For a man who was born in Harlem, grew up on the crowded streets of Queens and has been a full-fledged trainer of racehorses only three years come Kentucky Derby Day, John Paul Campo has turned into a pretty fair hand with thoroughbreds. A short man with an ample belly and opinions to match, Campo led all trainers in victories at the three big New York tracks last year, winning more than $1 million in purses. Now, if all goes well, he probably will have one of the favorites in the Kentucky Derby in his hardworking little Jim French, who won the Santa Anita Derby handily early in April.
Yet if one should suggest to racing's small circle of elite owners and private trainers that Johnny Campo may well be the best trainer in the business, the response is a quick, pained denial. To the people with breeding farms, the best stallions and racing programs geared to a few classic victories each year, Campo is a rather unwelcome intruder from an unfamiliar world. Elliott Burch, a Yale man who trains for Paul Mellon's prestigious Rokeby Stable, said recently, "Campo? I really don't know him very well. He still calls me Mr. Burch."
Burch is what less successful people around the backstretch call a society trainer. He directs the racing fortune of a multi-millionaire owner who can afford a full-time private trainer, a large horse farm and barns full of thoroughbreds. Campo, who did not finish high school, is the son of an Italian immigrant tailor; his love of horses was triggered by watching Roy Rogers in Western movies. He is a public trainer who serves 11 owners, who may or may not be well heeled or well bred but who want their horses to run as often as possible and win enough so that they can afford to stay in racing. Campo does not supervise the mating of his horses nor does he buy horses at the yearling sales.
"He claims horses," a big stable owner said not long ago in Florida. "Claiming trainers are the prostitutes of horse racing. In effect, he's selling bodies. He takes a finished product and gets all he can out of it, then discards it."
"There are horse trainers and people who train horses," another owner said. "Campo's a man who trains horses."
"He's a trainer in a somewhat different sense," Elliott Burch explains, sitting behind his desk in a tastefully decorated office in Belmont Park. "He doesn't oversee the breeding of his horses, which I help do. And he claims a horse not with the expectation of improving its performance—he only hopes to do as well with the horse he claimed as the previous owner did."
This is certainly true of some claiming trainers, who run a horse until it breaks down and then claim another for the same treatment. But Campo has been described as a bridge between this type of claiming trainer and the private trainer. He works his horses hard and gets rid of them when their racing potential declines, but he takes excellent care of them while they are in his care and with happy frequency improves their general performance. In 1969 he claimed a 3-year-old filly named Mariner's Joie for $10,000 for owner Neil Hellman. She improved enough to win a total of $53,245 in 1969 and another $64,125 in 1970 before Campo sold her as a broodmare for $50,000. He bought Gleaming Light for Hellman in 1969 for $25,000, and Gleaming Light won a total of $196,886 during that year and the next and is still running. He claimed Boone the Great for $8,500 as a 2-year-old in 1970, and in 1971 the colt became a stakes winner. "He's a hell of a horseman," says Braulio Baeza, who has ridden stakes winners for Campo. "He knows his business."
He didn't start learning it until he was 15 years old. It would be hard to imagine a more unlikely starting point for a horse trainer than Campo's birth-place at 107th Street and First Avenue in East Harlem, where the only horses were ridden by policemen. Later, his father moved the family to Ozone Park in Queens and Campo spent his formative years in sight of the old Aqueduct racetrack.
"I didn't care much about school," he said in his office at Belmont. It is a rather bare room and for a long time the only furniture was a battered desk, a battered chair and one plastic lawn chair for the occasional visiting owner or jockey's agent. Recently, Campo bought two leather-covered chairs for the visitors, but the desk is the same. "I could see the track out the window when I was in Public School 108. I guess it didn't mean that much to me then, but after I went to the Westerns I got interested in horses. I quit school after I started John Adams High School. I just didn't have no interest.
"A friend of mine named Ralph Delvecchio owned a riding stable and I got started with him. I'd help around the stables, mucking out and all that, and he'd let me ride. After a while, I bought my first horse, a mare named Ginger, a palomino. She cost a hundred sixty bucks. I had to work about three months selling the Long Island Press and working in a grocery store to save up that much money, but I finally bought her. I still got her, as a matter of fact. She's 29 years old now and I got her on a farm upstate. When I get time, I go see her."