It was nearly five o'clock last Saturday afternoon, 40 minutes to post time for the Kentucky Derby, and Trainer John P. Campo was presiding outside Barn 43 at Churchill Downs, pacing and waiting anxiously to get this matter over with. Groom James Washington had already bridled the horse that Campo would be saddling in the Derby, a dark bay colt named Pleasant Colony, who at the moment was standing in his stall, his head out the door and his ears at attention, listening to the crowd gathering nearby. Campo's hands were thrust into the pants pockets of a three-piece suit that looked as out of place on him as one of Campo's work shirts would look on Pleasant Colony's owner, Thomas Mellon Evans.
"All right," Campo said to Washington. "You 'bout ready? Let's go." Washington unfastened the webbing on the door, took hold of the lead shank and led Pleasant Colony out of the stall and down the shedrow. The colt leaned into the bit and strode powerfully, his eyes rolling and his coat gleaming like a seal's in the late afternoon light. The trainer, watching Pleasant Colony pass, slapped his hands together.
"God, he looks good!" Campo yelled. "Don't he? Jeez! Let's get this thing over with! I have 30 horses in New York and I've been here a week. I've got to get out of this joint. Let's take this crow over there and get some action!"
Inside the hour, Campo got all the action that he could have hoped for from the 107th Derby. Under a splendidly patient and skillful ride by Jorge Velasquez, one of the ablest and most underrated riders in America, the 3½-1 second choice of the crowd of 139, 195 bided his time early, began a sustained run nearing the far turn and then swallowed all before him through the home stretch to win, under a hand-ride, by three-quarters of a length. Greentree Stable's Wood-chopper, a rank outsider at 34-1, made a run at Pleasant Colony through the last furlong but wasn't enough horse to beat the winner. Another long shot, Partez, one of the nine field horses, came in third, even though his jockey, Sandy Hawley, mistook the 16th pole for the finish line and stood up prematurely, á la Bill Shoemaker on Gallant Man in the 1957 Derby. Unlike Gallant Man, Partez was going nowhere at the time—Shoemaker was driving head and head for the lead, against Bill Hartack and Iron Liege, when he stood up—and the misjudgment probably didn't affect Saturday's outcome.
It took Pleasant Colony only two minutes and two seconds, respectable time for the mile and a quarter, to bring to a close one of the most confusing, controversial and colorful Derby weeks in recent memory. The controversy and not a little of the confusion were the result of a legal battle between Churchill Downs and the owners of Flying Nashua. Thursday it appeared that colt wouldn't get a chance to run in the Derby because of the track's rule that only 20 horses could start. The rule, imposed after the 23-horse stampede of 1974, limited the field to the 20 horses with the highest earnings. Flying Nashua was 21st on the money list. But one of the colt's four owners, Dr. Ulf K. Jensen, and Trainer Larry Barrera filed suit in Jefferson Circuit Court seeking to have their horse put in the race on the grounds that Churchill Downs had misinterpreted its own rules, and in submitting to the court's ruling, the Downs also permitted another previously excluded colt, Mythical Ruler, to run. With one scratch, the filly Wayward Lass, a total of 21 horses finally started.
This wasn't to be a week dominated wholly by lawyers and judges, however. Even while the courtroom jousting kept the Downs hopping with rumor and speculation through Thursday and Friday, there was the inimitable, swaggering Fat Man, the 5'7", 250-pound Campo, wearing his University of Kentucky baseball cap, holding court each morning at the barn in the tongue he learned to speak on the sidewalks of Noo Yawk. "He's by Damon Runyon out of a Don Rickles mare," said comedian Jack Klugman. In the last analysis, this Kentucky Derby was Campo's more than anyone's, not only for his colorful presence but also for what he accomplished professionally. He took over the training of Pleasant Colony just seven weeks before the Derby, on March 16, but he quickly came to know the horse and what had to be done to ensure that Pleasant Colony would win. He saw more clearly than anyone how the Derby would be run, how the early speed would die, and how ultimately his horse would get the money and the roses.
John Paul Campo was born 43 years ago in New York City, on Fawteent Street, the son of Italian immigrants. When he was a boy, his family moved into a five-story tenement at 107th Street and First Avenue in East Harlem. "I opened up fire hydrants and ran along the tops of roofs," Campo says. "You know kids. A rough Italian neighborhood." When he was 11, his family moved again, this time to Ozone Park in Queens, where he attended John Adams High School on Rockaway Boulevard, just down the street from Aqueduct Racetrack. Campo never finished high school. "They kicked me out," he says. "I was too dumb. Nah. You know. Poor family. So I shined shoes and sold papers. Too busy to go to school. The old man made 65 bucks a week as a tailor. So now he makes 200. Big deal. He's a sewing machine operator. One time I worked in a factory putting buttons on garments. But no future there."
His future, Campo decided at age 17, was at Aqueduct. He started as a hot-walker for Lucien Laurin, who would one day train Triple Crown winner Secretariat, and then was a groom. He knocked around a lot in those early days, moving from trainer to trainer, until 1959 when, at age 21, he got a job rubbing horses for Eddie Neloy, one of the most colorful, capable trainers ever to tighten a girth.
"I learned a lot from Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, but not as much as I learned from Neloy," Campo says. "Neloy knew the horses that Could run and couldn't run. How to spot class. Most important, he showed me how to handicap a race, how to figure how a race was going to be run. It takes a long time to learn."
Campo worked for Neloy for nine years, the last four as assistant trainer, when Neloy was conditioning champions like Buckpasser and Queen of the Stage. Trainer LeRoy Jolley says of Campo, "He was the hardest worker on the racetrack." Campo left Neloy in 1968 to train a stable of his own, and just a year later he finished second in the New York trainer's standings to the great Allen Jerkens. In 1970 Campo won the trainers' title. "He works 18 hours a day, and the other six he spends thinking about it," says Irwin Feiner, one of Campo's owners. "And what a handicapper! We ran a horse down in Maryland five years ago, in a stake. We sat down and he handicapped eight, out of the day's nine winners and he told me not to bet my horse. We finished fourth. Unbelievable. I've seen him do it several times."