John Campbell reveals his super power

This and other probing questions in our jumbo-sized Q & A of the harness racing legend.

by Dave Briggs

For many years, back in my days at The Canadian Sportsman, we ran a light Q & A feature called Post Parade where we asked industry luminaries a series of horse racing and general life questions.

Hall of Famer John Campbell was featured in Post Parade in 2005. A few days ago, Campbell agreed to another round of Post Parade-style questions. Afterward, I looked back at the initial Q & A to see what, if anything, had changed over nearly 20 years. Naturally, Campbell was remarkably consistent.

But one question and answer stuck out from 2005 considering the mission Campbell has been on in his current role as CEO of the Hambletonian Society:

If you were the commissioner of all of harness racing, what would be the first thing you would do?

“Universalize our rules on racing, medication, everything. We should have universal rules, especially between Canada and the United States. The whipping rule is one of the biggest things and the pylon rule. To me, it is ludicrous when a guy is sitting in a simulcast parlour and the two biggest simulcasting outlets, Woodbine and The Meadowlands, have different rules on whipping and pylons violations.”

Before we pick out a few more gems from that old Q & A, here’s the most recent one:

What one horse do you wish you had driven that you never did?

“Somebeachsomewhere. He was just an amazing horse.”

What sticks with you the most from the glory days of The Meadowlands, beyond the great purses?

Just how the management side of it was set up and how everything ran so smoothly. And how everybody, from top to bottom, whether it was management or horsemen, had to be accountable for what they did. I really think that played into a lot of success at The Meadowlands at that time. You had Bob Quigley, who was the general manager and he was so visible. He was on the backside four or five times a week. You had Joe DeFrank and he was completely in charge of the racing side of it. He had his finger on everything that was going on in the backstretch and in the paddock and putting the races together. That’s one thing that stands out to me.

“If you weren’t rowing in that direction, it didn’t take long until you were. Again, that went for horsemen and staff, too. There were very few times when there was dissention, but when there was, it was addressed quickly.

“It was the big leagues, there was no question about that. ‘This is the way we do things here’ was expected from everyone on both sides of the aisle.

“[I also remember] the first time I came up to the front paddock in 1978, I couldn’t believe the noise. Just that whole drum sound [of the crowd], a buzzing sound, almost. I couldn’t believe how loud it was. You got used to it quickly, but the first time when I hit the top of those stairs, I couldn’t believe how loud the people around that front paddock were.

“Also, just how popular The Meadowlands was during that period when you were out, away from the track in Bergen County. Everybody in Bergen County was aware of The Meadowlands at that time and would go, not regularly, but periodically. People away from the track were so aware of The Meadowlands and that’s not the case anymore in Bergen County.

My oldest daughter, Lisa, when she started high school, pretty much everybody knew who I was. [My youngest daughter] Brittany is 11 years younger and when she started high school very few people knew who I was.

Beyond your own (white and maroon), who has the best racing colors?

“I’ve got to go back to when I was a kid. I always liked Ronnie Feagan’s colors. I was a big fan of Ronnie Feagan growing up. He was older than me and our families were friends and I just thought his colors were cool…They were red and white and he had stars across the back.”

If you could go back in time and see any horse race in history, where would you go and why did you pick that one?

“I’ve always been fascinated with Dan Patch. A horse going :55 at the turn of the century? If you could just go back knowing now what our horses look like and how they travel and then take a look at him and just his conformation, his gait and everything to see how it compared and how he could go in :55 back then… I don’t care if he followed a windscreen or not, he still paced that, or close to it, and no one else was doing it. I think just comparing how he travelled and his conformation would be really interesting.”

Beyond full crowds and the sport being popular, is there something else that was better about the sport in the past?

“Yes. The judging was stricter.”

Name one thing today that’s better than the past?

“No hub rails, for one thing. Also, the horses are a totally different, more athletic, better gaited, more gifted than ever. That’s changed so much since I was a kid.”

What is the most challenging track you’ve ever driven on?

“Well, I do have a funny story about the first time I raced at Woodbine when they put the 7/8th mile track inside the [thoroughbred] track there. The first turn at Woodbine took a little bit of getting used to and the first race I drove there, I forget who I was driving, but I let somebody go and went to come back right in the point of that turn and I just moved them over and they just about went on their head, just because that turn was so sharp. I knew I couldn’t do that again. So, that was one of the things I learned about Woodbine quite quickly was that first turn. If you were taking out, you better do it gradually because I just did it like I would do it at The Meadowlands and they totally lost their gait.”

What is the most difficult/challenging horse you’ve ever driven?

“Queens Over, but only because she kicked. She was the worse kicker I’ve ever driven. I raced her a little in the fall of her 3-year-old year and she would kick and then she got a break and she came back in the Overbid Series at The Meadowlands. In the post parade, I couldn’t get her to stop kicking. She kicked and kicked. They had a bar up and she hit that and loosened it right up off the bolts. Joe Holloway and David Rovine had her. I said to myself, ‘If I ever get off, I’m never getting back on.’ So, I raced her and she won a leg of the Overbid and I thought to myself going back to the paddock from the winner’s circle, ‘How do I tell these guys — I’m driving 30 horses for them — that I’m not going to drive the best mare on the grounds right now?’ So, I ended up driving her more. I kept that to myself.”

Did you ever splurge on anything crazy after winning a major race?

No, I really haven’t.”

What is your perfect day?

“Get up in the morning, have my coffee and read. Have breakfast with [my wife] Paula. Get a quick workout in. Go to the golf course and play. Then meet my family for dinner after playing golf.”

Beside family, who was your hero growing up.

“Ronnie Feagan.”

Who is the greatest hockey player of all time and why?

“Wayne Gretzky, because of everything he was able to accomplish. Scoring goals is the way you win games and nobody did it better.

Greatest golfer of all time?

“The guy with the most majors – Jack Nicklaus. I’ve marvelled at what Tiger [Woods] has done and I think Tiger did what he did against a deeper pool of more talented golfers than Jack did, but Jack’s got the most majors.”

What’s the best lesson your three daughters ever taught you?

That is a good question… Just a funny story and it’s actually a lesson. I had my oldest two daughters — this was before Brittany was born — at a hockey game. My middle daughter Michelle, she would be maybe 7 or 8, and Lisa was 2 years older. We were watching the game. Lisa really liked hockey and watched it. Michelle was looking around and she just said to me, ‘You know what, dad, I don’t think I’m going to come to another hockey game ever.’ Usually when kids do that they’ll fuss or cry and want to go home, but she didn’t do any of that. She never fussed, never cried, never even said anything until the end of the game. She’s never gone to another hockey game. What I learned from her is… She was there, but she wasn’t going to bug me or cry. She just sat there and couldn’t have acted any better. But, she never went to another game.”

In honor of Mother’s Day, what’s the best lesson your mother taught you?

“It was just, ‘Don’t be shooting your mouth off when things go well.’ That was one thing that she instilled in us.”

Is there a song that reminds you of high school or that period of time?

“Rod Stewart’s Maggie May.”

If you could pick one superpower, what would it be and why?

Ooh, wow. That’s tricky, just one?”

You can’t be greedy, it’s a superpower.

I guess I would want x-ray vision because I’ve always had bad eyes. My parents and I didn’t know my eyes were that bad until I went to school and then they found out I couldn’t see.”

What movie have you watched the most times in your life?

“I like Godfather 1 or 2. I can watch those a lot. Absence of Malice was one of my favorite movies. It’s a Paul Newman movie.”

You get the opportunity to have dinner with any person alive or from history. Who do you pick and what do you want to ask them?

“I’d like to have dinner with Gretzky or Tiger Woods… that would be a great dinner. [I’d ask them] how they approach their sports, how they approach their competition, what their thought processes were in terms of their competition.

What is your favorite swear word?

“I won’t go with a favorite one, but I’ve got a little bit of a potty mouth, there’s no question about that. I’ve got twin granddaughters that are 7 and every once in a while I’ll slip and they’ll say, ‘Pop-Pop. Language.’”

Do you have a pet peeve?

“I hate it if I’m late for something… It came from both of my parents. If you said you were going to be somewhere, you better be there.”

What confuses you?

“One of the things right now is the political situation here in the United States — our choices for President. I just can’t wrap my head around it.”

Favorite place in the world?

“I think it would have to be Kapalua in Hawaii… Paula and I went for a week once. That’s about as nice a place as I’ve ever been in my life.”

What is one place that you’d like to visit that you’ve never been to?

“Augusta National. I’ve never been able to get that one done… It’s the hardest [course to get on] in the country. The second hardest is Cypress Point and I did get to play there.”

Here are a few more gems from that 2005 Q & A:

What expression did your mom always say to you that you swore you would never say to your kids — but you ended up saying it to your kids anyway?

“Nothing really that nags in your mind. I think something both my mom and dad did say to us when we were kids when my sister and I would fight was, ‘One day you’ll look back and you’ll be best friends and you’ll never even think of fighting with your sister again.’ That is something I would say to my daughters when they would argue and they thought it was totally ridiculous at the time. The three generations of us laugh about it now.”

What’s your best “brush with a celebrity” story?

“I play a lot of golf with [former NFL player and NBA broadcaster] Ahmad Rashad, who’s a really good friend of mine. I played with him and Michael Jordan one day. We were playing a par 3 over water. I hit my first shot in the water. I put my next shot in the hole. I was bitter about putting my first one in the water. I was kind of excited about going in the hole. Ahmad couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘It’s in the hole.’ Jordan hardly batted an eye, looked up and said, ‘Nice par.’ Ahmad and I still laugh about that. It didn’t faze him one iota.”

What skill or trait do people underestimate most about what makes a great driver?

“Lack of fear.”


In our last column with Campbell, he mentioned he was heading to the Kentucky Derby for the first time. He went with his nephew, Woodbine’s vice president of standardbred racing Bill McLinchey.

“It was great. Bill and I had a great time, we just really enjoyed it so much. It’s really something to see. It’s a sports spectacle. To sum it up briefly, it was just an amazing experience.”

He said he and McLinchey took notes.

“Big events is something we are both involved in and we kind of compared notes after each day, but there are some things that just don’t apply to us because the scale is so large and they are dealing with just massive numbers of people and massive numbers of dollars,” Campbell said. “We just can’t do that – it’s just not feasible for us, but we came out of there with some things that we are going to bring back to our teams and discuss.

“We actually had a Meadowlands-Breeders Crown meeting this past week and, yeah, I brought some of the things up that we’d like to incorporate or at least discuss it.

“One thing, we want to get the drivers for the Hambletonian presented to the public in front of the grandstand in the winner’s circle.

“The jocks… when they come out of the jock’s room, they have to walk right by this new paddock expansion [at Churchill Downs]. The crowd just loved it. They were lined up in post-position order and walked out. The big cheer came up when they went out and people really liked that. I think we need to get our horses and drivers closer to the people. Obviously, we don’t have a front paddock at The Meadowlands, so we can’t get them any closer with the horses, but we’d like to get the drivers presented some time prior to Hambletonian in front of the grandstand. They do that at the Elitlopp.

Campbell said he was also impressed that there were free programs and free food in many areas at the Derby.

“It’s a high quality, free program and they are just sitting on a table and you just walk by and grab one. Again, that goes back to the massive amounts of dollars that we’re talking about. So, they can do that. Even the alcohol and food is free in almost every area. You just walk by and they are giving away beers. You’ve got to tip, but other than that, that was something that I found remarkable as

That was throughout the whole grandstand. Now, there are difference foods that you have to buy, but there were certainly plenty of food and snacks included with the ticket price for everybody.”