Before the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct, Johnny Campo was the trainer who hollered "wolf." He proclaimed loudly all week that Pleasant Colony was going to win the race, but the racing community dismissed this as typical Campo bluster.
Television commentator Frank Wright summarized the prevailing view that Cure the Blues was a certainty to win the Wood when he said, "There's one good horse in this field and five others trying to be good." So when Cure the Blues virtually collapsed in the stretch and Pleasant Colony came flying past him, Campo was in his glory.
So much for Frank Wright, Camp shouted to the crowd as he bounded around the winner's circle. "They were all saying that big, loudmouthed, fat s.o.b. doesn't know what he was talking about! Well, there was one horse in the race -- the fat man's horse! This is the one to beat in the Kentucky Derby, and no one else!"
The fat man and his horse arrived at Churchill Downs today, and this time no one was ignoring them. Pleasant Colony's victory in the Wood will probably make him the second choice at post time Saturday, and he is the only one of the principal Derby contenders with the sort of stretch-running style that suggests he wants to go a mile and one quarter.
Unlikely as it may seem, considering his performance after the Wood, this was a somewhat toned-down Campo compared with the one who made his first appearance at the Derby with Jim French in 1971. He shows occasional brief flashes of judiciousness. In the old days, he would unhesitatingly dismiss his rivals as "a bunch of crows," or the like. This morning, when a newspaperman tried to bait him by asking whether he thought Cure the Blues was likely to finish in the money Saturday, he turned around, pointed to the back of his shirt and asked, "Do you see dummy written there?" But he conceded: "Five or six years ago you would have gotten me."
If Campo's style has changed only slightly over the years, the substance of his training has changed significantly. He used to get carried away by his own exuberance. He would start believing his extravagant assessments of his horses and let them for the basis for his actions. Accordingly, he would push horses into major races long before they were ready; he ruined a few of them in the process.
"Back then," he said, "there was pressure. I was trying to prove something. But in 13 years, I've won 62 stakes. Now, I know you'd better come to the Derby with the right ammunition. You'd better come with a horse who can really run. I think I've got the best horse and the best rider this year."
Pleasant Colony had run twice in Florida this winter for trainer P. O'Donnell Lee, who trains one division of Thomas Mellon Evans' far-flung stable. He closed strongly and lost the Fountain of Youth Stakes by a nose, then was badly trounced in the Florida Derby while he was reportedly suffering from a virus. When Evans sent Pleasant Colony to Campo after this dismal performance, the trainer wasn't expecting anything special. But when he put his new acquisition into serious training, he learned differently.
"I looked at the size of him," Campo said, "and decided I'd train him like he was going to go nine miles." Campo gave the colt a series of mile works, and after one of them he looked at his stopwatch and said, "This can't be," Pleasant Colony had gone in a sensational 1:37 1/5. Then he asked the exercise rider how fast he thought he had gone. The rider was off by several seconds; the horse had been moving so easily that the rider thought he couldn't have been going fast.
"That's when I said, 'Touchdown!' Campo said. "I knew he'd win the Wood." And nothing has happened since that time to dissuade the trainer from telling the world that he is going to win the Kentucky Derby, too.