05/13/2007 11:00PM

Street Sense owner nods to his mentor

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Author, raconteur, and racehorse syndicator Cot Campbell has lived the kind of life in which it matters very much what people say about you in public. For someone like Campbell, part of the sell is yourself.

That is why it was so gratifying for Campbell when word drifted back to him last week in South Carolina that Jim Tafel, owner of Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, dropped the ultimate shout-out during the post-race press conference.

"Cot's a very good friend of mine," Tafel told the assembled Derby media while sitting next to his trainer, Carl Nafzger. "He taught me a lot. I tell him he's my mentor."

In the world of horse racing, an endorsement from such a pulpit ranks right up there with a Nobel laureate giving credit to his third-grade math teacher.

"He didn't need to do that," Campbell said this week from his Dogwood Stable offices. "Mentor . . . that's very strong. He was one of I think six partners in a very nice grass horse named Nassipour - won the Rothmans International in 1985 - as well as maybe a half a dozen horses that didn't amount to anything. Apparently he's forgotten those and gotten a little soft-hearted as he's gone along."

Winning a Kentucky Derby should make anyone generous. But Tafel's sentiments were sincere, and his recollection of Nassipour still vivid. As one of the first major stakes winners of the Dogwood syndicates, Nassipour turned Tafel and his partners a tidy profit by winning more than $800,000 before being sold as a stallion to New Zealand interests.

Inspired in part by Nassipour's success, Tafel went on to devote more time to his private Thoroughbred holdings, resulting in a portfolio that has included not only Street Sense but also champion Banshee Breeze and such stakes winners as Unshaded, Vicar, Metfield, Coolawin, and Binalong. Had Tafel stayed in the Dogwood fold awhile longer, though, he might have been part of the 28-person partnership that really put Campbell and his investors on the map.

Preakness week always summons strong memories for Cot and his wife of 48 years, the former Anne Dodd. They start with the 1983 running, in which Desert Wine, a son of the Never Bend mare Anne Campbell, looked home and dry deep in the Pimlico stretch until Deputed Testamony splashed out of the pack to steal the show by 2 3/4 lengths. Menifee, another son of Anne Campbell, came within 1 1/2 lengths of winning the 1999 Preakness, but couldn't quite catch Charismatic.

The Anne Campbell angle was a pleasant diversion, but in 1990, the Campbells and a 28-member partnership were squarely in the spotlight with Summer Squall, a son of Storm Bird who had finished second to the Nafzger-trained Unbridled in the Kentucky Derby. "We had a great rivalry," Campbell recalled. "The two colts ran against each other six times."

For the record, Summer Squall finished in front of Unbridled in four of those six encounters, including the Blue Grass and the Preakness, which he won by a conclusive 2 1/2 lengths over the Derby hero.

"Summer Squall bled significantly that winter in Florida," Campbell noted, "so I'd announced even before the Derby that we wouldn't be running in the Belmont, because Lasix wasn't legal at the time in New York. That was costly, because in those days there was that million-dollar bonus for the horse who ran the best in all three legs of the Triple Crown."

Unbridled ended up taking the bonus unopposed, by simply finishing a distant fourth in the Belmont.

"I always kidded Carl that he should have given us at least 10 percent," Campbell said. "I also remember after the Preakness how old Summer Squall was bouncing around the next morning. I thought, you sonofagun, the least you could do would be to act tired."

Still, settling for a Preakness, especially for someone trying to attract investors to the game, is no minor accomplishment.

"It's like throwing a stone in a pool," Campbell said. "The ripples keep coming back. I can always mention something about winning the Preakness. And even though it's not quite as good as winning the Derby, it'll do."

Such tales of victory and woe are featured in Campbell's most recent book, "Memoirs of a Longshot . . . a Riproarious Life," which pulls few punches in the description of his younger days as a free-wheeling ad executive and dedicated alcoholic.

The fact that Campbell, at 79, has been dry as a bone for nearly 50 years is quite beside the point. He is not the sort of man to hide from his own history. In "Memoirs of a Longshot," he recounts his addiction with just the right amount of self-deprecating humor and heartfelt regret. Lessons learned.

"I've had a lot of people tell me they've had the same problems I've had, and that reading the book has meant something to them," Campbell said. "That means a lot to me."

And, of course, he sent an autographed copy to his old friend Jim Tafel.

"Well, no," Campbell admitted. "I guess I figured if I'm already a mentor, I'd better leave well enough alone."