In 2010, jockey Jesse Campbell and his wife Allyson faced a tough decision. Jesse was having success at Hawthorne Racecourse and Arlington Park, but racing in the Chicago area was beginning to decline. Larger stables that Jesse was riding for regularly were beginning to relocate to other tracks, leaving him without as many mounts as he was used to.
“There were probably 10 trainers that quit coming from one year to the next, and I was riding for all of those people,” Jesse said. “When you tell people every year that you can’t ride their horses because you’re riding for these bigger guys, it’s not so easy to get that back. People don’t forget. All of my business was moving, so we moved.”
The Campbells were faced with two choices. Jesse had been riding regularly at Fair Grounds during the winter months, so the option was there to move to New Orleans full time. The other option was Woodbine. It was Mark Casse’s son and assistant trainer, Norman Casse, who brought up the possibility of Woodbine.
“The seed got planted a good two or three years before I decided,” Jesse recalled. “I was riding a lot of horses for Mark and Norm at Fair Grounds. We were at dinner one night and Norm mentioned how strong Woodbine’s program was. I didn’t really give it much thought at that time because I had really good business in Chicago and New Orleans. I was happy with that circuit because Chicago’s my home and New Orleans is like a second home to me.”
The Campbells weighed the pros and cons of each option, and ultimately, decided to take a risk and move to Woodbine. Jesse had raced just once at the Toronto oval before the move.
“We were moving four times a year, so the prospect of staying in one home or one track year round was appealing,” Jesse said. “I have to give the credit to Allyson and Lindy McDaniel, my agent at the time, because we all sat down and they both said, ‘Let’s take a shot,’ before I did.”
Allyson, who had grown up in nearby Woodstock, Illinois, said if Jesse was willing to take the chance on moving to Woodbine, she was willing to as well.
“I was on the same wavelength,” she said. “I understood the reason why we were considering it. It’s a hard thing to leave our family and friends, but we were travelling for half the year anyways so we were already used to that. I saw the opportunity and said it’s worth a shot.”
When it came time to tell family members of their decision, Jesse said his father, Illinois trainer Michael Campbell, initially doubted the move would work out the way it has.
“He basically told me I was crazy,” Jesse offered. “It almost feels like every time I go home, he says, ‘You were right, what a great move that was for you.’ I’m sure as hard as it was, they didn’t want to see us leave either. I’ve said it 100 times, but the only thing I miss about Chicago is riding for my Dad.”
Hurdles to Overcome
Moving to a different country doesn’t come without challenges. Once the decision was made to move to Woodbine, Allyson began to put together all of the paperwork required to get temporary work permits ahead of the 2011 racing season.
“By the time our legal team put the entire packet together to get our work permits, it was maybe the size of a ream of paper,” she remembered. “It was so intense. There was so much detail there. By the time we made the decision (to move), we only had so much time and it could take months to review your case. I had never done anything like that before so I was just surprised they wanted a lot of that information and I didn’t quite realize how much we’d have to pull together.”
The Campbells were both approved for temporary work permits in 2011 and Jesse began riding at Woodbine at the beginning of the season. He was impressed with the track right from the start.
“I noticed a big difference in Woodbine when I first got here,” he said. “I was very excited when I got here. It’s a big facility. It’s very professional. There’s an emphasis on safety, as much as there can be when you’re dealing with horses. It’s really a second to none facility and I don’t think a lot of people realize that until they come here. When you look at the stakes program and the day in and day out opportunities for horsemen as a whole, it’s a great place to be.”
Still, Jesse found it difficult to generate the type of business he was used to in his first season at Woodbine.
“I was riding 1,000 races a year and winning 120 races a year,” he said. “You’re leaving good business and rolling the dice on something new. It was tough to basically start over again. All of the trainers and owners and riders, they knew who I was when I got here, but you’re still starting from scratch. I underestimated coming here and starting over again. Some of the riders were tough on me, they weren’t real friendly and all that, but I get it. I wouldn’t want anyone coming into my neighbourhood and taking food off my table either. That’s the competitive nature of any sport. I get that and I don’t ever blame any of the guys for that.”
Allyson had her own challenges as well, struggling to find work with her temporary permit despite having previous experience in sales and marketing at both Arlington Park and Fair Grounds.
“I did find it difficult,” she said. “As soon as I had my paperwork settled I did go out and try to find a job, but being American and being here on a nine-month permit, no one wanted to take on someone that was going to be leaving. That first year was the hardest. We barely knew anyone, so it was a lonely first year.”
Perseverance Pays Off
While it could be easy for some to return to what they know after going through a rough patch, the couple stuck it out in Canada and their perseverance began to pay off. They both were approved for multi-year work permits in 2012, allowing Allyson to find a job with a wedding planning and event management firm. Jesse started to get better mounts at Woodbine and was moving up the jockey standings. In 2013, Jesse won his first Queen’s Plate on Midnight Aria.
“It felt like the culmination of 18 years of hard work,” Jesse offered. “I’m four generations and to win a race like that it meant a lot to me. I was thinking about my grandparents and my parents. The game has been very good to me and to my family, so it meant a lot. Allyson was pregnant, so that meant a lot to us. If it wasn’t for Woodbine and being in one place, I don’t think that we would have our daughter (Madison).”
Allyson was also in attendance for the Queen’s Plate that year, but she wasn’t supposed to be. She was scheduled to work at a wedding on Queen’s Plate day in 2013, but a cancellation allowed her to attend the race in person.
“I was just happy I was there,” she said. “I kind of came to the racetrack only half prepared. I wasn’t expecting a whole lot. You just get so used to everyone else winning the big races that we don’t expect it.”
Feeling Right at Home
The Campbells are now firmly settled in Maple, Ontario. They both say moving to Woodbine was a big factor in being able to start a family.
“I don’t think we could really have asked for a better last couple of years,” Allyson said. “It’s been great. I never would have expected that we would have moved to Canada and then had a baby. But after being able to settle here, it was a great opportunity for us to have a child and spend that first year without any worries.”
The gamble they took has indeed paid off. Along with being able to stay in one place, Jesse said he’s gained acceptance within the jockey’s room and is now good friends with several other riders. He added he could see himself finishing out his career at Woodbine, but said the family would likely move back to the Chicago area when his racing days are over.
“I will ride my last race at Woodbine,” Jesse said. “I could live in Toronto in a heartbeat. I love it here. We have a boat and we both love the water. But we’ll end up back in Chicago. Allyson has a very big family and a very close family. We’ll end up back in Chicago but I do really like it here.”
“He [Jesse’s father, Michael] basically told me I was crazy,” Jesse offered. “It almost feels like every time I go home, he says, ‘You were right, what a great move that was for you.’ I’m sure as hard as it was, they didn’t want to see us leave either. I’ve said it 100 times, but the only thing I miss about Chicago is riding for my Dad.”