Wednesday, 18 January 2017 21:27

Brand new Camaro - or career in harness racing

Written by Curtis Stock
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To get himself a new Camaro all Brandon Campbell had to do was get out of harness racing and stay in school. But even with the car of his dreams at stake, Campbell - only 15-years-old at the time - couldn’t do it. He was already too smitten by the racing game. “The last thing my father wanted was for me to be a horseman like himself,” said Campbell, now 33, recalling the offer his dad, longtime trainer/driver Sanford, made to him.

“He didn’t want me to live that seven days a week lifestyle with all the headaches and pressures that he was doing. “Unfortunately when horse racing is in your blood it’s in your blood to stay. I kept my old truck and passed up on dad’s offer of a Camaro.”

Eighteen years later, through a lot of rough patches and ups and downs, Campbell said he couldn’t be happier with the path he chose. “It was a lifelong dream to be a harness trainer and driver,” said Campbell, easily one of Canada’s most talented young horsemen.

“I struggled through most of my life but it’s all coming together now,” said Campbell, who proved just how good he is when he won the Canadian National Driving Championship last fall and will now represent Canada - the first western Canadian horseman to do so - in the this year’s World Driving Championship which will be hosted by Standardbred Canada at harness tracks across the nation in August. “The ups are finally paying for all the downs,” said Campbell, who, after winning three more races this past Saturday, is leading the driver standings at Northlands this winter meet with a remarkable 21 wins from 58 starts for an exemplary winning percentage of 36.2.

“If you aren’t first you are last. When I sit in the bike all I’m thinking about is winning. I’ve made a lot of hero or zero moves in my lifetime. Sometimes you just have a split second to make a decision. If you pull it off you’re a hero. If you don’t you’re a zero,” said Campbell, who also has seven seconds and seven thirds this winter at Northlands which gives him an in-the-top-three percentage of a ridiculous 60.3 per cent.

Last year - his best ever - Campbell won 129 of his 695 starts while also adding 98 seconds and 91 thirds for a Universal Driver Rating (UDR) of .307. In his career Campbell has 1,304 wins and is just a few dollars short of going over the $8-million mark in purse money won by the horses he has driven. “It’s not an easy life. Some guys do really well and the rest of us just fill out the card. I wouldn’t want my daughter to do it,” Campbell said of his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Presley.

“It’s a very stressful job. The toughest aspect is mental. There were a lot of times when I didn’t know when the next pay check was coming or who it was coming from. “The rent would be coming up and I didn’t know how I was going to get the money to pay for it. “Bills would come up. You’d somehow pay those bills and then more bills would arrive,” said Campbell, who is also second - just one win behind Kelly Hoerdt - in the training standings.

“The vet work and prices are crazy; it’s insane really. Just to compete is very expensive. “That said I’m extremely happy with what I’m doing.”

But then why wouldn’t he be? As well as sitting atop the win column at Northlands, Campbell is also second - just one win behind Kelly Hoerdt - in the training standings sending out 15 winners from his own barn from 39 starters for an off-the-charts 38.46 win percentage.

However, as he alluded, it certainly wasn’t always that way. “I spent a lot of years starving to death. “After working for about 11 years with my dad I went out my own when I was 25. I took 11 horses - all cheap ones - to Grande Prairie and fell flat on my butt. Every one of them got dirty sick. The back legs on everyone of them blew up the size of your head. It was brutal.

“I kept a few of them and started all over again.” Fortunately, even when he was working for his dad, Campbell always managed to come up with one or two cheap claimers that would pay the bills. “Those one or two horses would kick butt and keep us afloat paying for all the other horses I had.” One of those cheapies was Dance Me Loose, a mare he bought for just $500 who went out and won 13 races and $38,000.

Besides, Campbell was so good that he always made money catch driving. “Everything I made I invested all back into the game.”

Winning the Canadian Driving title at The Raceway in London, Ontario last October was huge. “It was very important to me. It’s always been a dream of mine; it was something that had always been on my radar,” said Campbell, who had qualified for the National Championships twice before - finishing third in the 2014 Finals at Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. “Somehow I pulled it off and it was literally something I can now kick off my bucket list.”

Campbell won the title with four seconds in his first four drives and then a photo-finish win with Wacky Rei over Ontario-based James MacDonald in the seventh leg. Still it all came down to the eighth and final race. And it didn’t look good when Campbell’s draw ran off the gate. Making it even more precarious for Campbell was that MacDonald, who needed a first or a second, had drawn the favourite.

“I was pretty much in tears,” recalled Campbell, who got to the Finals after qualifying first at the Century Downs regional last June at Balzac’s Century Downs. “I thought it was all over. “I was out of it and James was getting the perfect second-over trip. But when James went to make his move his horse didn’t go anywhere. That’s when I started cheering for everyone else.” In the end MacDonald would end up sixth - failing to pick up any points - and the title went to Campbell by six points over MacDonald. 

“I was pretty impressed with myself,” said Campbell, who has punched a UDR of over .300 the last two years. “Finishing in the top two with five of my eight drives was pretty good.” Now, this fall comes the World Championship. “I think I’ve got a fantastic shot. I’ve got a great feeling about it. I’ve driven at all the tracks - Century Downs, Georgian Downs (Innisfil, Ontario), Mohawk, Trois Rivieres (the Hippodrome) and at Charlottetown - where the World Finals will take place.

“And I’ve driven against all the guys who will be in The Finals. They’re no different than anybody else. They’re all just people,” said Campbell, who oozes confidence. Confidence is something Campbell has never lacked and he’s used it to make him a top echelon horseman. “If you don’t believe in yourself you may as well just pack it in.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence in my ability and in my staff especially now that Nathan Sobey is coming to work for me,” Campbell said of his fellow Northlands-based driver who will join a seven-person crew that also includes his most valuable asset, his wife, Jodi Loftus. “Horses feel what you feel. If you don’t believe in them then the horses aren’t going to believe in themselves either. “If you feel nervous then the horses are going to feel nervous too and they aren’t going to participate. But if you feel confident then the horses are going to feel that as well.

“I’ve always been a believer in that. If you are having a bad day then the horses you drive will feel that way too. But if you go in feeling great then horses will act like different animals. “You’ve got to play mind games with the horses you drive.”

While Campbell has mostly driven and trained in Alberta and B.C. he also spent a year and a half driving in Ontario when he went to work for Joe Stutzman. “I won a lot of races at Mohawk and Woodbine and at a lot of B tracks. I won some stakes but the reason I left was because I didn’t like the lifestyle. Everybody is in such a hurry out there and I’m more of a laid-back kind of guy. “If I wanted to just be a catch driver I could have made it a go out there. But I also wanted to be a trainer.

“Anyway, Alberta has always been home to me and I wanted to have a family too,” said Campbell, who resides in Calgary. Campbell, who just two weeks ago was also invited to compete in the North American Drivers Challenge at Miami Valley Raceway at Dayton Valley, Ohio where he won two races but otherwise drew unfavourably and failed to make the 10-man final, has also made several forays to B.C.’s Fraser Downs, where in 2015 he was the leading dash driver.

“I was doing a lot of flying back and forth to Fraser Downs. Sometimes as often as three or four times a week. “But I’ve got too many horses here in Alberta to keep doing that,” who has 27 head of racing stock as well as six broodmares. “I think this will be the last winter that I have horses based in B.C. and Alberta. I don’t plan on running a stable in both places. I’ll just race in Alberta. “We’ll still play the stakes game back and forth. You’ve got to keep your eyes open if there is money to be made. But that will be it.”

At the moment he has six horses based in Alberta and three in B.C. - the latter being trained by Mike Short. “I don’t have a lot of horses that are racing right now but the ones that are racing are racing fantastic. “I can’t complain even a little bit.”

One of the horses Campbell has in B.C. is Sterling Cooper for owner Jeffrey Elchuk. Now nine-years-old, Sterling Cooper holds Fraser Downs track record with a mile in 1:50 2/5. This past weekend Sterling Cooper won the Open at Fraser Downs for his 45th career victory while boosting his lifetime bankroll to $293,923.

“They chased him out of Alberta; nobody would race against him. “In my opinion Sterling Cooper is the best horse in Western Canada. When he’s right he’s the fastest horse around; nobody can touch him.” Sterling Cooper is far from the only top horse that Campbell campaigns.

“Ive got a really good group of owners right now and a lot of nice stock,” he said of a barn that also includes the likes of Ima Dude, who destroyed Fraser Downs track record for two-year-old pacing colts and geldings winning the $100,000 Robert Millbank Memorial Breeders Stakes final wire-to-wire by nearly seven lengths in 1:53 4/5 in his last start last November. Then there is another top three-year-old, Amysterytome, as well as the top quality three-year-old filly Pickles On Top owned by Don Byrne.

“I’m really looking for big things for Pickles On Top,” said Campbell. “There’s a lot of high speed to her. She came from way behind to finish second in the Super Final at Century Downs.” Moreover, Campbell has 11 promising two-years-olds - most of them owned by longtime owner Byrne, who, along with Campbell, is planning on setting up a training stable just east of Calgary. “We’re aiming at the stakes game with them,” said Campbell. “There’s a lot of talent there.”

Taught by his father as well as horsemen like Rod Hennessy, Jean Francois Gagne and Jamie Gray, Campbell said he still learns something every day. “Guys that think they know it all might as well pack their bags and go home.

“It’s not the same ball game that it used to be 12 years ago. Harness horses today are more like thoroughbreds. The term I like to use is ‘glassy.’ They aren’t as tough as they used to be. In the past you used to be able to push them through lameness. But that’s no longer the case. They go so fast now that they don’t hold up the way they used to. Unless you give horses the proper time to heal you are just banging your head against the wall.

“Before, you had a good horse if it could pace in 1:57. Now you have bottom $4,000 claimers that can pace in 1:54 sometimes. “We’re all a lot more knowledgeable than we used to be.” While Campbell has been the leading driver at several meets in Alberta and British Columbia he has implausibly somehow never received a year-end Driver of the Year award.

“I’m probably the most nominated horseman that has never won one of them. “Maybe this year will be the ticket. “I’ve got a lot of good horses and a lot of great owners. It makes it so much easier when you have good stock. I’m really positive about this year. Cross my fingers and knock on wood. “I just hope it continues this way and we get the summer we hope we are going to have.”

And as far as the Camaro goes? “I’m still glad I turned it down. Right now I’m sitting at a point that is like, wow, a dream come true.”

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Read 1541 times Last modified on Wednesday, 18 January 2017 21:39