STAKING A CLAIM FOR BIG JOHN

Heretical as it may sound, some people consider squat Johnny Campo, off the streets of New York, the best trainer in the business. This week in Kentucky he may get a chance to convince a few more
May 02, 1971

For a man who was born in Harlem, grew up on the crowded streets of Queens and has been a full-fledged trainer of racehorses only three years come Kentucky Derby Day, John Paul Campo has turned into a pretty fair hand with thoroughbreds. A short man with an ample belly and opinions to match, Campo led all trainers in victories at the three big New York tracks last year, winning more than $1 million in purses. Now, if all goes well, he probably will have one of the favorites in the Kentucky Derby in his hardworking little Jim French, who won the Santa Anita Derby handily early in April.

Yet if one should suggest to racing's small circle of elite owners and private trainers that Johnny Campo may well be the best trainer in the business, the response is a quick, pained denial. To the people with breeding farms, the best stallions and racing programs geared to a few classic victories each year, Campo is a rather unwelcome intruder from an unfamiliar world. Elliott Burch, a Yale man who trains for Paul Mellon's prestigious Rokeby Stable, said recently, "Campo? I really don't know him very well. He still calls me Mr. Burch."

Burch is what less successful people around the backstretch call a society trainer. He directs the racing fortune of a multi-millionaire owner who can afford a full-time private trainer, a large horse farm and barns full of thoroughbreds. Campo, who did not finish high school, is the son of an Italian immigrant tailor; his love of horses was triggered by watching Roy Rogers in Western movies. He is a public trainer who serves 11 owners, who may or may not be well heeled or well bred but who want their horses to run as often as possible and win enough so that they can afford to stay in racing. Campo does not supervise the mating of his horses nor does he buy horses at the yearling sales.

"He claims horses," a big stable owner said not long ago in Florida. "Claiming trainers are the prostitutes of horse racing. In effect, he's selling bodies. He takes a finished product and gets all he can out of it, then discards it."

"There are horse trainers and people who train horses," another owner said. "Campo's a man who trains horses."

"He's a trainer in a somewhat different sense," Elliott Burch explains, sitting behind his desk in a tastefully decorated office in Belmont Park. "He doesn't oversee the breeding of his horses, which I help do. And he claims a horse not with the expectation of improving its performance—he only hopes to do as well with the horse he claimed as the previous owner did."

This is certainly true of some claiming trainers, who run a horse until it breaks down and then claim another for the same treatment. But Campo has been described as a bridge between this type of claiming trainer and the private trainer. He works his horses hard and gets rid of them when their racing potential declines, but he takes excellent care of them while they are in his care and with happy frequency improves their general performance. In 1969 he claimed a 3-year-old filly named Mariner's Joie for $10,000 for owner Neil Hellman. She improved enough to win a total of $53,245 in 1969 and another $64,125 in 1970 before Campo sold her as a broodmare for $50,000. He bought Gleaming Light for Hellman in 1969 for $25,000, and Gleaming Light won a total of $196,886 during that year and the next and is still running. He claimed Boone the Great for $8,500 as a 2-year-old in 1970, and in 1971 the colt became a stakes winner. "He's a hell of a horseman," says Braulio Baeza, who has ridden stakes winners for Campo. "He knows his business."

He didn't start learning it until he was 15 years old. It would be hard to imagine a more unlikely starting point for a horse trainer than Campo's birth-place at 107th Street and First Avenue in East Harlem, where the only horses were ridden by policemen. Later, his father moved the family to Ozone Park in Queens and Campo spent his formative years in sight of the old Aqueduct racetrack.

"I didn't care much about school," he said in his office at Belmont. It is a rather bare room and for a long time the only furniture was a battered desk, a battered chair and one plastic lawn chair for the occasional visiting owner or jockey's agent. Recently, Campo bought two leather-covered chairs for the visitors, but the desk is the same. "I could see the track out the window when I was in Public School 108. I guess it didn't mean that much to me then, but after I went to the Westerns I got interested in horses. I quit school after I started John Adams High School. I just didn't have no interest.

"A friend of mine named Ralph Delvecchio owned a riding stable and I got started with him. I'd help around the stables, mucking out and all that, and he'd let me ride. After a while, I bought my first horse, a mare named Ginger, a palomino. She cost a hundred sixty bucks. I had to work about three months selling the Long Island Press and working in a grocery store to save up that much money, but I finally bought her. I still got her, as a matter of fact. She's 29 years old now and I got her on a farm upstate. When I get time, I go see her."

He doesn't see her often. His day begins at about 4:30 in the morning when he goes to his barns at Belmont to supervise the workouts of the 35-odd horses he has in training. Often it does not end until eight or nine at night, after the racing program is over and his horses are safely in their stalls.

"I'd see more of him if I was one of his hot walkers," says his wife Peggy. "I could fight if it was some broads, but horses, how can I fight that?"

(The Campos have one child, a son, John Paul Jr., who is a miniature version of his father. He is four and weighs a robust 80 pounds and he likes horses, too. "I took him to a rodeo with me once," Campo says. "He wanted me to get him a Western saddle, so I got him a full-size one. Now he's got it on his rocking horse.")

Campo, 32 now, has always been a hard worker. He got his first job as a groom with Trainer Lucien Laurin, but it lasted only three months and he went to work for his father, pulling tags off material. "I didn't like that too much," he said. "My old man didn't think too much about me working with horses, but that's all I wanted to do. I got a job a little later workin' for Jim Fitzsimmons and that lasted maybe four, five months. Then I worked for Johnny Nerud, but I only lasted there about a month. He fired me because he said I was too noisy."

Campo laughed, his round face slyly gleeful over the memory of an early rebuff. "I guess maybe I was," he said. "Me and Nerud, we joke about it now, but it wasn't so funny then."

Finally he went to work for Eddie Neloy, trainer for the Ogden Phipps stable. "I went to work for him June 10, 1959," Campo said. "I remember things like that exactly. I guess I got a photographic memory. I worked four years for Neloy as a groom, then five more as assistant trainer, and he taught me just about all I know. He's a fine trainer and he's a fine man, too. I owe him a lot." At first Neloy was not overly impressed with Campo. Even when his assistant trainer quit after Johnny's fourth year as a groom, it did not occur to Neloy to promote John until another, older groom suggested it.

"John was really what you call a diamond in the rough," Neloy said recently. "I guess his biggest asset was his enthusiasm. And he was very methodical, very anxious to learn. I remember once I asked him how we had treated a horse two years before for some kind of injury and he went to his notebooks and he had it all written down. He asked questions all the time."

Neloy hesitated. "I don't want you to think what I'm going to say now is derogatory," he went on, "because I don't mean it that way at all. But John was pretty rough at that time, pretty outspoken. He said things in a way that irritated people. He had opinions and he let you know about them. He got some people's backs up. So finally I sent him to the Dale Carnegie School on How to Win Friends and Influence People and he took the whole six weeks' course. I guess it helped."

As an assistant trainer, Campo handled Buckpasser by himself when Neloy shipped that outstanding colt to the West Coast one year, and he handled him well.

"He was always good with the horses," Neloy said. "Good at taking care of their legs, everything. He's a nut about feeding and he knows how to make a horse happy. That's not the easiest thing in the world to do and it's not easy to teach. John had it naturally."

Even after he had finished the Dale Carnegie course, Campo was a loner. None of the stable help was close to him. One veteran groom, an old Southerner who knew him during his nine years with Neloy, said, "He din't fool around at all, you know? All Fat John cared about was the horses. Worked all the time. No drinking, no playing around a-tall."

He scratched his head trying to think of Campo as he had been then.

"He wasn't noway a mean man," he said at last. "I 'member one time, I don't recall just when, maybe when he was out in California with Buckpasser, I had to move out of my apartment in a hurry for some reason, and I didn't have no place to go. Me and my wife and four kids. Fat John and his wife, they had a little apartment near ours and he told me to come on over, stay with him. Said him and me could sleep on the floor and let the kids and the women have the bed. And we wasn't that good friends, because like I say, Fat John was really a loner."

"He was impatient with the help if they goofed off at all," Neloy said. "Sometimes too impatient, I think. I remember one morning I got to the barns and found him rubbing down horses himself and I asked him what had happened. The groom who was supposed to rub those horses had had a big night and showed up late and John fired him and did the work himself. I told him he should have waited until the guy had rubbed his horses before he fired him."

Campo left Neloy on April 25, 1968, another date he remembers precisely, to try training on his own. "I had done all I could as an assistant trainer." he said. "Handled Buckpasser by myself, learned all the things Eddie could teach me and I was getting bored."

"I thought he was ready," Neloy said. "I told him when he left that if it did not work out, he would always be welcome back. He still is."

Six days later, on May 1, Campo started with three horses. It was nearly two months before he won his first race. "I remember that date, too," he said happily. "June 27. Won both ends of the daily double at Belmont and knew damn well I would. Won the first race with a horse called Dollar Sign and the second one with Shotgun Miss and the double paid $102.80 and I had told the owners to bet."

He beamed at the memory. Campo is not a notably immodest man, but he takes an enormous, rather naive pleasure in recounting his triumphs. He went on to win 28 races in 1968, including a division of the Long Island Handicap with a horse called Ruth's Rullah, which paid $32.

"Beat Fort Marcy in that race," he said, with satisfaction. Fort Marcy is trained by Burch.

In 1969, with a larger stable as new owners were attracted by his success, Campo sent horses to the post 495 times. He returned 101 winners, 70 places and 60 shows and earned $681,234. It was a remarkable record, particularly for a man in his first full year of training.

In 1970 Campo predicted he would saddle 100 winners in New York, something only one trainer had ever done. (Buddy Jacobson had 110 winners in New York in 1963 and 100 in 1964.) Coming up to the last racing day, Campo had 98 winners; he finished first three times to end the year with 101. Overall in 1970 he won 133, placed 108 times and had 111 horses show in 806 starts. He won $1,103,529, second among all trainers.

"We have had a few other public trainers who started like Campo," said Burch, who won $776,528 in 1970 with only 146 starts (he averaged $5,300 in winnings for each starter, compared to Campo's $1,350). "I suppose if he keeps winning, he'll eventually get a private stable and then we will see what kind of trainer he is."

Campo has no interest in a private stable now. "I'm too young," he said the other day. "Maybe in a few years. But I like what I'm doing now. I wouldn't want to be a private trainer. The first thing happens if you're losing, they blame the jocks, then they blame the trainers. No one thinks to blame the horses." Right now, Campo has 11 owners and could probably have more if he wanted them.

"He's in a good spot," says Burch. "He's successful, and a lot of owners would like to have him train their horses. From what I've heard, he's pretty good to his owners."

"All my owners finished in the black last year," Campo said early one morning outside his Belmont barn. "You figure they're making money, they're happy." It was a chill morning and he was walking toward the track to watch some of his horses work. As he walked along, he exchanged greetings with other trainers and with exercise boys and grooms. He was friendly enough but somewhat withdrawn.

"I don't socialize with other trainers," he said. "I mean, there's no point. I remember one time I'm having a few drinks with another trainer, I'm telling him about a horse I got, the good things about this horse. Week later, I run the horse and this guy claims him." He shook his head. "So I wait a while, watch his stable looking for a horse and finally I find the right one and I claim one of his. Next time I see him, I tell him, "Now I'm going to beat you with your horse,' and I waited. Finally I got in a race with the horse he claimed on me. His horse is 4 to 5, mine is 7 to 1. I don't usually tell a jock much when he's riding for me. A good jock, I just say good luck; maybe tell him if the horse likes to run inside or outside. But I told this jock, 'You go head to head with his horse three furlongs and he'll stop. You win easy.' We won by six lengths and his horse came third."

He was at the edge of the track now, watching the horses go by, steam rising from their backs in the early chill.

"I don't claim from nobody unless they claim from me first," he said. "A man claims from me, then I go after him. It's a tough business."

He watched a few minutes more, then turned to walk back to his barn, a squat figure in a blue windbreaker, chinos and brown boots. A young trainer called to him as he left and Campo turned and said, "Hey, you. You gonna be eating rye bread tonight, not clams."

He laughed and started walking again.

"That's John Parisella," he said. "Nice young boy, young trainer. He's got a horse named Here Comes Trouble going against Gleaming Light this afternoon. Reason I said to him about the clams, one of his owners is in the clam business."

Parisella cupped his hands and called: "You got my training license he don't win." Campo waved and trudged on.

"Only way that horse beats Gleaming Light is if Gleaming Light falls down," he said.

Campo walked into his barn and started down the long line of stalls. A horse being let out to gallop shied and he said to the girl who was leading him, "Stand in front, where he can see you. Don't get off to the side." She nodded and moved in front of the horse.

"That's Boone the Great," Campo said, patting the horse on the neck. "No breeding. He's a freak. Good runner with no breeding. He's a kind of spooky horse. That's why I got a girl rubbing him. They're gentler than the men and some horses need that kind of gentling. You got to treat a horse like a woman sometimes and a woman knows how to do that." Campo has 11 girls among his three dozen employees.

He walked out of the barn into a clear area, where a husky young man stood beside a black Jaguar XKE waiting for him.

"This is Anthony Amato," Campo said, grinning. "My blacksmith."

"Tony," the young man said. "Call me Tony."

"He's a hell of a blacksmith," Campo said. "So is his dad."

A groom led a horse out of the barn and turned it so that the morning sun would be on his right front hoof when it was picked up and held between Tony's knees, preparatory to shoeing.

"This is Navy No," Campo said, patting the horse gently. "I claimed him for $7,500; he won over $40,000 last year." Now something was wrong with his stride, causing him to hit his hind ankles as he ran.

"It's not his back feet," Campo explained. "His right front foot is sore and he favors it and that's throwing him off stride. I'll show you why when Tony gets the shoe off."

Amato had taken off the right front shoe, bending over with the horse's foot resting snugly between his knees, Navy No standing quietly. With a flat, curved knife, he quickly pared down the hoof, the thick, gray horny substance curling smoothly away from the knife. He pressed a strong thumb against the frog, a heart-shaped growth at the back of the foot.

"That's where the trouble is," Campo said. "He's got a deep bruise under the frog and he favors the foot. Just ease him a little, Tony. Don't cut deep. He's in today."

Amato began trimming the frog down carefully, much as you might pare a corn on your toe. As he cut deeper, the gray shavings were tinged with pink and Amato picked one up and handed it to Campo, who looked at it carefully.

"That's blood from the deep bruise seeping into the frog," he said. "Tony will shave it down enough so there won't be any pressure on the bruise when he runs, then reshoe him."

Amato trimmed both forefeet, smoothed them with a wide rasp and hammered on the new shoes. Navy No stood quietly until the job was finished, then Campo inspected the position of his front feet on the ground and nodded.

"Just right," he said. "Some trainers have the horse's foot slanted too far forward, some too far back. His feet are perfectly flat now."

He nodded at Amato.

"You don't learn that in college," he said. "Anthony's daddy taught him. He's young and good and he'll take chances. That's why I like him."

Another horse was led out.

"Jim French," Campo said. "A real good horse. A dependable horse. He always gives you a good race. He's got the same trouble as Navy No. But he's not in today, so we can get down to the root of it."

Amato had begun trimming the frog on Jim French's right front foot. This time he cut much deeper than he had on Navy No until thick, old blood welled darkly across the bottom of the hoof. Amato pressed the frog to extract the last of the pool of blood left by the deep bruise, then repeated the process on the other foot and reshod Jim French.

"Now he'll get an antitetanus shot and stand in an antiseptic bath to make sure he doesn't get an infection," Campo said.

"Campo does something unorthodox to his horses' feet," another trainer had said earlier. "He may have been in trouble with the examining vets about it, too. You might check that out."

Dr. Manuel Gilman, the examining vet at Aqueduct, who has checked a great many Campo entries, shook his head when asked about Campo's treatment of his horses.

"He's a good horseman," he said.

"His horses are sound. He doesn't do anything illegal to their feet. He's a hard worker and a winner and sometimes that creates some jealousy."

Many trainers are reluctant to touch a horse's frog, Elliott Burch among them.

"We don't cut the frog down," Burch said. "The frog controls the growth of the hoof. I guess if you cut it down it could stimulate circulation, which might help somehow. I remember once Fort Marcy threw a frog, like you might lose a fingernail. We made an aluminum plate to cover the bottom of the hoof and protect the frog."

He called to one of his aides and the man brought a thin, hoof-shaped aluminum plate.

"Here it is," he said. "Fort Marcy ran with it on not long after that."

"How did he do?"

"Ran what may have been the best race he's ever run," said Burch.

Aside from taking special care with his horses' feet, Campo has other techniques, most of them learned from Neloy, to insure that his horses are at their best when they go on the track.

"Three big things to check with a horse," he said. "Feet, mouth, how they eat. Lots of horses, when you claim them, they got bad feet. Take Mariner's Joie, for instance. When I got her, she had four infected feet and a bad mouth and an infection in her urethra. She had things wrong with her from head to her backside, but I knew she was a good one. I cleaned up her feet and her mouth, then cleared up the infection in the urethral tract. When a filly runs, her vagina acts like a bellows. It sucks up air and sometimes the passage gets irritated and infected. It don't make her real sick, but it cuts down on her speed. So what I do, after I get her cleaned out, I sew her up so she can't suck wind and leave her sewed up until her racing days are over."

This rather drastic treatment for a filly is one of the things he learned from Neloy. "Another thing I learned from him is to make sure my horses eat good," Campo said. He walked back into the immaculate barn and over to a large tin drum that was steaming slightly. It was full of something that smelled good and looked for all the world like oatmeal. An electric heater kept it warm.

"This is the mash I feed my horses," he said. "It's got vitamins, flax seed and stuff in it and I always feed it to them warm. Some trainers don't bother to warm it, but I figure I wouldn't want to eat no cold oatmeal in the morning and the horses don't want to either."

Jim French was back in his stall by now, browsing thoughtfully on a net of hay hanging on the door. He regarded Campo calmly as the trainer approached him and went on eating.

"Jim French, he likes to bite and kick," Campo said. "You have to hit him when he tries it, but it don't really do any good. Some horses, they get it in for you; they'll wait forever to get you. I still got a scar on my arm from a horse named John William I used to rub for Neloy. John William was looking to get me for a long time, but I was careful until one morning I forgot and he bit me on the arm and picked me up and shook me. He was a mean one."

A few stalls farther on, a handsome mare stood quietly and John patted her affectionately.

"Sea Saga," he said. "She's a lady, a real lady. So is Sun Lover. Anyone can take care of them."

An exercise boy came by on another horse and Campo watched it walk for a moment, then stopped the boy. He leaned over and slid his hand gently from the horse's knee to its foot, and felt gingerly around the ankle.

"Take it easy," he said to the rider. "I don't want his ankle filling up."

He walked on through the barns, stopping now and then to talk to one of the young men or women who were caring for the horses, then went back to his office. A jockey's agent came in and Campo talked to him briefly, finally deciding on a mount for the jock.

"I don't use any one jock real regular," he said. "Jocks have hot and cold streaks, just like everyone else. I like to get one on a hot streak."

He leaned back in his chair, obviously a happy man. "Somebody asked me the other day what do I do for fun," he said. "The horses are my fun. I watch a little television. The other night I saw a thing about Vince Lombardi, the coach. It was real good. I mean, I could understand him. He's an Italian in the coaching business, which seems a lot like training horses to me, and he had a tough time getting a break, maybe because he's Italian. Anyway, he figured it that way. Then finally he gets it made and he dies. I felt bad about that. I mean, I know what he went through. It ain't so different in horse racing."

A serious young man came in and stood waiting for Campo to finish, then asked him about some details of work schedules. "This is Vince Nocela," Campo said. "He's my assistant trainer, does all the hard work." Nocela smiled and left and Campo watched him go.

"You look around my barn, I got all young people working for me. Go around to the other barns, you'll see all old help. Old trainers, they don't trust young people. I like to help them because it ain't long ago I was in the same spot."

The phone rang and he picked it up, listened a moment, said, "I'm busy" and hung up, no Dale Carnegie training apparent. "Horses," he said, reflectively. "Horses are like little kids. You take any kids three, four years old. Horses are like them, except you can't talk to them.

"Well," he said, "you can talk to them a little. Like when you're galloping a horse in the morning. Some grooms, they sing to the horse and the horse gets to expect it and like it, and sometimes you talk to them in the stalls and they can tell if you like them or not. They're all different. Like Boone the Great—you can't hit him because he's too high-strung. He'll get nervous and then he won't eat. You got to have an affection for a horse and mainly you got to get him to eat.

"Sometimes when I go home, my wife will say Little John did something bad, so I sit down and talk to him about it and try to get him to understand. I don't hit him, because he wouldn't know why. It's been too long since it happened. But say I catch him doing something wrong, then I nail him because he knows why I hit him. Racehorses are the same way. When a thoroughbred bites you, you hit him right away."

Campo glanced at his watch and got up.

"Got to go home and change clothes and get out to Aqueduct," he said. "I got four horses in today."

Campo has been criticized for running his horses too often; Jim French, for instance, will have been to the post 21 times before he runs in the Kentucky Derby.

"If they're eating good, they can come back quick. I've run a horse on Saturday and won and come back on Wednesday and won. Depends on the horse. Two-year-olds, they take maybe 10, 12 days' rest between races. You got to be careful training 2-year-olds. When you first get them, you got to teach them to run and you work them every day. If you let them walk one day, they forget everything they learned. I run them in pairs when I'm training them, trying to match them for speed so one doesn't beat the other. You let one get beat bad, it can hurt his competitiveness. And what you're doing is trying to teach them to compete."

He walked out to his car, a new maroon Cadillac that is one of the few signs of the money he makes now, probably more than $50,000 annually.

"When you taking off this year, Big John?" someone asked him and he laughed. "Most I can take off is two, three days," he said. "Hard to do that with 11 owners."

("I got him to take me to Hawaii for a week two years ago," Peggy says. "He slept all day and I took in the sun. Another time we took the baby to Disneyland. John liked that. But I wish I could lock him up in a room and close the doors and windows so no owners could get to him. I never will.")

Campo drove away, and a big, quiet black man who occasionally works for him, driving his car back and forth from Florida when he changes tracks, watched him go.

"Big John," he said softly. "I've known him a long time now, since he worked for Mr. Neloy. Ever' body call him Fat John then. Don't call him nothing but Big John now, though."

PHOTO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)