The first thing that I always notice every time I come out of the building at the beautiful new Meadowlands racetrack is the old grandstand, which sits just beyond site of the track’s now 1/2-mile marker. It’s there that some of my greatest childhood and teen year memories were made. Initially, as a 15-year-old in 1985 when I often found my way to the track by way of hopping in a car with much older Palisades Park, NJ high schoolers. Those memories (sorry John) include those very same high schoolers flashing some good old high school testosterone towards John Campbell and Bill O’Donnell after a race or two were lost.
Just two years later, in 1987, I watched in awe as my father’s great horse Run The Table became the first to beat the previously undefeated Jate Lobell. I was instantly hooked. I had not only had my first exposure to the emotion of being tied to a world championship caliber horse but also met Jim Campbell.
My father passed in 2004 but his passion lived on in my brother Brian and me. He was our very best friend. Fast forward to 2011 and Jim and his crew had Opening Night in my first Hambletonian where he finished a very respectable third with John in the bike for that final. Interestingly, in the 2011 Hambletonian eliminations, it was Brian Sears that guided Opening Night to the final. History repeats.
I think of these things every time I see that old grandstand from the new Meadowlands racetrack and this August 6th was no exception. Once I was done with my customary reflection, I made my way up to the West Deck where friends and family had started to gather. I did my very best to be calm and remain as personable as I could be but there was really no escaping the emotion that comes with having a horse in the Hambletonian. Even my previous experiences before big races or knowing that the public was sure to make my entrant, Cool Papa Bell, a longshot, couldn’t prepare me for my natural feelings. This is the biggest day and race in our sport. Everyone who is in attendance knows it. I was feeling the enormity of the day. I was alive and very happy to be feeling all the emotion.
One of those emotions was that I’d had much more confidence in Take All Comer’s chances in the 2021 edition of the Hambletonian than I had been feeling with Cool Papa Bell. All I know now is that I’m very thankful that horses cannot read minds, or I would have been in for one heck of an “I told you so!”
As the day went on, I watched the mare that started me on the path to this year’s Hambletonian, Next Level Stuff, give what she always gives… her very best… in the Steele. NLS chased, three of the best horses in her class, Bella Bellini, When Dovescry and Atlanta. I then watched her half-brother, Take All Comers, race against older, more seasoned horses, 2 and 3 wide throughout the race ultimately tiring to finish way back in the Vincennes. It just wasn’t his day either.
When Fashion Schooner won from post 10 in the Hambletonian Oaks I was elated for Jim as I had been sitting right next to him when the draw took place at Dr. Patty Hogan’s state-of-the-art facility. At that time, Jim was obviously less than thrilled with how she had drawn. I felt it only right for me to make my way down to the apron of the winner’s circle to introduce myself to the owner of Fashion Schooner and one of Jim’s longest tenured owners, Fashion Farms’ Jules Siegel. I had never met him before and wanted to not only to introduce myself but also congratulate him on his victory in the Oaks. He was very gracious towards me and it’s something that I’ll always remember. I reminded him that back in October of 2020 we both won a Breeders Crown final with Jim at Harrah’s Hoosier Park. His horse that night, Sandbetweenmytoes, became the horse with the highest odds to ever win a Breeders Crown final.
A final observation from the Oaks: When the van carrying the training connections pulled up to the winner’s circle for the trophy presentation, Jim Campbell did not emerge. As Tim Tetrick was making his way to the winner’s circle, I looked to my right, and I saw Jim about to go by on a jog cart with Cool Papa Bell! I can’t speak for other trainers, but I would guess that some of them would have found another time slot to warm Cool Papa Bell up, on the chance that they had won the Hambletonian Oaks. Not Jim. He was doing what was best for the horse’s chances in the Hambletonian. To me, choices that he makes, like that one, exemplify not the trainer that Jim is, but the person that he is.
Back up to the West Deck and to my now throng of guests who were having drinks, eating and enjoying the beautiful day. The vast majority of them still hadn’t noticed my continually growing nervous excitement. As the horses came onto the track for the 14th race, I finally had to break away from my support group and put my AirPods in. I chose Mozart radio in an attempt to find a mindset where I could escape the pressure that was continually rising as we got closer to the big race. I passed my friend Jenn Bongiorno who had been so helpful to me in obtaining Brian Sears’ services earlier in the year with Cool Papa Bell. Brian was a huge part of the development of the horse but was fully committed to the wonder filly Joviality S in the final. Jenn recognized what I was feeling and just gave me a look like “it’s going to be fine.”
Along the way on this day, I came across so many people with whom I have forged friendships within the business. Hambletonian Day is truly a wonderful venue for playing catch up on a face-to-face basis, very similarly to how things were done back at the old grandstand in 1987 before cell phones allowed us to text.
Thirty-one back-and-forth laps from the West to the East ends of the grandstand saw the 14th race come and go and the horses come onto the track for the 15th race… the Hambletonian. It was time. I made my way down to the fence along the track and snapped a couple of pictures of Cool Papa Bell coming by during the post parade. The reality that it was time for the race was sobering for me. I felt most of the emotions that I had been previously feeling dissipate, replaced by a feeling of “we have nothing to lose.” I looked at the tote board and the 50-1 listed next to number 6 and that helped me adopt a new, somewhat calmer mind-set.
One more time back up to the West Deck where another custom of mine awaited: Watching the race with Paula Campbell. Paula has always been a trusted friend and resource to me. She calms me. Her knowledge of how a race is unfolding is, in my opinion, unparalleled. Two minutes to post and my friends now started making their way towards me to both offer me their best wishes for luck in the race but also to tell me how much they had bet on Cool Papa Bell. Not being a huge fan of people betting on my horses, I thought to myself that these people are crazy to be placing such bets.
The horses began to line up behind the starting gate and I followed one more custom and located my four children and gave them each a hug and kiss for luck. I made my way back to the television monitors where Paula was waiting for me. The wings opened and the 97th Hambletonian was underway. Good start but Joviality S had what I thought was a very soft opening quarter of :28. Seeing where Cool Papa Bell was and that opening quarter initially had me thinking that he might be too far back to pose a serious threat to Joviality S or to Rebuff who was now the new leader past the half and in full view of the old grandstand. Todd McCarthy and Cool Papa Bell were still far back but had started to move up the rail. When Keg Stand went off-stride, Todd moved Cool Papa Bell effortlessly even closer. As the turn began, I heard my brother Brian yell “keep moving up the inside” and before I knew it, my horse had done the exact opposite of what he had done the week before and had advanced to within striking distance of the leaders. At that point I thought to myself that Todd had done a masterful job of getting Cool Papa Bell into a spot that could earn us a check. When Fast As The Wind began to gap, Todd, without hesitation, swung Cool Papa Bell out to a clear path and he began to do what I’ve seen him do many times before and that’s put his head down and trot. He was trotting so hard that he took a bit of a bad step and Todd, amazingly, somehow gathered him and continued forward without losing any momentum. I watched the last 1/8 of a mile in what seemed like a dream as they just kept advancing. I held my breath and as he crossed the wire first, all I heard was Ken Warkentin’s voice excitedly saying, “Cool Papa Bell at 50 to one!”
All I can really recall at this point was that the West Deck is at an angle that sits behind the finish line so my throng of friends that had been watching and rooting, could not tell if Cool Papa Bell had finished second or third. I turned to my right and looked at all of them, looking at me. I fell to my knees and the reality set in, at least for them, that we had won. It was blackout-city time for me. Thank God for cell phones and for people being able to capture the precious moments immediately after the race. The pictures and videos that poured in over the days following the race provided undeniable proof that I had been completely overwhelmed with what had transpired. After a short celebration on the West Deck with them, I ran to find Jenn and threw her up in the air very similarly to how an offensive lineman in the NFL picks up a running back that just rushed for a touchdown. I then somehow started working my way down to the winner’s circle. I saw an ear-to-ear grinning Todd McCarthy making his way back with Jim walking at his side. The next moment I recall in vivid detail. I took it upon myself to rush onto the track and made a direct line to Jim Campbell. I basically tackled him and exclaimed “WE DID IT.”
For almost a decade, my goal in the harness racing business was to stand in the winner’s circle with Jim and John Campbell after winning this race. I have since changed Jim’s profile picture in my phone to reflect this exact moment. Now every time he calls me, I get to see that and be reminded of the wonder and once in a lifetime experience that I was lucky enough to have had that day.
After the trophy presentation, after the hoopla died down and the interviews ended, Jim and I were finally able to share a celebratory beer (or two) on Victory Terrace. Jim was still in his racing colors and didn’t have his wallet. Jim, next time, the first round is on you! The sun was now setting on what had been a perfect day for us. New York City was off in the background, lit up in the pinks and oranges of the setting sun. We took a few last pictures with friends and family and one of the greatest days in my life was in the record books for all eternity. Before we left to begin our private celebrations at our homes with our loved ones, I looked to my left and reflected that this Hambletonian will likely be the last one in front of that old, cherished grandstand. The very same grandstand that introduced me to the very same people and excitement that had helped my father reach the level of success that he had. My dad, very similarly to Jim’s dad, was my idol. My only job in life is to continue to make him proud. I think both of our fathers, Jim’s and mine, were looking down on us and couldn’t have been prouder on this incomparable day.
Scott Farber / Montvale, NJ