Campbell to retire from driving, take helm of Hambletonian Society

Harness racing’s all-time money-leading driver John Campbell will replace Tom Charters as the president and CEO of the Hambletonian Society / Breeders Crown on July 1.

by Dave Briggs

The good news is John Campbell will be the next president and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Hambletonian Society. The bad news is the career of perhaps the greatest driver to ever sit in a race bike is quickly coming to an end.

Campbell will turn 62 on April 8. He said Thursday afternoon — shortly after the official announcement that he would cease active driving at the end of June to take over from Tom Charters at the Hambletonian Society on July 1 — that he looks forward to the challenge of the new job and isn’t, yet, viewing the end of his driving career with any melancholy.

“It’s exciting. (My wife) Paula and my daughters are very excited and happy for me… and they don’t have to worry about me getting hurt anymore,” Campbell said. “I was very fortunate. As a kid, all I dreamt about was driving horses and racing and I got to do that for a living. I think I’ve pushed the age limit and being successful for a long time, but I’d rather be stopping too early than too late.”

Stopping too early may mean Campbell may not hit $300 million in lifetime earnings. As of Thursday before that night’s races, Campbell was $656,182 from $300 million in his career. He has earned $257,392 through the first 74 days of 2017. If he maintains that pace for the 106 days between March 16 and June 30, he will fall about $300,000 short of $300 million. But, with other tracks opening up soon and some stakes events in June — most notably those on the Pepsi North America Cup card at Mohawk — he still might just get to $300 million. He already is some $85 million ahead of the next closest driver — Ron Pierce — on the top of the all-time list and is second behind only jockey John Velazquez when drivers and jockeys are combined.

True to form for one of the classiest men to ever don a set of colors, Campbell said he doesn’t care much about hitting $300 million.

“I’ve never been one to look back at goals or numbers too much. I don’t think I’m going to get to $300 million and that doesn’t bother me one bit,” he said. “I don’t know just how many opportunities I’m going to get between now and the first of July. I’m going to be a lame-duck driver and probably not in-demand, so to speak, so we’ll just see what comes and weigh my options as I go along.”

Campbell, currently the president of the Grand Circuit, said he relishes the opportunity to lead the Hambletonian Society / Breeders Crown.

“It’s a new chapter, but it’s exciting and I’m looking forward to the challenge,” Campbell said.

What does he bring to the society besides 25 years as a director?

“Experience. I’ve seen so much,” Campbell said. “This is 45 years of driving, at every level. I’ve experienced harness racing at every level, from the bottom to the top. I’ve been (a director at the) Hambletonian Society since ’92 and on the Breeders Crown committee… I’ve got an idea what management goes through trying to make money putting on harness races. All of that factors into a good education for going forward with this position.”

Campbell was elected president and CEO of the Society in a unanimous vote of the board of directors at the winter board meeting held Sunday (March 12) in Boca Raton, FL.

Charters informed the board last August of his intent to cut back on his schedule. He will step down as president, a position he has held since 1998. He will remain on staff through the Breeders Crown at Hoosier Park in October and on the Society board as a director.

“I don’t want to walk around like a doddering fool, with people conspiring to get me out of here,” Charters said Thursday afternoon. “So, last year, I told some of the officers and then I announced it to the full board that I wasn’t going to re-sign my full-time contract. I just wanted to have longer weekends to spend with my wife, do some traveling and whatever. I said I’d be glad to work part-time. My contract runs out in June and, although I’ve worked without a contract before, I think they want to keep a full-time president and CEO. I’m sure John is going to be in the office, and a lot of it (for me) is going to be part-time here and part-time there.”

Charters said the future is in good hands with Campbell taking the helm.

“We’ve worked on things before and I’ve reached out to him, not just for advice, but to ask him to intervene with racetracks because John Campbell’s name carries a lot more currency than Tom Charters’. Once John made it clear… that he wanted to cut back and quit driving or was willing to do this full-time, the executive search committee started focusing on him.

“I got a call asking what I thought of it and I said that I wholeheartedly endorse it. John has done a good job as president of Grand Circuit, which can be kind of a token position. And he takes it seriously.”

Charters said he was proudest of maintaining and growing the Society’s two biggest events — the Hambletonian and Breeders Crown.

“We’ve managed and maintained them, grown them and adjusted when we had to and kept them on track through a lot of partnerships and changes,” Charters said.

“I think the Society stepped up with issues like international racing. We were able to adapt the Breeders Crown to bring some of the European stars in to the event from time to time. That’s challenging, just given quarantine and other considerations. I think we took a very forward position in terms of medication. Out-of-competition testing is news lately, but we’ve been doing it with the Hambletonian and Breeders Crown for about a decade. We were doing it before it was in the rule books in any jurisdiction. We took a position on whipping, and the perception of it. That’s one thing John and I talked about. I guess those are a few (of the things I’m proud of)… I’ve got a great staff and a board that has always supported me and we’ve been able to address things. We’ve been able to work with the USTA, Standardbred Canada and the American Horse Councils. We’ve been pretty good citizens of the industry, I think.”

Campbell said Charters has made an outstanding contribution.

“I have so much respect for what Tom has done over the years,” Campbell said. “He’s just worked tirelessly on behalf of the industry and I’ve seen that firsthand from my time on the Breeders Crown committee. I’ve seen that since the first or second year that I was on the Hambletonian Society and, also, with the Grand Circuit. Tom has done so much work behind the scenes that he’s never gotten credit for… I’m looking to learn a lot from Tom and (director of publicity) Moira (Fanning) before the first of July, then getting together with the executive committee of the Hambletonian Society and running some things by them. I really serve at the pleasure of the Hambletonian Society. I can have my own ideas, but, at the same time, it has to be in sync with the members of the Hambletonian Society.”

Charters said there are some similarities between himself and Campbell.

“I do think I respected the industry and have a good network of contacts among track owners and horse owners. I can walk into any paddock and know many people. John has that same kind of network and familiarity and, like I said, I’ve asked him to reach out to racetrack operators when I needed a little help getting something done. He also has a very good perspective on the limitations of the industry, but he sees the real value in the industry as far as the gambling and entertainment medium,” Charters said. “I’m not comparing myself to John, but I said to someone the other day that I’m flattered that it took a John Campbell to replace me. That’s a pretty high bar.

“I think (Campbell will) just approach things a little bit differently and sometimes you need fresh eyes, a fresh perspective on things. As long as he’s got the underpinnings and support, I expect big things.”

Campbell said he was happy to be staying in the industry after his driving career ends.

“There’s going to be days when I’m frustrated, no question about that, but there’s going to be lots of days when I feel good about what we accomplish as well,” he said.