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Obituaries

Johnny Campo, 67; Trained 1981 Derby, Preakness Winner

November 16, 2005|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

Johnny Campo, a portly, blunt-talking New Yorker who trained Pleasant Colony, the 1981 Kentucky Derby winner, died Monday in New York. He was 67.

Campo, who retired from racing in 1996, had been ill for several years, according to the National Thoroughbred Racing Assn.

Campo won 1,431 races and trained horses that earned more than $25 million, but his best was Pleasant Colony, who won the Preakness after taking the Derby.

He then missed sweeping the Triple Crown, however, when he finished third, almost two lengths behind Summing, in the Belmont Stakes.

Pleasant Colony had developed a rash after the Preakness, there was a TV camera in the starting gate that bothered him before the start of the Belmont, and Jorge Velasquez might not have given the colt the best of rides. But, typically, Campo offered no excuses.

"We just got beat," he said after the race. "He was a tired horse after the Preakness, and you can't win the [1 1/2 -mile] Belmont with a tired horse. I knew going into the race that we probably wouldn't win. But you had to run and hope you might get lucky."

Summing, a 7-1 shot, hadn't run in either the Derby or the Preakness.

Pleasant Colony was voted best 3-year-old male for 1981, giving Campo his third champion. In 1973, he had won both 2-year-old titles, with the colt Protagonist and the filly Talking Picture.

Trained at first by O'Donnell Lee, Pleasant Colony won only one of seven races before his owner-breeder, Thomas Mellon Evans, moved him from Florida to New York, where Campo was training horses owned by Evans.

Evans figured that Pleasant Colony could miss the first two Triple Crown races, the Derby and the Preakness, and be primed for the Belmont.

But then the colt won his first race under Campo, the Wood Memorial, and Campo persuaded Evans that they should run in the Derby, two weeks later.

"I had the only sound horse in the Derby," Campo said years later. "We were the only horse in the race that didn't need medication."

Born in East Harlem, N.Y., Campo grew up near the Aqueduct track in Ozone Park in Queens. He worked for Eddie Neloy, a future national horse racing Hall of Fame trainer, before going out on his own in 1964.

Future Hall of Famers Bobby Frankel and Nick Zito worked as assistants to Campo, and Frankel, at the time of his induction in 1995, said Campo had helped him get his first training license.

Campo was virtually wiped out in 1986 when a fire destroyed his barn, killing 36 of the 38 horses in his care. He started over and continued training for another decade.

"If you don't have the drive to come back from something like that, it could put you way down," he said a couple of years later. "But I had the drive."

In his first Derby, in 1971, Campo's Jim French finished second to Canonero II. Campo's Media ran fifth in the 1975 Derby. The trainer won the Santa Anita Derby with Jim French. His two Derby horses after Pleasant Colony finished far back.

Campo is survived by his wife, Peggy, and two sons, one of whom, P.J. Campo, is racing secretary at the New York Racing Assn. tracks Belmont Park, Aqueduct and upstate's Saratoga.

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