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Lou Brissie: In honor of a hero
First, Lou Brissie was a ballplayer, and then Lou Brissie became a soldier. After that, he was a ballplayer again, a major leaguer with a measure of fame. From the mid-1950s until a couple of years ago, Brissie was mostly a man living in relative obscurity. But now, Lou Brissie is back in the public eye. His story rests between the covers of a recently published biography, and his name is carried by an unbeaten 2-year-old colt who races in the Bashford Manor Stakes on Saturday at Churchill Downs.
Ira Berkow, a retired sportswriter for the New York Times, dredged up Brissie's tale several years ago, and his book, "The Corporal Was a Pitcher: The Courage of Lou Brissie," was published early in 2009. It was a story worth repeating in detail.
Brissie was a 16-year-old pitcher when he first caught the eye of baseball scouts. But after finishing high school, Brissie joined the army to fight in World War II. Brissie's war ended less than a year before World War II's conclusion, and he came home a decorated veteran. Many medals were bestowed because Brissie's left leg basically was blown to bits during an artillery barrage in Italy in December 1944. Large bones in tiny pieces, multiple surgeries, yet Brissie, pitching with a bulky leg brace, still made the major leagues in 1947. He was an All-Star for the Philadelphia A's in 1949.
That stuff is all down on paper now. Occasionally, Brissie and Berkow sign books along the East Coast.
:: VIDEO: interview Lou Brissie
:: HANDICAPPING: (DRF Plus)
"I guess it was three years ago when we started to talk about things," said Brissie, 86. "I told Ira that I had been anonymous for years, and that I was not really accustomed to a lot of the attention and all that."
Cot Campbell doesn't mind attention. More attention means more potential partners in racehorses campaigned by Dogwood Stable, which Campbell formed in 1973. Dogwood is based in Aiken, S.C., just down the road from Lou Brissie's home.
"I remember him from when he pitched," Campbell said. "When I was alerted by a friend that there was a book out by Ira Berkow and it was about this guy who lives 10 miles away, I read the book, and I thought it was wonderful and that he was very heroic. I wrote the man a letter, and he knew who I was, and he called me, and I said, 'Why don't you come over and have lunch?' He and his wife and me and my wife have dinner frequently now."
Dogwood annually buys 25 to 28 horses at auction, Campbell said, some 2-year-olds but more yearlings. Often, Campbell attends the sales and scouts the prospects himself, but the day a chestnut colt by Limehouse - a Dogwood runner during his racing career - went through the ring at the Fasig-Tipton July auction in 2009, Campbell was involved in a wedding, and a bloodstock agent named Joe Brocklebank handled the proceedings. The colt, out of the Forest Wildcat mare Fearless Wildcat, brought $100,000. By early this year, he had a name: Lou Brissie.
"I like naming horses after people," Campbell said.
"I was really astounded, and I certainly looked at it favorably," Brissie said of Dogwood's decision to name the Limehouse colt for him. "I thought it was awfully nice for someone to do that. I felt honored."
Brissie grew up in racing's heyday but never had much connection to the sport.
"The closest I ever got to anything like that was one year I roomed with Mike Guerra, the Cuban catcher, and I think Mike knew all the fellas from Cuba who were riding," Brissie said. "But I never was involved."
Things were different for W. Cothran "Cot" Campbell, now 83. Born in New Orleans, Campbell spent part of his childhood in Des Moines, where his father had a Coca-Cola bottling plant.
"I was a good rider," Campbell said. "I showed horses up there. My father, he sold the Coca-Cola plant and went into the racehorse business in 1941. He bought a 118-acre farm in Tennessee and built a racetrack on it. I don't know whether his plan was to bet on them or race them or breed them or what, but none of it worked. He went broke, but it got me hooked all my life."
Campbell made a choice similar to his father's in mid-adulthood, first dabbling in the horse business and eventually selling an advertising agency he had formed in Atlanta and buying a horse farm in Georgia.
"The difference is, I evolved into it, and he kind of jumped into it," Campbell said.
Campbell's history as an owner dates to 1969. In 1971, he had a piece of Mrs. Cornwallis, a filly who won the Alcibiades Stakes at Keeneland. By 1973, Campbell had gone all in on the idea of forming partnerships, some quite vast, with many people owning small pieces of a given horse or set of horses. The practice is commonly employed today but was novel at the time.
"It was thought of as an insane thing to do," Campbell said. "But it just made sense. The next thing I knew, the Wall Street Journal and Forbes and Fortune were writing about this unusual concept."
That's fairly classic Campbell: hardly a man shying from self-promotion. But this is just the sort of personality required to convince groups of people to pony up dough and get in on some racehorses. Campbell said he never sold the notion that partners would make a killing. It was possible, but the Dogwood experience would be more about having fun, getting the vicarious thrill of seeing "your horse" cross the finish line first. Plus, tax benefits were assured, even on an animal who didn't pan out.
Thirty-seven years later, and Dogwood still is carrying 50-60 horses every season. Something has worked.
Aiken, Dogwood's home, is horse country. It is a short trek from the Dogwood offices to the barn that houses the Dogwood trainees and a racing oval where they can exercise. Campbell said he goes to the barn every morning, watching training between 7:30 and 9:30 before heading to the office. Dogwood years have set rhythms. The sales, the breaking of the yearlings in the fall, the arrival of 2-year-old sales purchases, and in March, the Aiken trials, the last proving ground before the precocious runners hit the racetrack.
Eight shares in the chestnut Limehouse colt had been sold, twice the typical amount in Dogwood partnerships. In early training, Lou Brissie didn't cause any headaches, nor did he stamp himself as a hot prospect. Campbell said Dogwood's farm trainer, Ron Stevens, "was agreeably pleased with him."
"He was an uncomplicated sort," Campbell said. "He didn't take your breath away, but he did everything you'd want him to do. He would not have been voted most likely to succeed."
When it came time to send Lou Brissie to a racetrack trainer, Campbell had someone in mind. Neil Howard previously had trained one horse for Dogwood, but that horse was Summer Squall, one of the best horses foaled in 1987. Summer Squall was bred by Will Farish, who for years had employed Howard as a private trainer.
"When Mr. Campbell bought Summer Squall as a yearling, he asked Mr. Farish if he could send the horse to me, and Mr. Farish said, 'Fine,' " Howard said. "That was a unique, one-time circumstance. My relationship with Dogwood the last 20 years has been more of a personal one than anything."
Last fall, Howard's term as a private trainer ended, and his stable went public. It was not exactly a Lou Brissie situation, a man whose deeds had faded into obscurity, but Howard's annual output had steadily grown quieter through recent years. Howard has won 1,095 races in his career, 77 of them graded stakes. He has won graded stakes at an 18 percent rate, and there probably is no man with a better reputation on backstretches across America. Steve Asmussen a couple of years ago spoke of his admiration for Howard's class, saying Howard had treated him with the same respect when he was a struggling young horseman as he did after Asmussen reached the top.
In 2003, Howard managed Mineshaft to a championship season, and in 2005 his stable won 43 races and eight graded stakes. But his annual win total slipped from 31 in 2007 to 11 in 2008 and 13 in 2009. Between 2006 and 2009, Howard-trained graded stakes runners won 3 of 61 starts.
There can be peril in a private trainer's job - few of which even exist anymore - especially for an owner who races many more homebreds than sales purchases. The work is steady, a paycheck assured, but there is no way to infuse life into a stable with new clients buying different sorts of horses.
Campbell wasted no time sending horses to Howard's new public stable. There are eight Dogwood runners in the barn right now.
"I think he's a fine horseman, a great detail man, and an honest man with great integrity," Campbell said of Howard.
Thanks to Lou Brissie's win in the Grade 3 Kentucky Juvenile on April 30, Howard already has notched one more graded stakes victory than he did in 2009. But the jury is still out on what sort of horse Lou Brissie might be. He has beaten nine rivals in his two wins, the first a debut victory at Keeneland, and Lou Brissie's dam's sire is Forest Wildcat, a powerful speed influence.
"He is put together more like a sprinter, but he reminds me a little bit of Reggie Bush," Howard said, referring to the New Orleans Saints running back. "He's medium-sized, very athletic looking, like a little bull. But he's got a reach on him, a big stride. He stands over a big piece of ground, and I do think he's going to still do some growing."
Lou Brissie proved himself among the early-developing set of 2-year-olds, but in the Bashford Manor and points beyond, new waves of youngsters will start to appear.
"I'm well aware that a lot of 2-year-olds of quality are going to be coming out of the woodwork," Howard said. "But he hasn't done anything wrong yet. Everything he does is like an older horse. He relaxes, he finishes - I think there's something there."
Despite his lack of horse history, Lou Brissie the man has followed Lou Brissie the colt with keen attention.
"He grasps it for a guy who wasn't a horseplayer or horse owner in his life," Campbell said.
Brissie has been to Aiken several times to watch the horse train, and he was there for the Aiken trial in which Lou Brissie finished second.
"I saw that," Brissie said. "He got out of the stall kind of slow, but if that race had lasted another 60 feet, he'd have won it. He really came on strong. I think he's done that in every race he's been in, come from way back to up front."
The colt seems courageous and determined - just like his namesake.
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* Plus video analysis of the weekend's biggest stakes