John Campbell defends Crown elimination races

Hambletonian Society president said scrapping eliminations in favor of taking the highest-earning horses in the final kills entries, purses and dreams.

by Dave Briggs

Hambletonian Society / Breeders Crown president John Campbell said Thursday that he’s “a little tired of people taking shots” at the poor quality of Breeders Crown elimination races.

“It’s okay to have criticism, but at least come up with something that’s better,” Campbell said, referencing suggestions that since Crown eliminations can be poor betting races they should be scrapped in favor of taking the horses with the highest earnings in the final.

Taking the top earners, “just doesn’t work for us,” Campbell said. “First of all, the entries would plummet and the purse would plummet… because you’re taking that hope and dream away from a guy that has a horse that he’s pretty sure is not going to be in the top 10 or nine money-earners to get in it… If you look back historically at the Breeders Crown, there are so many Cinderella stories, of horses coming out of nowhere to win a Breeders Crown. I think Bays Fella comes to mind right away, Sunset Warrior. And then, obviously, Beckhams Z Tam in Indiana and FiftyDallarBill in Indiana.”

Critics of elimination races say drivers aren’t as aggressive when they only need to get their horses into the final, not go all-out to win. That makes them tough races to bet.

“Some people feel they don’t get the same shot when they bet their money,” Campbell said. “My initial reaction to that is they are probably right, but you’re betting (with knowledge) that it is an elimination race. From a racing standpoint, there’s no way that you are going to get the same focus, aggressiveness and strategy in an elimination race going for $25,000 as you do in the final going for $500,000. It’s just not going to happen, I don’t care what incentive you have.

“You just can’t make an elimination the same as you can a final. It’s just not going to happen and you should bet accordingly.”

Campbell, a Hall of Famer who has won more Crown races (48) than any other driver, said he was “a big-time offender of racing horses conservatively in elimination races” until rules changed to allow elimination winners to pick their posts for the final or receive an inside post.

“My strategy and whole mindset changed when they put that condition in that you would earn your post in the final or pick one or two or whatever,” he said.

Still, he said bettors can’t expect every horse to go full out in every start, especially in eliminations.

“When you have a campaign to get to the Breeders Crown, you just can’t go all out every start,” Campbell said. “So, certainly, the trainer’s mindset and the driver’s mindset is, ‘If I can get a race that I don’t have to really go to the bottom of my horse, it’s going to benefit him especially the next week.’ It doesn’t mean that they are not trying, just that they are using more conservative parameters to try to win.”

Campbell said there’s a mechanism in place for any driver that gives a less-than-honest effort.

“It’s called judges. I think they could certainly be more proactive when guys are racing close to that conservative line and not trying hard enough,” he said.

After all, drivers should always know their horse’s odds and drive accordingly, he said.

“I was always aware of my horse’s tote price. I knew at 3-5, even if I didn’t want to torture or race him as hard as I had to, you still wanted to give him a chance and show the public that you are giving him a chance or putting him in position where he can win. You just can’t have the nine-hole and get away ninth at 3-5.”

He said he finds it strange there was criticism of the 2018 Crown eliminations at The Downs at Mohegan Sun Pocono, when both nights posted handle higher than a typical night.

Besides, savvy bettors who choose to bet elimination races are well aware what they’re getting into and use that as part of the handicapping equation.

“You know it’s elimination racing going in,” Campbell said. “With sports wagering coming in all over the place, it’s going to be an issue with other sports as well… First of all, already, the last game of the NFL season that the Giants played, they played Dallas. The game meant nothing to Dallas because they had clinched the NFC East and they couldn’t improve or lose their position, so it meant nothing to them. As a result, the Giants were favored by six. If the game had been meaningful for Dallas, Dallas would have been favored by three or four… That’s the way Vegas handicapped it and you could bet or not bet. That’s why it’s called gambling.”

As for the Breeders Crown, those that are complaining about the eliminations have the wrong focus, Campbell said.

“The primary focus is to make those final races as entertaining and as bettable and get as many people out to the track as possible for the finals. Your focus is not the eliminations,” he said.

With no reasonable alternative, doing away with eliminations doesn’t make sense to the Hambletonian Society.