By Terese Karmel
There must be steel coursing through the veins of the Campbell family. Three generations of these steel-driving men have been blacksmiths, shoeing some of the finest Thoroughbreds on the East Coast.
The mantle is currently held by Joe Campbell, 57, one of the most well-liked craftsmen on any New York backstretch. He inherited his skills from his father, Elmer Campbell, who learned the craft from his father, Rhoades Campbell. An uncle, Russell Serafini, was also in the profession, as was Charlie Campbell, Joe Campbell’s identical twin, who died at 53 from cancer.
After three surgeries and aggressive radiology treatment, Joe lost the battle in July 2005. When he became too ill to work, dozens of blacksmiths in the NYRA circuit, including his twin brother, younger by four minutes, donated their time to service his clients. NYRA generously helped cover medical and funeral costs and trainers put together a golf outing that October to raise money for his daughter.
Although only a handful of people could tell the brothers apart, the goals and dreams of Joe and Charlie Campbell differed radically as youngsters. Joe always wanted to be a blacksmith. In his junior high school yearbook he told the world this was his chosen profession. Whereas Joe aimed to look down at horses’ feet, Charlie apparently had higher ambitions, writing that his goal was to be president of the United States.
But the brothers were both destined to end up in the Thoroughbred industry. When their dad galloped horses for a few trainers, the twins helped by hotwalking and taking care of them during summer vacations. When it came to knuckling down and learning the trade, “Dad took me on because I was ‘the bad seed,’ and my uncle took Charlie on,’ ” Joe said, referring to his wild younger years.
But it was Elmer Campbell who “gave us the formal introduction to tightening up the shoes,” Joe said of his dad. “That was the final step.”
Elmer started shoeing horses during World War II, putting his horse sense to use working with the cavalry. When he got out of the service, he started working on his own, first in Maryland, then New Jersey, and eventually in New York. Blacksmiths are employed by individual trainers, although Joe is also employed by NYRA as the paddock blacksmith.
Like many other blacksmiths, Joe is there in case an emergency arises, to make sure horses have on the equipment they are scheduled to wear and are ready to go on the track. Among his clients are Pat Kelley (including Evening Attire), Howie Tesher, and Del Carroll—all long-time New York trainers whom the Campbell family has serviced for decades.
Among the most illustrious trainers whose horses have benefitted from the expert manipulation of Campbell hammers and rasps was the late Laz Barrera, trainer of the 1978 Triple Crown winner, Affirmed.
“He was my father’s client,” Joe said. “When Dad shod Affirmed as a 2-year-old, he said he was more nervous than the horse.” When Affirmed was at Pimlico for the Preakness (gr. I), “Laz saw Charlie and told him when Affirmed came to Belmont, he is going to be shod by a Campbell.” He figures Elmer got that job.
Sadly, it appears that the line of Campbell blacksmiths will end with Joe. His three sons, all in their 20’s, are pursuing other professions.
“It’s sad, but they’re doing their own thing, and that’s OK,” Joe said.
And although Joe, with his bushy gray moustache and cheerful friendly ways, is the lone Campbell working the backstretches of Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga these days, a spirit rides shotgun in his 2007 black Toyota truck when it pulls up to a barn early each morning and asks if any work needs to be done.
”It’s especially hard for me to come up here,” Joe said as the Saratoga meet wound down. “This was Charlie’s favorite spot, but he’s an angel on my