view counter
view counter

Touching Many Lives... Whether He Knew It Or Not

Trot Feature - John Campbell

On Sunday, July 30 in the Legends Day Trot at Clinton Raceway, John Campbell would make the last of his 61,396 career drives.

There’s no doubt that during his long career, the man touched many lives, but few would know John Campbell, the driver, the person, better than the people that he competed against on the track - his peers. TROT asked these very men, a group of Canadian drivers, to share some of their personal stories and insights, and in some cases, thoughts on the future, of the man that many call the greatest harness driver of all time. Assembled by Dan Fisher


The majority of people saw John drive all the big horses in all of the big races, but I raced together with John so often, twenty years, night-in-and-night-out for 10-12 races a night. People, they know John for all the great horses but I saw him drive all of the average ones - he’d do things with horses, and you’d go “how the hell did he do that?” It seemed like every race at The Meadowlands, when you were turning for home, Campbell would be sitting perfect - second over. Someone in the race would say to me, “where’s Campbell?” And I’d say “don’t worry, he’ll be second over.” And he would be! And he’d go on and win. I’ve seen him do that so many times over the years, especially years when I first went to The Meadowlands… just off and on, four nights a week, that’s when he was really catching on, getting horses that were nothing and in the early days he just kept on getting better and better. A person could have made a lot of money just betting him. Many of those horses would be 30/1 and 40/1.

One night I remember my uncle had a horse of mine named Cheviot down there [at The Meadowlands] and I was snowed in somewhere and couldn’t make it down to drive him. I called the paddock and they said that John was available, but in those days you weren’t allowed to talk to them on the phone in the paddock. I told them to just tell John that the horse was safe. He had post-10 anyway, and he was a big price. John got beat half-a-nostril with him at 57/1. A few days later when my uncle called me about racing the horse next, I just said “put John down on him again... I’m not going to bother coming down. No sense.”

John had absolutely no weaknesses as a driver. Even if he had a bad horse you knew you had to be careful because he wasn’t out. That’s for sure.

John could take a good horse and turn it into a great horse, if they fit one another, it’s just the way it was. I drove Mack Lobell for his first 7 or 8 starts and then took Sir Taurus over him. John raced him after that. In the beginning, he was no fun, Mack was. He had a mind of his own, he’d tried to turn around in the race and John did a great job with him. There were so many people that owned Mack Lobell that, I always felt that most of them wanted John to drive him anyways, and that’s fine by me. I didn’t want to drive a horse that nobody wants you to drive anyways, that never ends well. So God Bless him, good luck. That’s just the way it is in the business. It made the Kentucky Futurity very memorable though, when I beat him with Napoletano. Mack raced in the World Trotting Derby, whenever that was, Labour Day weekend… so then it’s a whole month. I raced [Napoletano] the week before down there in the Transylvania Derby. We both went to the Futurity and we both won our heats fairly easily. I never had to extend my horse a bit. So even though we come the last quarter in like 26 seconds, I beat him in the final. But I never had to worry about doing that [beating him] again. Mack wasn’t as good that day as he was before. He wasn’t as good as my horse that day, but he hadn’t raced in a month either though right? But it woke him up. Then he just never got beat again hardly that year, and if he got beat it was because it was a tough race. He was a tough horse that horse, he never gave up. Even when he was young he was like that, had lots of grit to him.

I know that with his new position, John will get it done. Or he’ll work at it. That’s one thing about him, he is so organized - we used to travel, and he’d do all planning and organizing. I just flew by the seat of my pants. John used to lie to me about what time we were leaving because I’d always be late. If we had to leave at 9:30 he’d tell me 9 o’clock, so I’d be sitting there going, “where are these guys?” They’d always tell me a half hour before, and I couldn’t take the chance that they weren’t telling me an earlier time because you got these flight plans... he was great. I made half of my earnings just following him, so it worked for me. But our relationship was always totally fine, we traveled together, there never an issue. Nothing that lasted anyways.


So it was 2006 at the Little Brown Jug, I had Doonbeg and it was my first time ever down there. I drove down with Mark MacDonald and his family, and when we got down there we were all thinking Doonbeg had the best shot. It ended up being Mark leaving there with the Little Brown Jug with Mr. Feelgood. I can’t remember where Mark went exactly, but I was nervous, and pretty green. I was kind of friends with John, like most people are, and I asked him where you get changed at around here. He just said “come over to my motor home, and change in there.” That’s what I did, I went over to his motor home and got changed. I just got changed and left my gear there, and went and raced. If I recall I think I was lucky and just got third, made the final and drew the 9-hole. So I got real real lucky to draw a good post. In the final I got away third or fourth, and John got away behind me with Armbro Dynamic. He was trying to flush me. I almost came out but stayed in at the last minute, and I ended up getting my horse all doubled up and he made a break at the half. Armbro Deuce was on the lead and Mr. Feelgood was in the two-hole, and John ended up coming first-up with Ambro Dynamic and couldn’t keep Mark in the two-hole. And Mark ended up jumping out of the two-hole and winning. The early fractions were fast, and my horse felt good. As it turned out, I probably could’ve sprinted right around Armbro Deuce if I moved him. I might have actually won the Jug that year with Doonbeg. Bad decision by not pulling him. I was pretty gutted and I thought we got lucky to get into the final and even luckier to draw a spot on the rail with the nine-hole.

So we’re back changing after the races, and John and I are changing back in the trailer, and I was spitting and sputtering, and I was upset. He just looked at me, and like only John Campbell can do, he looked at me and calmly said “you can’t win the Jug by staying on the rail.” And I took that, and one year later I pulled first-up in my heat with Tell All and won. And I put him on the lead in the final, and I won the Little Brown Jug. No truer words were spoken - nobody wins the Jug from sitting on the rail.


Many many many times we battled with great horses, Self Possessed, Angus Hall, Western Ideal, Real Desire, Bettors Delight… and I’m only naming a few. We drove great horses that were beating each other every week, we had our differences at times because I had a style that was tough to race against and John was the same, but we always kept it professional. Whenever we had something at night, the next day it was “Good morning John,” or the next night it was like nothing ever happened. He had respect for me and I did the same for him and that was great. Great guy to race against. Smart guy. You never knew what he was going to do in a race, he was such a good driver. You felt safe when you were in a race against him, you knew he had your back, and you had his back.

We even picked up good horses from each other a few times. I got Matts Scooter from him. He got Muscles Yankee from me. I drove him for his first couple starts but then I couldn’t drive him in Toronto so he got him. I got Mystical Maddy from him, he couldn’t drive her one night so I got on her and she almost never got beat.

I was very aggressive in a race, and I want to say that I was the kind of guy where you never knew what I was going to do. I could bust out of there, or race from behind, he was the same style. There’s guys that you race against that are predictable, you know what they’re going to do. It’s much easier to race against a guy like that. I wasn’t the guy to look at the program the day before, but once we’re behind the gate that’s where I made up my mind. I knew the horses in the race, especially those big races. It worked out good for me like that. John was the same, you could never say he’s going to do this or going to do that, not with him.


I’ll never forget the first time I met John Campbell. I was about 14 years old, and I got to go down to the Meadowlands for the first time ever. I went down with Frank Conlin in his big old 6-horse truck and trailer. Everybody back in the Jockey Club, or WEG now, would know what truck I’m talking about because everybody knew it as the ‘Green Hornet.’ The great big green 6-horse. It wasn’t even a trailer, it was just a truck with a big box on the back, and 6 horses could fit on. So we drive down there. I’m 14 and Frank actually makes me drive half the way through Poconos, and it was the Meadowlands Winter Sale, so you know what the roads were like. We get down there and it’s the 7th race that night, and we go to the backstretch and park, and it’s all dark and stuff. So we go walking over toward the backstretch of the track, and I go up on the fence with my arms hanging over. I’m 14 and my eyes are wide as they can be. I’m looking at the Meadowlands for the first time. So here comes John Campbell post-parading something. It could’ve been a Free For Aller, a five claimer, a 15 claimer, anything. I couldn’t tell you who it was. But he comes wheeling down and of course he sees Frank and he says, ‘Hey Con, how are ya?” So Frank yells “hey Junior.” They all called him that back then. And as he’s coming near us he starts slowing down, and he says “who’s your help?” And Frank says “oh that’s The Greek’s boy.” And John says “oh no, it can’t be.” Frank says “it’s him, I’m telling you.” John says “nope the kid’s too good looking.” And off he went. That was the first time I ever met the guy, and I was in awe.

What’s really crazy is that one of the other stories that come to mind that involve John Campbell and myself, happened almost in that exact same spot, about 15 years later. It was Hambo Day 2000, and I had a big shot to win the Oliver Wendell Holmes with Astreos. I moved my horse to the front going to the half and had just crossed over - John was behind me with Aint No Stopn Him. As I was crossing over he was going to be left first over. All of the sudden, out of the corner of my eye, I see this big old barn cat sitting on the outside fence... and he comes zinging right across the racetrack from the backstretch. I’m about to win my first race ever on Hambo Day and we could’ve had a major pile-up. The cat ran right under my wheel and when I hit him he swung right up into his horse’s chest. It was a sad thing, but it pretty much exploded. It was amazing that none of the horses spooked, but it happened so fast. I won the race, and he finished second, and after, as we’re pulling up, John was like “what the heck was that?” I said “it was a cat!” He said something like “oh well, good thing it wasn’t a skunk!” But he was always so calm and cool.

A few weeks later we were racing the same horses in the Cane at Freehold. I was battling Luc [Ouellette] for the lead turning for home and our horses bumped or something. I dropped my whip. There may have even been an inquiry. But we ended up second to Luc [Powerful Toy] in a close finish. So anyways, after the race we were standing outside and John was there - we were going to catch a flight to Woodbine I think. He could hear me talking on the phone about the race to my father and the last thing my dad said to me - well I was upset because I thought we could win the race, he raced good, we just got beat, but I was really upset because he hadn’t won a major yet you know? So the last thing the old man says to me was “don’t worry kid, you’ll win the Jug” and I hang up. I’m not even thinking anything of it. John says “what’d the old man say?” and I started laughing, like a joke. I said can you believe it, he said I was going to win the Jug. Campbell looked at me and smiled and said “you never know kid, you just might.” It made me feel good to hear that from him. Then it was like what, three weeks later? Astreos and I win the Little Brown Jug. What else can I say, I don’t know. He’s like the kids’ Sidney Crosby. You put him on a pedestal and he stays there. That’s it. When I got back from the backstretch after the Jug, he was the first driver to congratulate me. THE FIRST! He gave me a big two minute speech about how much it means, how you’ll never forget about it the rest of your life, but I appreciated it at the time and still do. I said something similar to Mark when he won [with Mr Feelgood], tried to give him the same kind of speech. I mean, I’m not John Campbell. I said the kind of thing where it was like, ‘you know what bud, you just won the kind of race you need to appreciate how important it is. There’s a good chance it won’t happen again, you need to appreciate it.’ That’s what John told me, and he was right.


I drove in a lot of big races with John, he’s always a classy guy to drive against, good bad or ugly. I even picked up a stakes winner from him once - that’s a good memory. He took Mach Three, and I got Art Major in the Confederation Cup. That’s one pick that always helped me. I am pretty sure he drove both of them in the elimination races and then he chose Mach Three in the final. I got Art Major and won with him.

Something that speaks to his character, stands out in my mind from many years ago, in Lexington. I drove a horse that he owned, or owned a part of or something, and he drove another one, I forget exactly. I believe that he had two in the same race. I got mine qualified [for the final] and he didn’t, and he said, “you drive it in the final.” It was something like that - it was years ago. That was the John Campbell class.


I know he was tough to drive against, that’s for sure. The story I think of him most though, is that I remember being a little kid and going to the races one time, and I think I had met him just one time before that with my dad. I had to only be about five years old the first time I met him, and four or five years later me and a buddy watched him drive [at Mohawk] all night. I wasn’t very old, but he was the Wayne Gretzky of the place. I remember walking through the paddock after the races, and we were going to walk right by him, and I didn’t even want to look at him, I was kind of embarrassed to say hi to him or whatever.... just being a nine year old kid that he didn’t even know. But he looked right at me and said, “Hi Doug, how you doing?” and shook my hand. That was pretty special, and it still is. I was just a kid, and I looked up to the guy, and he remembers your name, and I only had met him one time. Every time I’ve seen him since he says “hey”. He’s a class act that’s for sure. He’s the man. It was neat. I remember again, years later and he’d go, “how’s your mom Terri Lynn?” I mean, he’s known my whole family for many years, but he doesn’t just ask how my mom is... he calls her by her name. He remembered my name when I was just a little kid. One thing I always knew about him, he could always remember somebody’s name. You get introduced to somebody and you often forget their name right after you say your own to them, but John remembered it always. That’s pretty cool.

The other cool memory I have is when I won the Shes A Great Lady with Precocious Beauty, and I beat him [Gallie Bythe Beach] right at the wire. It was probably my biggest win at the time. Beat him by a neck or something. So I got a picture blown up of it, and the photographer sent me a shot of the proof of it, and he didn’t have John in the picture. He had cut him out of it. I sent it back and I said I want to have John in that picture. It would be pretty cool 30 or 40 years from now. He just cut it off at the sulky. Now I have big picture with John in it, and he’s looking over at me. Pretty nice picture, that’s for sure. It’s tough to beat John in any race, let alone a big one like that. Winning the Shes A Great Lady was great, but beating John Campbell at the wire made it that much more special - I wanted him in that picture.


He was good, he was a cool customer out there. Always was. I’ve seen him start driving when he was young, and I’ve seen him all through his career, he was always a cool guy to drive against. As far as any rivalry, when the gate says go there’s always a rivalry, but it never carried over after with John. If there is no rivalry then you won’t be very successful.

He was a competitor. I was just telling somebody recently that I don’t ever remember him letting me win, so I’m not going to let him win [on Legend’s Day]. It’s sad though, the industry is losing somebody that has so much to contribute. But now he can contribute in a different way. I don’t think John will miss it [driving], because I’ll tell you what happens to you, and you can ask Billy [O’Donnell] and he’ll probably tell you the same thing. When you get older in life the ones you get to drive, you don’t really get a shot to do anything. If everything goes your way you might be 4th or 3rd. So why go out there just to punish yourself, because you’re not going to be happy with the way it went, and so it was time to walk away. He’s on such a roll now that I think he’ll be satisfied with what he gets to do, and I think he’ll do a good job.


Yeah we raced against each other a lot between the Meadowlands and Delaware, and here at home. He’s always such a gentleman on and off the track, he’s represented the business tremendously. Probably two of the races that stand out are the Artsplace Breeders Crown and the Life Sign Jug. I was in the race, the Breeders Crown, with Happy Family. One thing you don’t see John do very often is drive as aggressive as he did that night, but he had to that night to win the race. In the Jug with Life Sign, that was just an amazing horse. For that horse to do what it did that day, and for John to keep him alive like that, it was just tremendous.

Another race that probably stands out is the Breeders Crown with Headline Hanover. He was the big favourite with Shes A Great Lady, and she got caught in traffic at the back. I cut it out with Headline and I ended up beating them - it was huge at the time because Shes A Great Lady was a great filly. We just got lucky at the right stop at the right time.

I give John a lot of credit for what he’s going to do. That’s a big step for him and it sounds like he’s ready for it. He’s very content with it by the sounds of it.


I’ll never ever forget the first time that I met John Campbell... although technically I didn’t really meet him that day. It was the first day that I ever saw him in person. I was about fourteen years old, and my dad took me to Ottawa with him for the ice races on the Rideau Canal. John was still pretty young then, maybe in his early to mid twenties? I had seen him drive at the Meadowlands a fair bit, at that place across from Greenwood where we used to go after the races. I think it was called The Mecca or something? They had that show on the satellite dish where you could see the replays from the ‘lands. He was doing really well there. So I totally knew who he was, and I see him out there on the Rideau Canal, and I remember thinking that he was just like a little kid out there. He was sliding around on the ice in his boots, and remarking on how he had wished he had brought his skates with him. A bunch of the other top drivers they had brought in were older guys, and John just seemed like a little kid out there, laughing and sliding around on the ice. Then this guy drives this pair of draft horses down a ramp and onto the canal, with a big heavy sleigh on the back of it... they’re going to give sleigh-rides to people. Well these big, 1,400 pound draft horses have no shoes on, and they’re trying to fall down on the ice. The poor things look like baby foals trying to stand for the first time. One of them, or someone, is going to get hurt. All of the sudden, John, the youngest guy out there, takes charge of the situation. He goes right over and calmly tells the driver that they have to get this rig turned around and get these horses back up the ramp to safety. They get it turned around ok, but the horses have no grip on their feet to climb back up the ramp pulling this heavy sled... so John calls all of the drivers to come help push. I’ll never forget the sight of that - about ten of North America’s top drivers all pushing this heavy sled up this ramp to get those horses back up to where they would be safe. And it was all orchestrated by a very young, but very calm and collected, John Campbell. He went from a little kid playing on the ice, to a man wise beyond his years, in a matter of seconds, and took full charge of the situation. That told me a lot about his character right there, even though I was just a teenager... and I never forgot that.

One other little thing comes to mind too, and this was the first time that I actually ‘met’ him. It was five or six years later, and my dad had a big stable down at Garden State. He had a few people away, or sick... I can’t really remember, but he needed me to come down and work for a week and help out. So he flies me down and picks me up at the airport. We’re driving to the track and he pulls off for lunch at a place across the street from the track where a lot of them went to eat. I can’t remember what it was called. We go inside and are about to sit at a table, and my dad says “let’s go up and sit at the bar instead, with those two fellas.” We walk over and it’s John Campbell and Bill O’Donnell. My stomach just sunk. I wasn’t even hungry anymore. It was like I was wanting to be Sidney Crosby, and I was getting to eat lunch with Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Just to sit there for an hour or two, and listen to Ronnie Waples, John Campbell, and Billy O talk shop, is something that I’ll never forget.


I know that my name doesn’t belong on this list. I was a trainer of a small stable, and not a top driver. But I put this feature together, and I feel that my short story is more than fitting, so I’ll share it nonetheless. John Campbell only drove for me once... it was Saturday, June 26, 1993. The same night he finished third with Life Sign in the $1,000,000 North America Cup. My horse was a $40,000 claimer named Shannon Spirited, and although we only got beat 1 1/2 lengths, a fifth-place cheque was all we could muster. The only person on Earth that even remembers that race is me... because John Campbell drove my horse. The way that I really got to know John was years later, after my son was born. When my boy was about three or four years old we started doing the Terry Fox Run annually, as a family, and Justin would collect donations from the drivers each September to help raise money for cancer research. All of the drivers would always contribute, and John was always one of the guys who would spend five minutes chatting with Justin about his school, and his hockey and baseball prowess. When my son was nine, his mother was diagnosed with leukemia. We received much support from the horse-racing community during this trying time, and we will never be able to thank people enough. One of the things that will always stand out is a day when I walked into Tackmaster to buy some supplies for my stable, and owner Karen Breen told me that she had something for me... rather, for Justin. She handed over a framed 8 x 10 headshot of John Campbell. Apparently he had heard of our sad news and thought that his young friend, that he only saw once a year, for five minutes or less each time, could use a boost. I took it home and it brought a big smile to the face of both mother and son. It still sits on the shelf of the now-twenty-one-year-old young man. On it, it says “All the best to my friend Justin. John Campbell.”

Yes, John Campbell has touched thousands of lives, and in his new role as President and CEO of the Hambletonian Society, he will continue to do so. On behalf of those thousands of people... “Thank you John.”

view counter

© 2018 Standardbred Canada. All rights reserved. Use of this site signifies your agreement and compliance with the legal disclaimer and privacy policy.

Firefox 3 Best with IE 7 Built with Drupal