BANGOR, Maine — With more than 50 years of combined harness racing experience and just over 3,500 career driving wins between them, it’s not hard to see why the duo of Heath Campbell and Valerie Grondin are again near the top of the driver and trainer standings at Bangor Raceway this season.
Campbell, who concentrates on driving, was Bangor Raceway’s No. 2-ranked driver after last weekend’s races with 20 wins, 19 places (seconds) and 19 shows (thirds) in 87 starts.
Grondin who concentrates on training, was ranked fourth among Bangor’s trainers with 10 wins, seven places and five shows in 29 starts.
Combined, the partners have won just over $85,000 in purse money this season.
What’s the secret to their success? Well, A) it’s no secret, and B) it should be no surprise they both had the same answer when asked the question in separate interviews.
“Just work hard and pay attention. That’s all you do,” said Grondin, who’s been training horses, driving them, or both the last 30 years.
“The biggest thing is you have to realize it’s a lot of work,” said Campbell, now in his 20th year of driving. “You’ve got to work, and you miss out on a lot. … Like I don’t go to the lake on the weekends or go camping or fishing, but I’ll do all that someday.”
The 35-year-old Campbell, who grew up in Lewiston, has been able to say that for the last 20 years as he’s notched 3,556 career wins (through May 15).
“Probably my father [Winston Campbell] was the biggest influence on me. I learned watching him and some other drivers,” he said. “I used to watch Lee Fitch a lot, too.”
Grondin, who grew up just down the street from the Bangor Historic Track, also drew her inspiration and work ethic from watching some of the senior drivers and trainers go about their work.
“Bobby Sumner and Kelly Case really taught me a lot about how to go about training and driving,” Grondin said.
Grondin, who has been working with Campbell out of the same stable space near the far turn for the last 12 years, got her start working in the stables each summer.
“I wanted to be with horses. I showed them but it was too expensive,” Grondin recalled. “I thought I might go to Florida and work with Thoroughbreds, but there are none of them around here, so I started working with Standardbreds.
Grondin’s drives are few and far between these days, but she’s returning to the track for the first time this season today for three races.
“I used to drive seven or eight times a night until about 1999,” said Grondin, who has 487 career wins. “I don’t drive much now. I’m just too busy and Heath’s better at it.”
Grondin is back in the sulky in Bangor again because Campbell will be taking some of their horses to race at Scarborough Downs today.
Even some 20 years after she started racing, female drivers are still scarce in Maine.
“There haven’t been many. There’s Charlene Cushing, who drives on a regular basis, and that’s about it,” Grondin said. “I got done because it’s very physical for me. I got lame with my shoulders and wrists.”
Campbell can’t choose between driving and training. He loves the competition of driving and the satisfaction that comes from teaching a horse to race.
Work ethic, talent, and desire aside, both Campbell and Grondin share another key trait. They can’t imagine doing anything else.
“You’ve got to like coming to work every day. If you don’t love it, you may as well not be here,” Campbell said. “If I wasn’t in horses, I don’t know what I’d be doing. Probably pumping gas somewhere.”
Grondin has wanted to work with horses for nearly as long as she can remember.
“It’s in your blood,” she said. “Even if I had another job, I would still do this on the side.”