Hambletonian Boss John Campbell Happy Not To Be Facing Haskell-Like Heat

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The weather forecast for Saturday’s race card at the Meadowlands Racetrack calls for a high of 86 degrees in East Rutherford, and retired harness racing legend John Campbell, the president of The Hambletonian Society, couldn’t be happier.

Campbell, speaking to NJ Online Gambling at the Meadowlands Racetrack following Tuesday’s Hambletonian Media Day on Tuesday, said he empathized greatly with Monmouth Park operator Dennis Drazin’s plight on July 20.

With a Heat Index of over 100 thanks to a mix of high heat and high humidity, and with an anxious Gov. Phil Murphy calling and animal rights activists protesting, Drazin elected to cancel six races on Haskell Day and postpone the six stakes races until 6 p.m. and later.

“I’ve said to numerous people, ‘I’m so glad I’m not Dennis Drazin and having to make a difficult call like that,'” Campbell said. “So much of how the whole Monmouth meet goes is predicated on how the Haskell goes, so he was in a really bad spot. I feel for him, to tell you the truth, because I don’t know what I would have done in that situation — and I hope I never get put in that situation.”

A horse is a horse

Campbell, who retired in 2017 as harness racing’s winningest driver with purse winnings of almost $300 million, captured The Hambletonian’s featured race in 1987, 1988, 1990, 1995, 1998, and 2006. He said that he well understands that while the national controversy about horse racing stems from the death of at least 30 thoroughbred horses at Santa Anita Park in the past year, activists would not likely make a distinction between those horses and the standardbreds that race at the Meadowlands.

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As far as heat goes, Campbell said the issues are similar.

“Our horses have different bone structures, and they are a little heavier,” Campbell said. “But heat was something where we’ve never given much thought. Racing is under so much scrutiny now, though, that we’d better pay attention to that — more so than we have in the past. And we certainly will.

“The crisis at Santa Anita affects all of us, and I think there will be some changes come up that help racing,” Campbell added. “I think we have become more aware [of heat issues], and I think that’s a good thing. The general public has made their feelings known.”

Benefits of betting

Campbell said that sports betting in New Jersey — whether online or at casinos and at racetracks such as the Meadowlands Racetrack’s FanDuel Sportsbook — has been a positive for horse racing.

“First off, we’re getting a cut of that revenue, and that has helped a lot,” said Campbell, who said that combined with an additional $6 million purse subsidy from a new state appropriation, the sport is surging.

“The racing has been phenomenal, and bettors have responded. We’re up 25% overall and 13% in this building on live handle,” Campbell added. “That tells me that there are people on the sports betting side who are walking over and taking a look at the races. Why else would it be up so much? More guys are walking our way instead of walking away from us.”

Campbell on life after racing

Campbell spent four decades as a workhorse driver, and he said the transition to an executive role has been “interesting.”

“You obviously wind up with a different perspective,” Campbell said. “I’m always trying to make changes and adjustments, and that moves slowly at times — which I find frustrating. But I’m learning that that’s just the way it is.”

As far as the driving goes, Campbell said, “I miss it less and less. I like to say I miss it when the weather is good, but it only takes a few drops of rain before I think, I don’t miss it at all.”

The all-day Hambletonian card on Saturday will offer purses of nearly $4 million, including the $1.2 million Hambletonian feature race at post time of 5:14 p.m. on CBS Sports Network, as part of its 90-minute program.

With 16 horses entered, there will be two eight-horse heats with the top five in each competing in the final.

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John Brennan

John Brennan has covered NJ and NY sports business and gaming since 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2008, while reporting for The Bergen County Record.

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