem, so today I will offer some solutions, and we will discuss why, at least for the time being, they are not happening.

After a telephone conversation with Grand Circuit President John Campbell, I have a clearer picture on where things are headed for the Grand Circuit. I think the most important thing that Campbell emphasized is that he and the Board have no intention of standing pat. The move to all-inclusiveness is a first step toward regaining lost glory.

“We are always open to change and suggestions,” Campbell explained. “We don’t operate in a vacuum. Horsemen and tracks have a great deal of input and we need their cooperation. Our goals have to be modest to start.”

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And one of those goals was getting more tracks on board, which led to the vast expansion of the Grand Circuit which I discussed last month. My preference remains making the Grand Circuit smaller and more exclusive, making the races that are part of it that much more important. Let’s face it, the early two-year-old races and nearly any trotting stake on a half-mile track (I said nearly any, not all, so relax Yonkers Trot fans) are at best second tier races and not worthy of the Grand Circuit, in my opinion. But that simply isn’t happening.

“Contraction was never discussed as an option,” said Campbell. “It is not something we would want to do.”

Okay, then what about graded stakes, like the Thoroughbreds have, or at least a tiered system, like the Gold and Grass Roots Series that the Ontario Sires Stakes had, and Pennsylvania has now with its Sires Stakes and Stallion Series?

“We discussed tiers. But the tracks were not comfortable with it and they are the ones putting the money out there. I think there was a feeling from some track operators that tiers or grades would diminish some races, even though there would have been some benefit, as well,” Campbell explained.

So, unfortunately, as with so many things in our sport (drug rules and licensing to name just two), it appears that at least some tracks decided that protecting their own turf was more important than the good of the entire sport. That is unfortunate. But there was cooperation in several areas, and one of those was with the race secretaries. With the proliferation of stakes races, scheduling conflicts have always been a problem, but Campbell was impressed when he attended the Race Secretary’s meeting.

“They worked very hard to avoid conflicts. It’s a hard thing, and there are always going to be some issues, but I was really impressed with how willing they were to work together.   I think this year’s stakes schedule has fewer conflicts,” said Campbell. It is also clear that he believes the evening of the playing field, making all these races Grand Circuit races, had a great deal to do with that. He was also impressed with the International cooperation.

“There are so many question marks in Ontario,” Campbell commented. ”But there was no negativity when we discussed Canadian stakes vs. those in the Unites States. It is one of the areas where there may be changes in the future, but that is beyond our control right now. Everybody worked together without regard to what country they were from.”

In my opinion, one place where the Grand Circuit could really help the sport is with the Triple Crown, but for now, there are no plans to make, or even propose changes in the two series which currently consist of The Yonkers Trot, Hambletonian and the Kentucky Futurity on the trotting side, and the Cane Pace, the Messenger and the Little Brown Jug for pacers. Both of these series have become afterthoughts and are really no longer true Triple Crowns, although the trotters come closer than the pacers, who could easily add the Meadowlands Pace and/or North America Cup to add validity to the Triple Crown. But that is not on the horizon, according to Campbell.

“We have no plans to propose a change to the Triple Crowns at this time, but we are hopeful that with the Grand Circuit carrying a higher profile, those races will benefit. And as I said, we are always open to suggestions, but there is nothing on the horizon at this time,” Campbell explained.

So, having struck out on all my ideas thus far, I asked Campbell (who for the record has driven more Grand Circuit winners in his career than I have picked as a handicapper) about media coverage. Does he really think the new and improved Roaring Grand will get increased media coverage?

“We have so far, from the industry sources, at least, and we have had ongoing conversations with some on-line content providers, and we hope the mainstream media will pick up on it as we go. As I said, we need to be fluid," Campbell explained. I took this to mean the possibility of podcasts, streaming video and even Internet Radio coverage. All of these would be good things, or at the least small steps toward reaching out to the great untapped market.

My conversation with Campbell was a good one. While we continue to disagree on a number of the issues facing the Grand Circuit, it is clear that he’s providing energetic new leadership to an institution that desperately needs it. Now, let’s hope the rest of the industry gets on board.

Go cash. We’ll see you next month.