Reflections on the Ontario Sires Stakes program on its 50th anniversary

by Dave Briggs

John Campbell jokes that it is a little scary that he can remember 50 years ago, but he was, indeed, racing horses in his home province of Ontario at the dawn of the Ontario Sires Stakes program in 1974. Asked to reflect on the impact of the OSS in conjunction with its 50th anniversary, Campbell said the program has been a game-changer.

“It’s incredible,” Campbell said. “I was in Ontario when it started and it was a big boon to Ontario-breds at the time. We thought the money was great and when you look at what it’s turned into in 50 years, it’s just incomprehensible. The horses that come out of the Ontario Sires Stakes now compared to when it started, it’s incredible the quality. They are just world class, free-for-all pacers that come out of the Ontario Sires Stakes program now.

“The driving force in the evolution of the Ontario breds… was the Sires Stakes, no doubt about it.”

As for having vivid memories from five decades ago, Campbell said he remembers a conversation with fellow horseman Ronnie Feagan in the first or second year of the OSS.

“He had a colt that he was racing with his grandfather, George. He was a nice colt in the Sires Stakes, but he was just racing against other Ontario Sires Stakes colts. We were talking and he said, ‘You know, I told my grandfather, if this colt gets out of the Sires Stakes, he’s about a 15-claimer.’ His grandfather couldn’t believe that he said that and didn’t want to hear it, but Ronnie was absolutely right. But that was the beginning of it and he’d be a top-five Ontario-sired colt then. The top-five colts that come out of the Ontario Sires now, well, they are a long way from being 15-claimers.”

Think legends such as: Somebeachsomewhere, Bulldog Hanover, San Pail, Tall Dark Stranger, Bee A Magician, Goodtimes, Apaches Fame, Elegantimage, Peaceful Way, Pure Ivory, Billyjojimbob and many, many more.

“It’s just amazing the quality of horse that are racing in [the OSS] now, just how it evolved through the ages,” Campbell said.

The Campbell family’s beloved pacer Derbys Gent raced in the Grassroots part of the OSS program in the early days and Campbell said he won every start in Ontario that year.

“My dad actually had a 3-year-old colt race in maybe the second or third year,” Campbell said. “He didn’t do that well, but he was getting checks and he was going for money that he likely wouldn’t have been going for — maybe even two and three times as much at the time.

“After I left [Ontario to race in New Jersey], dad had a stable and he raced through the Sires Stakes for a period of time until he quit driving as well. It was a big deal at the time and when you see what it’s become, certainly the visionaries of it are to be commended for what they started.”

Campbell added that the OSS has also been a farm system for young trainers and drivers “not only to learn, but to be able to make a living while they learn. That’s key.”

Fifty years on, despite the rise of many other jurisdictional sires stakes programs, Campbell said the OSS still holds its own.

“It’s still a good program,” he said. “The breeding program is doing quite well, I would say. It’s an attractive program, no matter if you live in the States or in Canada. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”


Campbell said he will make his first trip to see the Kentucky Derby next weekend.

When he retired from driving in 2017, he was gifted the trip by a group of tracks in Ontario.

Due to his busy schedule as CEO of the Hambletonian Society and some years impacted by the pandemic, Campbell never found the time to go to the Derby until now.

“I’m going this year and really looking forward to it,” he said. “It was one of those things that I said I’d like to do and I’m really excited about it.”

He said he plans to take in the 150th Derby both as a horse racing fan and to take some notes to see what might be applied to harness racing.

“I’m going to go Friday and it won’t be quite as crowded,” he said. “I will be able to walk around and take a look at things and just see how the set up works. I’ve made a number of contacts in the thoroughbred world and I know I’ll run into some people I know. I will pick their brains a little bit, then just enjoy Saturday.

“I’m set up to go and I’m just hoping for decent weather.”