11/11/2011 3:20PM

Dogwood leader Cot Campbell eases into semi-retirement at 84

Barbara D. Livingston
Dogwood Stable leader Cot Campbell, 84, recently announced he will cut back on his duties, but intends to continue managing the group's active racehorses.

If Aikenite only knew. If he only knew the pressure he was under last weekend at Churchill Downs when he went postward in the $1.5 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Not only was he carrying the hopes and dreams of his Dogwood Stable partnership, he was hauling the whole load of the future book bet placed by Dogwood president Cot Campbell last spring, when he gambled $5,000 and got 10-1 that their colors would be carried to at least one Breeders’ Cup victory at the 2011 competition.

Campbell, at least in this rare case, can be accused of poor money management. He could have sat on that $5,000 and bet it all on Aikenite at 14-1, but that was not the idea. The showman in Campbell figured that taking a stand on the fortunes of the whole stable was worth the gamble. He has no inkling at the time it would all come down to one runner.

“I don’t think there was any point I thought he’d win,” Campbell said of Aikenite‘s Sprint. “When he turned for home he was dead last. I thought, ‘Boy, this is gonna be disgraceful.’ But typical of him, he closed like a freight train.”

Aikenite finished fourth, nosing out Hamazing Destiny, some eight lengths behind the winning Amazombie. That was worth $90,000, less of course the five grand Campbell dumped in that future bet.

“No, no,“ Campbell asserted. “That was funds from W.C. Campbell, although maybe I can get Dogwood to reimburse.”

Campbell thought the idea was funny, especially in light of the fact that as of this week he has stepped down from the active leadership of the Dogwood Stable, at least in terms of forming the partnerships that have embraced so many new owners over the past 40 years. Campbell, who is 84, will continue to manage the fortunes of the 43 horses of racing age currently owned by Dogwood partnerships, effectively writing his own sunset clause.

“I guess that’s right,” Campbell said. “I’ll personally keep the Dogwood name, and I may race some horses I own under my name in the future – buy a few 2-year-olds, maybe a steeplechaser.”

In terms of time served, Campbell ranks among the durable leaders of the racing industry. As the pioneer of high-profile racing syndicates, he will be leaving center stage having inspired a revolution in Thoroughbred ownerships. Such broadly successful syndicates as Team Valor and West Point Thoroughbreds, among others, have taken their cue from the trail blazed by Dogwood.

Campbell, who describes himself as “optimistic by nature,” finds that optimism tested by current trends in the sport.

“I see the business shrinking,” he said. “It’s got to do that, and probably good if it happens. We surely need fewer racetracks and more like Keeneland, or Saratoga, where people are dying to go to the races and planning to do it. What does encourage me is that, given the economy and all, there‘s as much interest in horse racing out there as there is.”

For Campbell, in his tailored role as a racing manager, the 2012 season will dawn with Aikenite at the head of the runners in the existing partnerships. This year, Aikenite, a son of Is It True, won the Commonwealth at Keeneland and the Churchill Downs Handicap on Derby Day, and those are the races he will target early next year as well. Campbell knows enough, though, not to heap upon Aikenite disproportionate praise. He has yet to reach the heights of such Dogwood runners as Summer Squall, Southjet, Inlander, Storm Song, Nassipour, Trippi, and Wild Escapade.

“He’s a very satisfying horse,” Campbell said of Aikenite. “A horse with a lovely personality. He’s not going to volunteer anything, but when you do ask him the question he’ll give you the answer. He’s here now in Aiken for a couple months. I was just over giving him some peppermints.”

It was Friday morning, and that evening the Campbells were set to host an open house at the local Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum. It was fitting that Aikenite’s victory in the Commonwealth earlier this year was enough to earn Dogwood a special honor from Keeneland, commemorating the stable’s eight graded stakes wins there. A gold tray of some sort was involved, but mostly it was a good excuse for a party. Aiken, pop. 29,494, has a rich tradition as South Carolina’s off season mecca for the Thoroughbred industry, offering a wintertime home to many of the leading stables throughout the history of the sport. Aikenite was named as Campbell’s tribute to Dogwood’s home.

“This is a good town to live in if you’re going to be in any kind of horse business,“ Campbell said. “We’ve invited the entire citizenry of Aiken, and right now it looks like they’re all coming.”

Without much doubt, the evening was destined to end up a tribute to Campbell as well.

“I was going to hold up my announcement about my plans, but I figured hell why not just say what I’ve got to say,” he said.

“To put it kindly, I’m in the twilight of my existence, or maybe the late evening,” Campbell said. “Who knows how long it will go on? I’m fit, I feel great, and I’m having a good time.

“My father lived to be 94, and he never did take too good a care of himself,” he noted. “His name was William T. Campbell, sometimes known as ‘Whiskey Bill.’ It was a name he earned, as did his son in the early days.”

Campbell has chronicled his life and times in his autobiography, “Memoirs of a Longshot . . . a Riproarious Life,” sharing a journey that included a successful career in advertising on Madison Avenue and the alcoholism that put his life in jeopardy. He has been sober for 55 years, and husband to the former Anne Dodd for 53.

“I’m married to a vigorous young woman who’s a lot of fun and exciting, so I’m very lucky there,” Campbell added. “I certainly hope to become a nonagenarian.”