It was nearly five o'clock last Saturday afternoon, 40 minutes to post time for the Kentucky Derby, and Trainer John P. Campo was presiding outside Barn 43 at Churchill Downs, pacing and waiting anxiously to get this matter over with. Groom James Washington had already bridled the horse that Campo would be saddling in the Derby, a dark bay colt named Pleasant Colony, who at the moment was standing in his stall, his head out the door and his ears at attention, listening to the crowd gathering nearby. Campo's hands were thrust into the pants pockets of a three-piece suit that looked as out of place on him as one of Campo's work shirts would look on Pleasant Colony's owner, Thomas Mellon Evans.
"All right," Campo said to Washington. "You 'bout ready? Let's go." Washington unfastened the webbing on the door, took hold of the lead shank and led Pleasant Colony out of the stall and down the shedrow. The colt leaned into the bit and strode powerfully, his eyes rolling and his coat gleaming like a seal's in the late afternoon light. The trainer, watching Pleasant Colony pass, slapped his hands together.
"God, he looks good!" Campo yelled. "Don't he? Jeez! Let's get this thing over with! I have 30 horses in New York and I've been here a week. I've got to get out of this joint. Let's take this crow over there and get some action!"
Inside the hour, Campo got all the action that he could have hoped for from the 107th Derby. Under a splendidly patient and skillful ride by Jorge Velasquez, one of the ablest and most underrated riders in America, the 3½-1 second choice of the crowd of 139, 195 bided his time early, began a sustained run nearing the far turn and then swallowed all before him through the home stretch to win, under a hand-ride, by three-quarters of a length. Greentree Stable's Wood-chopper, a rank outsider at 34-1, made a run at Pleasant Colony through the last furlong but wasn't enough horse to beat the winner. Another long shot, Partez, one of the nine field horses, came in third, even though his jockey, Sandy Hawley, mistook the 16th pole for the finish line and stood up prematurely, à la Bill Shoemaker on Gallant Man in the 1957 Derby. Unlike Gallant Man, Partez was going nowhere at the time—Shoemaker was driving head and head for the lead, against Bill Hartack and Iron Liege, when he stood up—and the misjudgment probably didn't affect Saturday's outcome.
May 10, 1981
It took Pleasant Colony only two minutes and two seconds, respectable time for the mile and a quarter, to bring to a close one of the most confusing, controversial and colorful Derby weeks in recent memory. The controversy and not a little of the confusion were the result of a legal battle between Churchill Downs and the owners of Flying Nashua. Thursday it appeared that colt wouldn't get a chance to run in the Derby because of the track's rule that only 20 horses could start. The rule, imposed after the 23-horse stampede of 1974, limited the field to the 20 horses with the highest earnings. Flying Nashua was 21st on the money list. But one of the colt's four owners, Dr. Ulf K. Jensen, and Trainer Larry Barrera filed suit in Jefferson Circuit Court seeking to have their horse put in the race on the grounds that Churchill Downs had misinterpreted its own rules, and in submitting to the court's ruling, the Downs also permitted another previously excluded colt, Mythical Ruler, to run. With one scratch, the filly Wayward Lass, a total of 21 horses finally started.
This wasn't to be a week dominated wholly by lawyers and judges, however. Even while the courtroom jousting kept the Downs hopping with rumor and speculation through Thursday and Friday, there was the inimitable, swaggering Fat Man, the 5'7", 250-pound Campo, wearing his University of Kentucky baseball cap, holding court each morning at the barn in the tongue he learned to speak on the sidewalks of Noo Yawk. "He's by Damon Runyon out of a Don Rickles mare," said comedian Jack Klugman. In the last analysis, this Kentucky Derby was Campo's more than anyone's, not only for his colorful presence but also for what he accomplished professionally. He took over the training of Pleasant Colony just seven weeks before the Derby, on March 16, but he quickly came to know the horse and what had to be done to ensure that Pleasant Colony would win. He saw more clearly than anyone how the Derby would be run, how the early speed would die, and how ultimately his horse would get the money and the roses.
John Paul Campo was born 43 years ago in New York City, on Fawteent Street, the son of Italian immigrants. When he was a boy, his family moved into a five-story tenement at 107th Street and First Avenue in East Harlem. "I opened up fire hydrants and ran along the tops of roofs," Campo says. "You know kids. A rough Italian neighborhood." When he was 11, his family moved again, this time to Ozone Park in Queens, where he attended John Adams High School on Rockaway Boulevard, just down the street from Aqueduct Racetrack. Campo never finished high school. "They kicked me out," he says. "I was too dumb. Nah. You know. Poor family. So I shined shoes and sold papers. Too busy to go to school. The old man made 65 bucks a week as a tailor. So now he makes 200. Big deal. He's a sewing machine operator. One time I worked in a factory putting buttons on garments. But no future there."
His future, Campo decided at age 17, was at Aqueduct. He started as a hot-walker for Lucien Laurin, who would one day train Triple Crown winner Secretariat, and then was a groom. He knocked around a lot in those early days, moving from trainer to trainer, until 1959 when, at age 21, he got a job rubbing horses for Eddie Neloy, one of the most colorful, capable trainers ever to tighten a girth.
"I learned a lot from Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, but not as much as I learned from Neloy," Campo says. "Neloy knew the horses that Could run and couldn't run. How to spot class. Most important, he showed me how to handicap a race, how to figure how a race was going to be run. It takes a long time to learn."
Campo worked for Neloy for nine years, the last four as assistant trainer, when Neloy was conditioning champions like Buckpasser and Queen of the Stage. Trainer LeRoy Jolley says of Campo, "He was the hardest worker on the racetrack." Campo left Neloy in 1968 to train a stable of his own, and just a year later he finished second in the New York trainer's standings to the great Allen Jerkens. In 1970 Campo won the trainers' title. "He works 18 hours a day, and the other six he spends thinking about it," says Irwin Feiner, one of Campo's owners. "And what a handicapper! We ran a horse down in Maryland five years ago, in a stake. We sat down and he handicapped eight, out of the day's nine winners and he told me not to bet my horse. We finished fourth. Unbelievable. I've seen him do it several times."
To the chagrin of most horseplayers on April 18 of this year, Campo had the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct picked cold, despite the opinion expressed on TV by New York trainer-announcer Frank Wright that favorite Cure the Blues was the only good horse in the race. Campo, of course, picked Pleasant Colony to win. He had liked the colt since he first saw him as a 2-year-old. Bud Delp, who trained Spectacular Bid, had Pleasant Colony for a while, and then Evans gave the colt to Evans' other trainer, P. O'Donnell Lee. The colt showed some life as a juvenile, winning two of five races and $87,968. In his first start in Florida this past winter, he got beat a nose by Akureyri in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and then finished a dull fifth, 12½ lengths behind Lord Avie, in the Florida Derby. It was later learned that the colt was recovering from a virus when he ran in the Florida Derby. That's when Evans called Campo. Evans says now that he wasn't unhappy with the way Lee handled the colt, that Lee and Campo swap his horses all the time, and that he thought a change of trainers might bring about a change in luck.
Campo took over Pleasant Colony 33 days before the Wood and worked like a tiger on him. "The kid [Lee] gave him to me in excellent shape," Campo says. "You can't have a horse only 33 days and win a major stakes race with him without some help. Jeez, let me tell you—if anybody watched the horse train for the Wood, watched his works, God Almighty, you had to take a little shot. He was a big price!"
On the morning of the Wood, Campo was atop the clocker's shed at Belmont Park when David Whiteley, the trainer of another Wood entry. Highland Blade, came by on horseback. Campo bellowed down to him, "David! We're going to finish one-two today."
"My horse first, yours second," said Whiteley.
"No, my horse first, yours second," Campo said.
Pleasant Colony went off at 12-1, but he ran as if he were 1-5, blowing past Cure the Blues in the stretch to win by three. Highland Blade finished second. Campo danced into the winner's circle, shouting, "[Expletive] easy, that's what it was, and we're goin' to Kentucky and beat those [expletives], too," and screaming, "Where's Frank Wright? Only one good horse in the race, huh? Yeah, and Campo's got him! Frank Wright ought to be selling papers." Campo was now Derby-bound, eager for more. He shipped the colt to Kentucky a week before the race and drew reporters daily to his shed. Someone reminded him that he'd once remarked that, if a Derby field had 20 horses, 17 of them wouldn't be any good.
"Jeez," Campo said. "I don't remember sayin' that. I didn't pick a number, did I?"
"Crows," someone said to the trainer. "Seventeen got to be crows, you said."
"Oh, I mightta said that," Campo said.
And he said a lot of things last week before the Derby. Still angered over derogatory remarks about Hall of Fame trainers (many of whom are in New York) that California Trainer D. Wayne Lukas reportedly made a couple of years ago, Campo said, "He's a nitwit. He had the best filly in the country two years ago [Terlingua]. She was 1-5 in New York and you couldn't find her with a search warrant. Now he has this horse Partez and he don't know he's a bum. What are you gonna do with the bum, milk him?" When Delp suggested that if his filly, Truly Bound, had been in the Wood, Pleasant Colony would have finished second, Campo said, "If Buddy Delp is so smart, how come he had this horse of mine and gave him up, huh? You answer me that. Aw, he's all right. He reminds me of John Campo five, six years ago. He likes to talk too much, that's all."
Campo talked all through Derby week, increasingly confident of his horse's chances. On Thursday he drew the No. 7 post. "Touchdown!" Campo cried when his post was announced. "If this horse runs as good as he's training, nobody will beat him. Anybody who knows how to handicap a race, how to watch a race, knows. No other horse in here has won a major stakes race easier than this horse when he won the Wood. He's almost too easy to train. Push a button, he goes one way; push another button, he goes the other way. I've tried to find something wrong with him, and I haven't been able to. Nuthin'!"
Nor did the size of the field worry Campo, because he had Velasquez riding Pleasant Colony, a jockey known for his uncanny ability to keep horses out of trouble. "There's a lot of garbage in the race, but Velasquez knows how to ride," Campo said. "When he's ready to run, the jock will know. Georgie has just got to get him comfortable the first part of it. At the end he'll be running. I'm going to put on a show you guys have never seen. If this horse wins, we're going to take Churchill Downs home with us! Think I'm kidding? In the back of the van! Aqueduct's deterioratin' anyway."
Campo was not alone in his confidence, mainly because there were so many questions about the form and abilities of most of the other horses. Cure the Blues and Proud Appeal, who had both run so brilliantly in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct on April 5, had since given off signals that the race had sapped them. Cure the Blues had stopped almost to a walk in the Wood, and though Proud Appeal had gone on to win the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, his time had been lackluster by his usual standards. Bold Ego, Tap Shoes, Woodchopper, Pass the Tab and Splendid Spruce had shown ability but hadn't been tested for class. So Pleasant Colony, off his superior performance in the Wood, looked to many like the colt who would take the most beating in the Derby.
Campo had figured that the speed horses would weaken and that if Velasquez could just keep Pleasant Colony comfortable and keep him out of trouble, he'd win. And that's precisely what happened. Top Avenger, Bold Ego and Proud Appeal, the pre-race favorite, charged from the gate for the lead, with Top Avenger smoking through the fastest early clockings in the race's history, a blistering quarter in :21⅘ a half in :45[1/5] and three quarters in 1:10[1/5]. That pan-fried those three. Velasquez, meanwhile, had done just what Campo had asked. Through the stretch the first time, he'd steered the colt toward the rail and let him relax in 15th place. Down the back-stretch, with the leaders dragging the field along, he'd sat coolly, until they approached the far turn. Suddenly, Partez made a giant move, going from 10th to second and racing strongly on the turn for home. "I thought we were a winner at the head of the stretch," Hawley said.
He was wrong. Velasquez slipped inside of horses around the bend and then cut outside as he made the final turn. By now the speed was withering, and Velasquez was on the outside with running room. He charged through the upper stretch, moving from eighth place to first inside an eighth of a mile. Woodchopper made his belated run, but he couldn't get there. As the field straggled behind him to the wire, it was an extraordinary sight: The first nine finishers were all horses that had been farther back than ninth place in the first quarter-mile. The last seven finishers had all been ninth or better at the first quarter. Cure the Blues finished 15th, Proud Appeal 18th.
A few minutes later, there was Campo, rushing down the stretch to greet Velasquez and Pleasant Colony on their triumphal passage to the winner's circle. A crowd pressed around the colt. Not far behind, walking steadily across the racetrack, came Evans, the 70-year-old industrialist who, like Campo, had just won his first Derby. And with a colt that he'd bred himself. Evans seemed to float.
"Oh, that was a fun race!" he said.
As Campo led Pleasant Colony into the winner's circle, he suddenly shouted at those pressing around him. "Get back! Everybody, dammit! Stay way back. I want my boss to take this horse into the circle!" The crowd edged back. He wheeled the colt around. Evans stepped forward, and John Paul Campo—the kid who opened fire hydrants in East Harlem, the workaholic protègè of Eddie Neloy, the swaggering Fat Man, the handicapper, the trainer of Pleasant Colony—handed Thomas Mellon Evans the end of the leather shank.