SPORTS

A fat man, an ugly colt, a Crown out of reach

Pleasant Colony's mortal lock came undone

June 15 1981
SPORTS

A fat man, an ugly colt, a Crown out of reach

Pleasant Colony's mortal lock came undone

June 15 1981

A fat man, an ugly colt, a Crown out of reach

SPORTS

Pleasant Colony's mortal lock came undone

Joe Flaherty

There is an old aristocratic adage on the racetrack that goes, if you want a classic horse, “you breed the best to the best and hope for the best.” It goes without saying that you entrust the royal offspring to the best. If one believes this purple dictum, Pleasant Colony and his trainer, John Campo, were usurpers of this year’s Triple Crown and fell just short last Saturday.

Not that both are without credentials. Pleasant Colony was sired by His Majesty, who won his share, and some of his “get” have performed respectably. But this son—a leggy, skinny, flop-eared, rash-infected colt with sad, dull eyes that bespeak lost weekends, not Saturday’s heroes—is not the son one would pick to convince anyone that His Majesty was a “10” in the hay.

But the horse is the least of the problem. The establishment can deal with Pleasant Colony more easily, since he does have bloodlines—at least he is bred! Campo, on the other hand, has no such lineage to suggest equine enshrinement. When one thinks of Triple Crown trainers, the image that comes to mind is of the courtly “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons (the only man to win two), or the Jones boys of Calumet, Ben and Jimmy, who reeked of Kentucky bluegrass. Campo comes closer to the poolroom than the royal enclosure.

The 43-year-old, five-foot, seven-inch, 250-lb. trainer comes from the tough streets of New York, the son of Italian ^immigrants. A highzschool dropout (to this gday he could take diction "lessons from “the Fonz”), at the age of 17 he started as a hotwalker, cooling horses after workouts, perversely seeking fame and fortune in the “sport of kings.” Such great expectations were a long time coming as he knocked around from stable to stable odd-jobbing for various trainers until, at the age of 21, he got a job rubbing horses for the Phipps’s family trainer, Eddie Neloy, who saddled the fabled Buckpasser and Gun Bow, who twice upset five-time horse of the year Kelso.

“He was the one,” says Campo. “I learned more from Neloy than all the others. He taught me how to spot class [an important word to Campo] in a horse, and how to handicap a race.” Eventually, Neloy moved his protégé up to be his assistant. Neloy also took a personal interest in the roughhewn Campo, who is acutely aware of his “lack of background and education.” Neloy handicapped this insecurity and convinced Campo to enter a 14-week Dale Carnegie self-improvement course, which he bankrolled. The result was that Dale Carnegie finished a distant second.

But the two men remained close. Possibly because Campo, who has admitted he still doesn’t get on with his father, saw Neloy as an ideal substitute. Even with a Derby and Preakness in his possession, Campo took a shot at his father in a recent interview: “The old man made 65 bucks a week as a tailor. Now he makes $200. Big deal. He’s a sewing machine operator.” Freud could parlay that one, but Campo would counter: who ever listened to a Viennese tout?

Campo, his lessons learned, left Neloy in 1968 and began to make his name as a sharp rookie trainer. A confessed workaholic (“I don’t swim, play golf, play tennis or even take vacations—horses are my life”), he set out as a public trainer to prove the smart money wrong. In 1969, running a public stable, he finished second in the trainers’ standings in New York, recognized as the toughest wheel in the States. The next year he topped the standings and for the following six years ranked in the top three. During those years, two of his thoroughbreds were voted Eclipse Awards, turfdom’s equivalent of the Oscars. And in 1971, with Jim French (“My best horse till Pleasant Colony”), he got a whiff of the big ones, finishing second in the Derby and Belmont and third in the Preakness. Close for the fat man, but no cigar.

When Neloy died suddenly of a heart attack in 1971, Campo—to everyone but the Phippses—was his logical successor to train the Phipps string. That he didn’t get the job had nothing to do with his knowledge of quadrupeds but with his ignorance of petits fours. Campo is a wearer of zippered jackets and baseball hats, and in a duet he could hold his own with Ethel Merman. On the rare occasions he does don a suit it doesn’t help, since the material usually looks like the drapes in a motel. So the Phippses abandoned horse sense, hedged their bet with society’s Blue Book and hired impeccable young Roger Laurin (son of Lucien, the trainer for Penny Tweedy, owner of Secretariat, 1973’s Triple Crown winner). Tweedy herself is out of the Chenerys of Virginia. Even Dale ¡¿¡Carnegie couldn’t give you that in 14 ^weeks.

I This year, it would be different, "though his detractors will tell you he "lucked out. Thomas Mellon Evans, the u industrialist and squire of Buckland Farm, employs three regional trainers. Thirty-three days before the Wood Memorial, Pleasant Colony was in the hands of his Florida trainer, P. O’Donnell Lee. The horse was an in-and-outer for Lee, and the young trainer made the mistake of running him in a Florida stakes when he had a fever. The horse fared dismally. Evans was displeased and moved the colt north to Campo. Miraculously, the horse came on well— awfully well.

In Barn 48 at Belmont Park, Campo, who sways between braggadocio and humility, downplays his accomplishments in the Wood, Derby and Preakness: “Look, how much can you do in a month? The kid sent me that horse in great shape. I didn’t do anything special with him. Some long gallops—two-mile licks. Hey, I ain’t a genius.”

His former assistant and now trainer in his own right, Nick Zito, disagrees. “I won’t tell you no BS. This is no fluke. This guy paid his dues. He’s one of the best. He’s an extreme competitor. Sometimes he’s a little too crazy for his own good. If he could relax, he’d be even greater. But this is no fluke. Nobody can jack up a horse as quick as Campo. I saw him do it for years with cheap claimers. He can pump them up. God damn, I caught him schooling Pleasant Colony in the gate the week of the Wood. Man, you school two-year olds, not threeyear-old stakes horses. But Campo always looks for the edge.”

Campo was low-keying it before the Belmont because of some negative press: “loudmouth,” “buffoon,” etc. But as Zito pointed out with a laugh, “He was always like that. But he never had the big horse, so nobody paid attention.”

Of course, the press doesn’t like to be kicked in their expertise, and that is what Campo did in the Wood. Cure the Blues was supposed to be a mortal lock, and Campo predicted he would not even run second! Campo also told all who would listen to bet his horse at 12 to 1. The press took it as so much clown babble. And when his horse romped (Cure the Blues was third), it was revealed that Campo not only made a big score at the windows, but also had a huge bet on Pleasant Colony in the Derby Winter Book at 25 to 1. After annexing the roses, it was estimated he cleared $100,000. Nobody should be that right.

And it was Campo, while other trainers were pursuing gaudy bloodlines, who advised Evans to buy some of His Majesty’s: “I liked his colt, Cormorant [the pacesetter against Seattle Slew in the 1977 Preakness] and thought he might be a good sire.” Meanwhile, the establishment is still committed to Secretariat’s get, even though the great race horse, as a sire, is reaching eligibility for a Masters and Johnson clinic.

Approaching the Belmont, Campo was trying to adopt a statesmanlike role and bad-mouth no one. Of his colt, he calmly said, “He’s a good horse. A real good horse. And God, he’s bred for the mile and a half. Hell, he was so wide in the Preakness [one of only three horses to win from post position 10 in Preakness history] he has already run a mile and a half. He’ll have no excuses in the Belmont. Good horses don’t.” In a less measured moment he declared, “If that son of a bitch don’t break a leg, I’m home.”

Campo claims he is not waging a vendetta against the establishment (such as the Phippses). But according to Zito, “Johnny wanted that job the way you want a beautiful girl. Deep down, he knew he couldn’t get it, but in his mind he thought he had a chance. He deserved it. Laurin and John Russell [Neloy’s successors] couldn’t shine his shoes.”

The omens were tranquil until Pleasant Colony approached the| starting gate. Next to his post 11, in a vacant gate position, was a television cameraman. Jorge Velasquez tried to urge his horse in, but the colt refused five times. He was spooked by that modern Mephistopheles—the media.

After finally entering the gate, Pleasant Colony broke alertly, but was immediately reined back. As the pack went a slow quarter of a mile and then a half, Colony was dead last, 11th. This was a deadly mistake by Velasquez. American riders, unused to going a mile and a half, are constantly baffled by the pace at this distance.

George Martens, the rider on of the winning Summit, carried a better inner clock. Realizing the slothful pace he sprinted to the lead and had three lengths in the stretch. When Velasquez finally made his run, he was chasing a fresh horse and the best he could do was to secure third.

Afterward Campo with a philosophical shrug said,“That’s the name of the game.” Perhaps Johnny at Dale Carnegie learned about that other loud, rotund, merry scourge of royalty, Shakespeare’s Falstaff, who, like Campo, was destined to be denied access to the crown.