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Clinton Raceway’s Legends Day couldn’t be more aptly named.
On that day perhaps the greatest driver in standardbred racing history will be driving his last race.
John Campbell, born in Ailsa Craig 62 years ago, will come back home Sunday to race on Legends Day at Clinton Raceway.
It will be a massive day for local harness racing. They will be honouring a man whose achievements in the sport would take pages to fill.
Campbell got his start racing in London and tracks around the area. Campbell won his first race in 1972 at Western Fair. He finished his career winning more than 11,000 races and $300 million, far more than any other earner in the sport.
He has dozens of major race wins including 17 U.S. Trotting Triple Crown wins (six Hambletonian Stakes) and 17 U.S. Pacing Triple Crown wins (three Little Brown Jugs).
Campbell has been inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame, the U.S. Harness Racing Hall of Fame, and the London Sports Hall of Fame and has received awards from both the government of Canada and the state of New Jersey.
Campbell last raced June 30th at the Meadowlands. Not surprisingly, he won his last two races.
The Legends Day Trot will be the 10th race on the card and Campbell will be driving against Bill O’Donnell, who is also retiring that day, Mike Lachance, Ron Waples, Doug Brown, Steve Condren and Dave Wall. In total, the eight have earned more than $1.15 billion and won nearly 69,000 races.
“I’m at peace with the decision to retire,” Campbell said from his home in New Jersey. “It’s time. The timing is right. It’s time to move onto other things. I think I’ve pushed the envelope as far as it will go with this age thing and driving.
“I haven’t been as successful the last few years. I would have retired earlier but I was still getting rides in all the big races. But it’s been getting harder and I know it’s time. But when you think about it, it’s 45 years last spring that I started driving. That’s a good run to be able to do what you wanted for all that time.”
He won’t be idle. He recently became the president and CEO of the Hambletonian Society. It owns and operates a number of major stakes races, including the Hambletonian and Breeders Crown series.
That too is appropriate since Campbell calls his wins in the Hambletonian one of the highlights of his career.
“It’s our biggest race and I was always planning in my mind trying to come up with a horse that could compete in the Hambletonian each and every year. They were special,” he said. “What I’m most proud of, I would say the longevity. I wasn’t doing quite as good the last few years but I was still getting opportunities in big races and there are lots of great drivers that don’t get opportunities. I was still driving in most of the major races last year. I was most proud of the length of time.”
His longevity will go down in sports history as a remarkable feat of strength, endurance and probably some luck.
“It’s a grind especially in the summer when the stakes’ races are run. It’s hectic,” he said. “But I never minded that because that meant I was in demand and was getting an opportunity to drive in those races. I kind of thrived on that just running from track to track and jumping on horses. That’s something I never took for granted. I always tell people, all I dreamt about was driving horses and racing and I got to do that for a living. That puts me in a very fortunate position.”
Campbell is looking forward to continue being a significant part of standardbred racing through his position as president and CEO of the Hambletonian Society.
“The Hambletonian Society is a very active organization within our industry. I’m looking forward to that. Basically I’m trying to get the various organizations throughout our industry to make decisions that are better for the long-term health of our sport. It’s a divided industry; it always has been and always will be. I’d like to try and influence some of these groups to make decisions that benefit the overall industry in the long-term rather than looking at it from a purely selfish or short-term frame of mind.”
Even though Campbell has spent a great deal of his life in the United States in the New Jersey area, he’s never forgotten where he started. It’s why he picked the Legends Trot to be his last race.
“It just feels really good for me because that’s where I started,” he said. “It’s going to be just a fun day for myself, my family and friends. It’s just something I’m really excited about and looking forward to.”
The ten-race card will kick off with a first-race post time of 1:30 p.m. Sunday ending with the $15,000 Legends Trot. There will be online auctions, a barbecue and autograph session. All proceeds will go to the Clinton Public Hospital Foundation.
“It’s great,” said Ian Fleming, Clinton Raceway general manager. “Legends Day has always been our biggest day since we started it. So it was a big day for us to start with and now with it being the last drive for John, it makes it even more exciting. We’re honoured he’s decided to make Clinton his last stop.”
Campbell says his entire family will be there for the event.
For Campbell, Sunday is the culmination of the dream he had since he was a boy.
“When I was a kid there wasn’t a Meadowlands, there wasn’t the stakes there was now,” he said. “When I was running and dreaming going around our farm track it was hoping to get good enough to go to Yonkers or Roosevelt. That was the mecca back then. This was something that happened to me that I couldn’t imagine in my wildest dreams and imagination. It went beyond that.”
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