John Campbell didn’t mind a slow pace Friday night (June 30). This drive was special.
It was his final trip to The Meadowlands Racetrack winner’s circle.
Campbell, the leading money-winning driver in harness racing history and winningest driver in the history of The Meadowlands, raced at the Big M for the final time Friday. He capped his career at the North Jersey oval in storybook fashion, winning his final two starts in front of numerous family members, friends, and appreciative fans.
With the exception of two upcoming special events --- the Hall of Fame Trot on Sunday (July 2) at Goshen’s Historic Track and Legends Day at Ontario’s Clinton Raceway on July 30 --- Campbell is giving up his seat in the sulky to take over as president and CEO of the Hambletonian Society next week.
After finishing second in his first three of five drives Friday night, Campbell won with Linda Toscano-trained 3-year-old trotter Muscle High. He followed with a victory behind Brett Bittle-trained 5-year-old trotter Muscle Diamond and returned to the winner’s circle to cheers and celebration.
"This is just special," Campbell said. "To win the last two races is just incredible. The whole night everyone has been so supportive and the fans have been great. All my family and friends are here and it’s just a wonderful evening for me?"
Campbell enjoyed an unhurried return to the winner’s circle with Muscle Diamond.
"I came back a little slower and did soak it in," Campbell said. "I know it’s not going to happen again. There were a lot of memories coming back when I was coming back with him. I’ve been back to this winner’s circle a lot of times.
"This place has been so special to me."
A member of each the U.S. Harness Racing Hall of Fame and the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, Campbell has won 10,667 races and earned $299.9 million in North American purses and more than $300 million worldwide. His victory total ranks ninth among all drivers in North American harness racing history and his purses exceed second-place Ron Pierce by more than $84 million.
Campbell followed his grandfather Duncan, who himself was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, and dad Jack into harness racing. Campbell grew up in western Ontario, not far from London, where at the age of 17 he won his first race. After a successful stint at Windsor Raceway, Campbell moved to The Meadowlands in 1978. A year later, he won the first of 16 driving titles at the Big M.
The list of memorable achievements for Campbell includes record numbers of wins in many of the sport’s top events, including 48 Breeders Crown victories, seven wins in the Meadowlands Pace and six triumphs in each the Hambletonian and North America Cup. Campbell captured 23 races worth at least $1 million, another record, and sat behind U.S. Horse of the Year Award winners Mack Lobell (twice), Artsplace, Cam’s Card Shark, Real Desire, Glidemaster, and Rock N Roll Heaven.
Campbell was voted into the U.S. Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 1990 at the age of 35, which put him in the company of Herve Filion as the youngest drivers ever honored.
Prior to Friday’s races at the Meadowlands, Campbell signed programs, posters, T-shirts, and photographs for fans in the grandstand while surrounded by his grandchildren.
"Thank you for making the trip out," Campbell said frequently to fans. "Hope you have a good evening."
Among those stopping to say hello was trainer Chuck Sylvester, who won two Hambletonians and numerous other stakes with Campbell behind his horses.
"He’s the best guy you’d ever want to meet," Sylvester said. "He did so many great things for me, just unbelievable. He is the most famous driver there ever was.
"He was smarter than everybody else. He used to tell me before big races what he thought every driver was going to do, he was so sharp he knew everyone else’s mind, and he was right most of the time. It was great to have him as a driver."
Campbell said he experienced no nerves prior to his final two drives at the Meadowlands, but wanted to get to the winner’s circle.
"I wanted to win one tonight because my grandkids are here, my family and friends are here, it would have been a little disappointing if we didn’t win one," Campbell said. "I thought they both had good chances as long as I could keep them out of trouble.
"I wasn’t nervous," he added with a smile, "I didn’t care about getting fired no matter how bad I drove."
As Muscle Diamond’s trainer Bittle watched the winner’s circle celebration following Campbell’s final drive, a smile crossed his face.
"It’s just exciting," Bittle said. "John is such an all-around horseman, so knowledgeable and with so much racetrack smarts. Just to be here tonight and have him drive my horse, it will be a memory I’ll never forget."
As Campbell exited the winner’s circle and walked past the grandstand for the final time in his familiar white, maroon and blue colors, the crowd burst into cheers once more. Campbell pumped his fist in the air in appreciation of the applause.
A memory most will never forget.--By Ken Weingartner/Harness Racing Communications