Dreamers, longshot players and underdog fans rejoice. This is your year in horse racing.
Exactly three months to the day after Rich Strike won the Kentucky Derby at 80-1, horse racing produced another improbable victory in one of its greatest events. And an Ontario native, with a knack for producing incredible upsets, was key in helping orchestrate the latest. It all produced a monster score for Ontario sports bettors.
If one believed the tote board, Cool Papa Bell had no business winning Saturday’s $1 million Hambletonian (all figures USD) at the Meadowlands Racetrack in New Jersey. In fact, his stirring triumph at 52-1 odds stands as the biggest statistical upset in the 97-year history of harness racing’s greatest event in a year of great Canadian victories.
For Cool Papa Bell’s trainer Jim Campbell — originally from Ailsa Craig, ON but a long-time resident of New Jersey — it was the capper of the day of days, a single, improbable afternoon when the fates smiled upon him like never before.
Campbell not only won the Hambletonian, he also triumphed in the $500,000 Hambletonian Oaks with Fashion Schooner — from the outside post 10, no less — after also winning the $33,500 Continentalvictory with Misswalner Fashion, also from the 10-hole.
“I’ve never had a day like today. To win the Hambletonian and the Oaks in the same day, you can’t top that in this business,” Campbell said. “It’s just unbelievable and something that I never thought I could do. I just feel very blessed that it happened to me today.”
Campbell just the third to win both stakes the same day
He is just the third trainer to win the Hambletonian and the Hambletonian Oaks on the same day, joining Jan Johnson (1988) and Jimmy Takter (2014 and 2015). That Campbell won the two big ones for horse owners he’s had with him for 35 years and 28 years, respectively, made the day even sweeter. Campbell has trained for Cool Papa Bell’s owners, the Farber family, since 1987 and Fashion Schooner’s owner Jules Siegel since 1994.
“Scott (Farber) has been a very loyal owner to me,” Campbell said. “We had some years where I produced nothing for him and he never lost faith in me as his trainer. He remembers me training horses for his dad and he just kept saying, ‘You’re my man and I’m going to keep sticking with you.'”
It makes the story more than one for the underdog. It’s also one of longevity and perseverance and the magic that sometimes can happen when one ignores the odds. Campbell long ago developed a skeptical eye regarding the tote board.
“I see it, but I never pay attention to it,” he said. “By the same token, if I’ve got one that’s 1-5 I always think that there are nine other horses that want to beat my horse. So me, personally, I never feel relaxed or confident going into a race, no matter who I have to a certain point, just because I know that in horse racing anything can happen and this is a perfect example that anything can happen in a horse race.”
He should know.
Ontario sports bettors take note of Campbell’s 203-1 Breeders Crown victory
On Halloween night in 2020 at Harrah’s Hoosier Park in Indiana, Campbell trainee Sandbetweenmytoes defeated eventual Horse of the Year Tall Dark Stranger by a neck in the Breeders Crown at a whopping 203-1. That is, by far, a Breeders Crown record.
That victory came the same night Campbell won another Breeders Crown with a homebred named Next Level Stuff that returned owner Scott Farber to harness racing prominence. Next Level Stuff’s win came at a particularly opportune time. The $250,000 payday helped Farber recoup some of his investment in the first six-figure yearling he’s ever bought.
A little less than a month before, Farber paid $100,000 at the Lexington Selected Yearling Sale in Kentucky for a horse named Seven Year Itch. Farber would soon change his name to Cool Papa Bell.
A speedy name courtesy of a Negro League legend
Farber, a former All-American baseball player at William Paterson College, still owns the best career win percentage (.952, 20-1) and earned-run average (2.13) in school history. In 1992, Farber tossed a six-hit complete game 3-1 victory over California-Lutheran, striking out the side in the bottom of the ninth inning to clinch the NCAA Division III national championship.
For his first $100,000 yearling, Farber knew of no better name than one to honour the baseball player rumoured to be among the fastest the sport had ever produced — Negro League player James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell.
“I was hoping the horse would live up to the great ballplayer’s name,” Farber said. “He’s done just that.”
Odds were against Farber owning Cool Papa Bell
That Farber even owns Cool Papa Bell proves there was some karma in the works.
Beyond never going past five figures in his long history of buying standardbred horses, Farber said $100,000 was, without a doubt, his final bid on that colt when the auctioneer’s hammer fell in his favour.
“You want to know what else? I spoke to the breeder earlier this week and guess what the reserve (price) was on him? $100,000. So, once it went to $100,000 that was it, I owned him,” Farber said.
On Saturday, Farber fell to his knees, his head in his hands and wept when Australian native Todd McCarthy drove Cool Papa Bell to victory in the Hambletonian.
“I was thinking about my father,” he said of the late Sandy Farber that started the family in horse ownership. “I was thinking about how many years that I’ve been coming to the track… how many years I’ve been with the Campbells… I was just completely overwhelmed and I’m still buzzing from it. My head is still buzzing.”
For Farber, Cool Papa Bell’s triumph was one for the smaller guys in the horse racing business.
“There’s a lot of big breeders and big owners that own a lot of horses and the odds are stacked against the little guy, but we got it done today,” he said.
“I’m a lay-in-the-weeds guy, always have been. I’ve always been a guy that likes to be behind the scenes, quiet and not talked about. You just let your actions speak for yourself, very similar to how Barry Sanders and Jerry Rice acted when they got to the end zone. There was no team celebration, he just went over and handed the ball back – professional.”
Campbell not so much Mr. Longshot
Meanwhile, Campbell may own the records for the highest winning odds in both Hambletonian and Breeders Crown history. But the major upsets in major events belie the truth about his record. For some 40 years, the 60-year-old from one of harness racing’s greatest families has been one of the most consistent, successful trainers in the game. Campbell has purse earnings of more than $50 million to his credit and has exceeded $1 million in a season 23 times, including in each of the last 15 years.
Horsemanship is in his genes. Both his grandfather and brother are harness racing Hall of Famers.
Still, it’s been 27 years between Hambletonian drinks for Jim Campbell, which is also a Hambletonian record. He first raised the famed silver Revere bowl on a wedding cake base in 1995 when Tagliabue — yes, named for the former NFL commissioner — won the race. On that day, his famed brother, John Campbell, was in the sulky producing a stirring family victory since dubbed The Campbelltonian.
John Campbell, a multi-Hall of Fame in both Canada and the United States and the man that holds the career record for driver earnings at some $300 million, is now the president and CEO of the Hambletonian Society that puts on the Hambletonian.
“That’s why we race them”
The six-time Hambletonian winner beamed Saturday as he handed his younger brother and Farber the trophy.
“I’m so proud of him,” John said of Jim. “I know what he puts into it each and every year and to have a day like this, as he said, it’s a day that you don’t even dream about.
“He’s always been so enthusiastic and he’s such a hard worker. He always was, even as a kid he was never afraid of work and it certainly paid off for him today. It’s just wonderful to see.”
As for Cool Papa Bell shocking the world, John just smiled.
“That’s why we race them,” John said. “(Jim’s) been here before when he thought he had good chances and it didn’t work out.”
Proving that, sometimes, it’s just your day.