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A conversation with John Campbell, the man many consider the GOAT

How Campbell went from rural Ontario to the top of the driving world and is now the head of one of the world’s great harness racing institutions, the Hambletonian Society.

by Murray Brown

I’m guessing that I would get very little argument in saying that John Campbell is the greatest harness driver of all time.

It would certainly be no surprise that becoming a driver was the road that he followed. Campbell is a third generation horseman. His harness racing background began with his paternal grandfather Duncan and then John’s dad, Jack.

But John was somewhat different than his forebearers. They were all farmers first and became involved in harness racing second. Farming never interested John Duncan Campbell.

Like many Canadian youngsters, he played hockey and wanted to play in the NHL but quickly realized that he was too small and not nearly good enough to pursue a career on the ice. He was a really good hockey player in his town, but it was a really small town. He had also always wanted to become a harness driver. He began working around horses with his grandfather and father when he was only six years old. Looking forward, his destiny was to become a horseman.

Jack Campbell had a farm outside the small town of Ailsa Craig a few miles northwest of London, ON. John began racing at nearby Western Fair Raceway in London. Moderate success came early, but domination as a driver was some time in the making.

This scribe caught up with the quadruple Hall of Famer as he was driving to Grand River Raceway in Elora, ON to be at the celebration of life for two great lives well spent — Keith and Eileen Waples. Keith was someone John had read about and followed as a young man and later became a good friend.

Q: You are taking the long drive from your home in New Jersey to Elora to participate in the celebration of life for Keith Waples. What did Keith Waples mean to you?

“My family and the Waples family raced against each other going back to the 1940s. I raced against Keith when I started, but I missed the era when he was in his prime. When I was a very young kid, he had reached iconic status throughout Canada. Keith was a man who led by example. He could be a man of few words. He was also possessed of a keen wit and a great mind. He was a gentleman in just about every way possible, both on and off the racetrack. You could have asked just about everybody that raced against or watched him from a distance, with few or no exceptions they would likely say that he could drive a horse as well as anyone and better than most. I’m a firm believer that the true greats of any sport are trans generational. There is no doubt in my mind that Keith and other great drivers of the past were talented enough and would adapt to the times and figured out what horses are capable of. They would have been successful in any era.”

Q: Please take us through your driving career.

“I began racing in London driving horses for my father grandfather and Uncle Ray. I did okay, but was far from being a natural or any kind of standout. I raced at London and at many of the of the “B” tracks in Ontario. I then moved up to Windsor, the Ontario Jockey Club, a summer at Monticello followed by a couple of years at the Detroit tracks. All of these tracks were a huge part of a continuing education for me. My stable grew somewhat, both in size and quality. Windsor had a great drivers’ colony. We had Bill Gale, Greg Wright, Ray Remmen, Shelly Goudreau, Ken Hardy and lots more. I held my own, but I never won a driving title during that time. When The Meadowlands opened, Joe DeFrank persuaded many of those racing at Windsor to come to New Jersey with him. I asked him about coming the second year, January of 1978, and he assured me he would give me stalls I did okay with my stable the first year but the following year is when everything kind of exploded for me and I certainly unexpectedly won the driving title.”

Q: You mentioned that you had been driving for almost a decade before you began driving in stakes races.

“The first Grand Circuit race I won was at Wolverine in a Matron Stake. Jim Miller was married to my wife Paula’s sister at the time. He had an entry in a $50,000 stakes race at Wolverine. He put me up and I won. That was a big deal to me at the time. I did not start getting many opportunities in stakes until 1980. It kind of grew from there. I trained a stable and it actually grew to around 45 horses at one time. But I was so busy catch driving that I decided to cut back and by the end of 1985 I gave the remaining horses to my brother Jim.”

Q: Your brother Jim had been working with you at the time?

“Jim came to work for me when he was 17 and worked for me for four or five years. He ran a division we had in Roosevelt for a time and also spent a year in Florida. When I cut back my stable, he decided to take a job with Glen Garnsey, who at the time had one of the top Grand Circuit stables. I believe that it was one of the wisest moves he ever made. After working for Glen, he went out on his own and has had a tremendous career that is still ongoing.”

Q: Have you ever regretted giving up your own stable?

“Not in the slightest. I was doing more of what I loved doing most — driving horses. Not only horses, but great Grand Circuit types. In retrospect, it was one of the easiest decisions I had to make. It also allowed me to work less and to earn more (chuckles).”

Q: What led you to your current position as president of the Hambletonian Society?

“I think the opportunity came along at the right time for me. 1. I was getting older and not getting as many opportunities and that was going to keep diminishing. I was still quite competitive and still driving in most of our major stakes, but I said to Paula I would rather leave a year too early than a year too late.

“2. I was leaving in fairly good shape physically. I had been in more than my share of accidents. I’ve found that older bones take more time to heal than young ones do.

“3. The position was available. Tom Charters was retiring .I had been a long-time Society board member. I talked about it with Paula and my daughters and decided it might be a good fit for me. I researched what would be expected of me and talked with various board members. I took the position.”

Q: Just think of your achievements. First driver to drive the winners of $100 million, $200 million and $300 million. You are a four-time Hall of Famer — the Living Hall of Fame in Goshen (at 35, the youngest inductee ever); Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame; Canadian Sports Hall of Fame and the London Sports Hall of Fame. You have won over 600 stakes events, including 100-plus of our most important races; what this scribe would consider to be Classics races. They include 42 Breeders Crowns, six Hambletonians, six North America Cups, three Little Brown Jugs, eight Adios’, eight Messengers, a total of 31 Triple Crown events and Sweden’s most prestigious race, the Elitlopp. What allowed you to accomplish all that you have?

“I think it came down to doing what I loved plus opportunity, preparation, ability and maybe most of all great timing. I was lucky enough to be at my best in the golden years of The Meadowlands. A big part of my success came at The Meadowlands. I got the opportunity to drive great horses there. The success I garnered at The Meadowlands found its way to other tracks and I was put down as a driver of some of the best horses racing all over North America. Once again, success led to more success.”

Q: You’ve driven against the best drivers in the last half century or so. How would you rank them?

“Everyone has their favorites and an opinion It is very subjective. I can’t and I won’t answer that. I will say that there have been many top drivers who would be great in any era. I will say this though, I believe the pool of talented drivers is greater today than at any time in the history of the sport. You can go to just about any North American track and find drivers, especially young drivers with loads of talent. Many of these drivers just need the right opportunity to come along and they will be nationally recognized.”

Q: Let’s talk about trainers for whom you’ve driven.

“I won’t rank them, but I will say a few words about some of the most prominent ones who gave me the opportunity to drive for them. Two things I will say about all of them. It goes without saying that they are or were great horsemen. I wouldn’t have picked them out if they were not. They are all great human beings, people who I was proud to call my friends, either on or off the racetrack.

Chuck Sylvester — Chuck is amazing in that he didn’t come from a harness racing background. He is very much a self-made man. He learned by himself, mostly through trial and error. He is now 80, and looking for another champion. He isn’t afraid to try something new. He isn’t married to any methods either in general terms or when dealing with individual horses.

Bob McIntosh — A truly great horseman in multiple areas and was very loyal to me as a driver right to the end. He is one of the minority who have stood up to Father Time and held his own.

Jim Campbell — He is my brother of course. But he is also a great horseman. Jim is another who has been successful through several decades. Rare is the year, if ever, that he doesn’t have a few good horses in his stable.

Stanley Dancer — One of the all-time greats. He never gave me any advice going into a race. I never felt any pressure when driving for him. He knew about driving and was always the same after a race no matter success or disaster.”

Billy Haughton — What can I say about Billy that hasn’t been said by many others? He’s another from who I never felt any pressure driving. He was a tremendous horseman driver and person and so much fun to be around.

Bruce Nickells — Another person I have so much respect for and is fun to be around. We had tremendous success together. He is a great horseman very innovative not afraid to try new things. He thinks he is still young.”

Q: Which is the best horse you’ve ever driven?

“Without a doubt it would be Mack Lobell. Just look at his accomplishments. At 2, he was a world champion, two-year-old trotter of the year and finished the year in winning the Breeders Crown. At three, he was three year old trotter of the year, he won everything that was worth winning and finished the year winning the Breeders Crown. Then as an older horse, he raced mostly in Europe, competed against the best and won the Elitlopp as a 4-year-old, still the only 4-year-old to do that and then at 6 he won it again.”

Q: How about pacers?

“It’s not as clear cut there as it is with trotters. Artsplace comes to mind quickly. His world record performance in winning the Breeders Crown at 2 was just awesome. Then his undefeated record at 4 was equally impressive. Real Desire would probably be close.”

Q: Let’s get back to your position at the Hambletonian Society. The Society has been in favor of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority and publicly stated so.

“It’s a somewhat complex situation. Ultimately, harness racing will be in an enviable position. HISA will be in place this summer with only the thoroughbreds being governed by it and its rules. It will probably take some time to iron out the kinks. In the meanwhile, we will be able to watch and observe. The commissions will eventually want to opt in the other racing breeds, harness and quarter into HISA and our industry will have representation before the HISA authority. The rules and regulations only apply to thoroughbreds as of now A standardbred version of these rules and regs will have to be proposed to the HISA authority based on a myriad of issues in all of horse racing. I think our industry should be embracing change.”

Q: You are a great family man. Please tell us about them.

“Paula and I have three adult daughters — Lisa, Michelle and Brittany. Between the girls they have a total of six kids. Lisa and Jeff have Emma, 18, and an incoming freshman at Syracuse this fall and Camden, 15 and Colten, 12; Michelle has twin 5-year-old girls — Lolly and Stella; Our youngest, Brittany and her husband Matt just had a baby, Lola, last week.”

Q: What does John Campbell do for fun aside from his duties at the Hambletonian Society?

“I guess you might say that I am addicted to golf. I love the game and try to play two and often three times a week. I am not as good as I used to be. I’ve got an eight handicap at our course but like every golfer I think the next round is going to be special. I also follow sports fairly closely, especially hockey and baseball.”

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