John “Merlin” Campbell

Hall of Fame Inductee, 1987
Standardbred Drivers & Trainers

By all measures, John Campbell is one of the greatest harness drivers in history -if not the greatest. Little wonder he earned induction into the Canadian Racing Hall of Fame at the age of 32 and three years later, in 1990, became the youngest person inducted into the U.S. Harness Racing Hall of Fame at Goshen, N.Y. One of the game’s best tacticians, Campbell has a particular talent for excelling when the big money is on the line.

Campbell won better than $303 million during his 40 plus years in the sulky,  In 1991, he became the first driver to reach $100 million in career earnings. Ten years later, he became the first reinsman to hit the $200 million mark. Just where does Campbell rank in the greater horse racing industry? When the great jockey Jerry Bailey retired in 2006, Campbell became the richest active driver or jockey in the world.

Along with a pile of money came a stack of stakes victories. In fact, the number of stakes races Campbell has won, somewhere around 600, is difficult to count. But consider the premier stakes races of our time and Campbell has 78 wins to his credit. That’s not counting his 42 Breeders Crown victories. But it is counting his six wins in the Hambletonian, seven in The Meadowlands Pace, six in the North America Cup (all records), three in the Little Brown Jug, a record eight wins in both the Adios and the Messenger, his 31 victories in Triple Crown races alone and one each in the Elitlopp and International Trot. In the wins department, Campbell has 11,058 to his credit.

No story about Campbell would be complete without mentioning some of the champion Horses of the Year in the U.S., or major event winners – Mack Lobell, Real Desire, Glidemaster, Cams Card Shark, Artsplace, Merger, Art Major, Ball and Chain, Gothic Dream, Shes A Great Lady, Armbro Goal and Muscles Yankee.

And yet, he remains one of the sport’s most humble, professional and accessible stars; a true ambassador. On the occasion of surpassing $250 million in career earnings -by winning the Breeders Crown at his home track, The Meadowlands, with a filly named Snow White -Campbell repeated what he’s often said, that his success is more about great horses and good timing than anything he added to the equation. “I came along at the right time as far as catch-drivers and the money explosion. There will be somebody go by ($250 million) in the years to come. You can be sure of that.”

Born in London, Ont., in 1955, Campbell grew up on his family’s farm in the tiny rural area of Nairn, (near Ailsa Craig northwest of London). At age 17, he recorded his first driving victory at London’s Western Raceway, June 2, 1972. His first harness racing lessons came on the knee of his grandfather, Duncan Campbell, a legendary horseman in his own right who was enshrined in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1983. In the mid-1970s John moved on to Windsor Raceway, where he trained a stable and drove regularly until January of 1978 when he moved to The Meadowlands and has been in New Jersey ever since. “My timing was impeccable. The Meadowlands started all the megabuck stakes and it certainly changed my priority -work less and make more,” said Campbell to Dave Briggs of The Canadian Sportsman in 1999. Campbell would tell you he was leading a charmed life working in a business he loved. He credited almost all of what he has accomplished in harness racing to his father, Jack, and grandfather, Dunc, both excellent horsemen in their own right. Jack was a life-long horseman, as is John’s younger brother, Jim, who is a successful standardbred trainer in New Jersey. Among the numerous awards and honours he has received, John Campbell was awarded a Meritorious Service Medal in 2000 for his commitment to the sport of harness racing by the Governor General of Canada, the Right Hon. Adrienne Clarkson.

Campbell officially retired from racing in 2017, fittingly driving his last race at Clinton Raceway,not far from where he grew up.  He subsequently took on the position of President and CEO of the Hambletonian Society.