Cot Campbell's retirement was greatly exaggerated. When the founder of Dogwood Stable announced last year he was stepping back his involvement with his horses, it was misunderstood by many that Campbell was getting out of the game.
Not so fast. Now in his mid-80s, Campbell may be slowing down his schedule, but he is firmly planted in the horse world. With a stable of some 30 runners, his numbers may be fewer, but he's still got a chance to take down racing's biggest prize when Dogwood's Palace Malice contests the May 4 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
After stints as, among other things, a newspaper reporter and mortician, Campbell co-founded a successful advertising agency and got some friends to come along with him in horse ownership. Thus he came to be known as the George Washington of equine partnerships after a $5,000 filly named Mrs. Cornwallis won the 1971 Alcibiades Stakes at Keeneland.
Campbell established his first farm outside Atlanta and subsequently moved his operation to Aiken, S.C., from where he has enjoyed success with a parade of stakes winners that includes Dominion and 1990 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner Summer Squall.
Campbell estimates he's bought some 1,500 horses for Dogwood, of which almost 80 have become added-money winners. Palace Malice is not yet among that latter group, but if he enters the club this week it will mark the biggest victory yet in a lifetime of them for Campbell, who has seen Summer Squall run second in the Derby and Impeachment finish third in 2000. His last Derby runner was Limehouse in 2004, who checked in fourth.
"Winning the Derby would be a big A on my report card, although the report card is alright the way it is," said the personable Campbell. "Hell, I saw my first Derby when I was 13 in 1942 and I've seen so many of them. It's the one race that America stops and watches, the gold ring on the merry-go-round that you try to reach out and grab. I've run in more in the past than I will in the future, so I'd love to grab this one, and I think we've got a shot."
Palace Malice has come close in some big races, running third in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) and second, beaten just a neck, in the Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I). In the race in between those two efforts, he was blocked and lost all chance in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II).
"Before we ran in Louisiana, I said if we run good enough to get points but don't get points due to bad luck, why don't we look at the Blue Grass," said Campbell. "And of course he got the trip from Hell (in the Louisiana Derby), so we executed Plan B."
Trained by Todd Pletcher, Palace Malice ran the Blue Grass just two weeks after the Louisiana Derby, and was ultra game. He came out of that race still bouncing around and with a high energy level, so the Derby seems well within his scope.
Campbell said he bought Palace Malice as a 2-year-old for $200,000 at Keeneland's April sale last year because he liked Curlin as a sire and liked the horse's frame and profile.
"He was a good-looking big bay horse with a nice way about him, very confident and with a pleasant disposition," Campbell said.
Campbell is famous not only for establishing Thoroughbred partnerships, but for enjoying the high points of racing with his friends and partners, turning each day at the races into a social party. Dogwood's seasonal newsletters come complete with photos of the Dogwood family enjoying their outings at venues like Saratoga. And now that Campbell has shaved off some of his numbers and daily time spent around the office, he is enjoying things even more, particularly at the side of his lovely wife, Anne.
"This is the life I want," said the head of Dogwood with satisfaction. "I'm not chasing any rabbits I can't catch."
He'd love to catch that gold ring come May 4.