Cot Campbell’s run for the roses

bspear@thestate.comMay 3, 2013 

Aiken horse owner Cot Campbell, 85, hasn't given up his dream of a Kentucky Derby winner. He's got 'Palace Malice' in this year's field. This will be his 9th horse in the Derby. Having finished 2nd, 3rd and 4th in the past, he is looking for the win. Palace Malice tied for 10th in points among 20 horses in the field. Campbell is pictured in front of Dogwood Stable headquarters.

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— Yeah, he’s cutting back the operation. Instead of 60 or 70 horses in his barns, he keeps only 25 or 30 now.

But, for heaven’s sakes, don’t mention the “R” word. Retire? Not yet. Not Cot Campbell – 85 years young and every day another adventure in a life overflowing with them..

He takes care of his business for Aiken-based Dogwood Stable – he’s the president – in the morning in order to clear his calendar and head over to Palmetto for his afternoon round of golf, a sport he took up at the age of 79.

This week, however, is different. He’s off to Louisville on a business trip and afflicted by a disease with no known cure. Cot Campbell has Derby Fever . . . again.

One of Dogwood’s colts, Palace Malice, will take a place in the starting gate Saturday afternoon for the nation’s most famous race, the Kentucky Derby, and he can’t wait.

Campbell is no stranger to Louisville on Derby Day. This will be the eighth time a colt has carried the green and yellow Dogwood silks in the Run for the Roses, a significant achievement for both the stable and its president considering that only four other racing operations have fielded more in the past 40 years.

Campbell looks back to those “First Saturdays in May” and memories come flooding back. He “coulda” won – no, he “shoulda” won – with Summer Squall in 1990. But he didn’t. Summer Squall ran second.

Ten years later, in 2000, Impeachment chased Fusaichi Pegasus to the wire and finished third.

Then, in 2004, Limehouse, a colt that only the Dogwood connections believed in, came home fourth behind Smarty Jones.

He admits without apology that he has entered colts that had no business on the same track with the sport’s top 3-year-olds. Everybody has.

“Ill-suited” for the Derby, he said, but all horsemen chase the dream and Derby Fever is contagious, and he offers this defense: “You don’t know in the spring of a horse’s 3-year-old year, and it’s worth trying.”

Don’t place Palace Malice in the shouldn’t-be-there category, he says. The pedigree, race performances and his recent strong training prove the Dogwood colt belongs in the field of 20. Todd Pletcher calls Palace Malice “a better horse” than two of Dogwood’s top Derby finishers, Impeachment and Limehouse, that he trained.

What would a win Saturday mean?

Campbell smiled at the thought and said, “Oh, my gosh, that would be a major thrill in a life with a lot of thrills.”

A lifetime of work

Cot Campbell has lived life to the fullest with jobs ranging from driving the boat in a water show to publicist for the orange industry to taking the wheel of an ambulance to parking cars. Early in that journey, he said he attempted to consume every drop of liquor the distillers could produce. But he gave up the bottle in 1957, founded an Atlanta advertising agency that prospered and tossed the whole thing to live full time in the unpredictable world of thoroughbred racing.

He quickly put an indelible stamp on his new-found vocation by introducing syndicated ownership to the racing world. The very idea of multiple owners received skeptical reviews in the sport dominated by the ultra-wealthy – the Vanderbilts and Whitneys and Galbreaths.

Yet, his idea became the standard – and perhaps racing’s salvation. His plan to sell partnerships in horses introduced more than 1,000 people to racing. One investor put down $50,000 to share in the ownership of Limehouse and received a check for $1.35 million after the horse sold for $6 million.

“I tell (investors) the horse might make them some money, but chances are the horse won’t,” Campbell said. “On the other hand, there are tax benefits if the horse doesn’t work out and the most important thing is they will have fun.”

Having fun: That’s his credo.

Campbell zips through life having fun and this week ranks among the best. Having a Derby starter – only 20 out of perhaps 30,000 3-year-olds make the field – “is a great accomplishment, and I never lose sight of that,” he said. “We have good rationale on why we could win, but 19 other owners have the same rationale. Palace Malice has a lot going for him, and I look at the race with great anticipation, but the Derby always comes down to who gets lucky and who gets unlucky – and there’s plenty of both going around.”

Palace Malice’s pluses include temperament, the ability to adapt to any track surface and pedigree.

On the minus side, “he’s green with only six races,” the Dogwood president said. “He had bucked shins and missed the last part of his 2-year-old season. He’s also young; he did not turn 3 until two days before the Derby. He’s going to get bounced around Saturday, but he got bounced around in the Louisiana Derby, and he should have learned from that experience.”

In addition, Palace Malice will be racing for the third time in five weeks, and how the colt handles the work-load provides plenty of fodder for pre-race speculations. Campbell, however, likes the colt’s energy and pointed out that trainers are running horses more often under the Kentucky Derby’s system for qualification.

“I’m comfortable with bringing him back,” Campbell said. “He’s fit. He’s ready.”

‘Surprised I got him’

Campbell bought Palace Malice at the 2-year-old sales for $200,000, a price he considered a bargain. “I’m surprised I got him,” he said. “He worked fast and did it easily (at the sale). The Curlin people have tried to buy him back.”

If horsemen are offering big bucks after only six races, imagine the value should Palace Malice sparkle on Saturday with hall-of-fame jockey Mike Smith in the irons.

Campbell’s perfect scenario: “He breaks sharply, goes into the first turn sixth or seventh, about five lengths back, He holds that position down the backside, then the front-runners start to fade and the jockey ‘asks the question’ at the top of the stretch. That’s where the race will be won; of course, it could be lost a lot earlier.”

The opportunity for the plan to play out increased with Wednesday’s post-position draw. Palace Malice will start from the 10th spot, which Campbell called ideal.

“He will load late into the starting gate and won’t have to stand around, and that’s always a plus,” Campbell said, “but I must say that perhaps the importance of the draw is overemphasized.”

Smith, who will be riding Palace Malice for the first time, believes No. 10 could be a good omen. He won the 2005 Derby on Giacomo from that post – at 50-to-1 odds.

The distance, 1¼ miles, is longer than any of the colts have raced and provides a great unknown.

Each day’s workouts have brought contrasting opinions from the experts on which horse deserves the favorite’s role. In reality, the favorite seldom wins.

Even if the winner is Palace Malice, listed at 20-to-1 on the morning line, and Campbell gets to experience that major thrill in a life loaded with thrills, he will be back at the office Monday morning . . . perhaps looking toward next year’s race and another case of Derby Fever.

His “highs” don’t last too long, and if they do, the framed pedigree sheet that hangs on his office wall brings him down to earth.

“Canenoro II,” he said. “I looked at him at the sales and see that ‘X’ mark. I crossed him off.” He paused, “Canenoro II sold for $1,200.” Another pause. “He won (1971) the Kentucky Derby. He won the Preakness. So, don’t ever think you know all the answers, but my gosh, winning (Saturday) would be great.”

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