John Campbell, who last year wrapped nearly four decades of dominance as the winningest driver in harness racing history, is known for his willingness to give a direct answer to a direct question.
But when it comes to what impact the arrival of sports betting at the Meadowlands Racetrack will have on the standardbred industry as a whole in New Jersey — and Saturday’s Hambletonian Day in particular — Campbell was hard-pressed to respond.
“I don’t know how it will all shake out,” Campbell, now the president of The Hambletonian Society, told NJ Online Gambling on Thursday. “I hope it gets enough new people in the building. It is an opportunity, so I guess you could say I am cautiously optimistic.”
There is reason for caution — it’s not clear if those new, often younger sports bettors who come to the Meadowlands will try their luck at a horse race too. (It’s an especially questionable proposition because legal online sports betting is already starting to go live across the state, making a track visit optional.)
There’s another wrinkle, too: If a Meadowlands regular who bets $150 every racing weekend at the track decides that now he’ll put only $100 on the ponies and use the other $50 to bet at the FanDuel Sportsbook, that’s $50 less that goes to the racing handle.
FanDuel offering Hambo props
Meanwhile, FanDuel is rolling out some Hambletonian-related prop bets, such as the winning time (Monmouth Park offered this for the Haskell on Sunday), a longshot play asking whether the race will be won via disqualification like it was last year, and a parlay that ropes in the Yankees-Red Sox game on Saturday (see the rest of the list at the bottom).
New Jersey thoroughbred horsemen say there have been tangible signs this summer that the expectations of bigger purses and better fields at Monmouth Park next year will lead to an uptick in breeding in the state. But Campbell acknowledges that it is less clear if purses will improve much for standardbred owners, so his industry hasn’t yet signaled that same “buzz.”
Still, Campbell looks for silver linings where he can find them. One is that a former neighbor of his — a millennial — recently contacted him to ask about sports betting. In the course of the discussion, the younger man said he thought an app could be developed that would resonate with newer potential fans more than traditional in-person “Betting 101” classes.
The recent Meadowlands Pace Night produced the biggest single-card handle in harness racing so far in 2018, at $4.1 million. Last year’s Hambletonian total handle was $7.3 million, up 4.5 percent from a year earlier.
She’s a lady …
Campbell hopes to see that overall handle inch up again, boosted in part by the presence of Atlanta, who seeks to become the first filly to win the Hambletonian since Continentalvictory in 1996.
“The interest goes up for sure when there’s a filly in the mix,” said Campbell.
He who added that another twist already has been paying off. “Futures” betting on the Hambletonian took place on select dates in June and again in July, even though the draw wasn’t out until earlier this week. A third futures opportunity ran from this Wednesday until Friday. Campbell said he was encouraged by the interest shown in the first two futures stages.
Campbell said that for harness racing to hold steady or even grow, the big events like the Hambletonian will lead the charge. But he also said that the fields aren’t always appetizing for bettors.
“We need to group horses together better so that you don’t have so many overwhelming favorites, which cuts into betting opportunities,” Campbell said. “This year’s Hambletonian has 16 races with big fields. That can vary a bit from year to year, but this year it just all came together.”
That includes 18 entries for the day’s biggest race, leading to two earlier heats on Saturday to winnow the final field down to 10 horses.
A change of career
Campbell said that the shift from driver to Society president was a bit different than he expected.
“When you’re driving, you come up with a plan for a race and then try to execute it,” Campbell said. “From start of the plan to end of the race is maybe 15 minutes. Now, ideas begin to develop, but it takes a long time to implement things. Plus new stuff is constantly coming along.”
The Hambletonian Society manages more than 130 harness racing events at 14 tracks in North America, and has ownership of more than 40 of them.
Campbell, 63, was asked if he misses racing, given his nearly $300 million in purse winnings and status as the No. 1 or No. 2 driver at the Meadowlands in all but one year between 1979 and 2002.
“Oh, I miss it quite a bit when the weather is good,” Campbell quipped. “But when it’s cold or rainy — not at all.”
The rest of the FanDuel props
The odds on some of the props are still being formulated (note that the FanDuel Sportsbook opens at 10 a.m. Saturday, not the usual 9 a.m., while the first race goes off at noon), but here are some bets that will be available:
- the margin of victory
- whether the winning time will break the race record
- whether the winner will have been trained by legendary trainer Jimmy Trakter
- a head-to-head bet: Six Pack vs. Atlanta
- whether the winner of either of the two elimination heats will also win the final
- a parlay of picking winners of those two heats, the Hambletonian Oaks race, and the Yankees-Red Sox game
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