When Pleasant Colony came charging from deep in the pack last month to win the Kentucky Derby, the 3-year-old’s trainer, Johnny Campo, leaned over to ABC announcer Jim McKay and announced, “I’m a good horse trainer, pal, don’t ever forget it.” Campo, 43, has never lacked for reasons to crow—his galloping insecurity is a match for the best of his thoroughbreds—but this time no excuses were needed. Two Saturdays later Pleasant Colony won the Preakness, and this week he will attempt to become only the 12th horse in history to sweep racing’s Triple Crown with a victory in New York’s Belmont Stakes. The mouthy, rotund Campo, a/k/a the Round Mound of Sound, insists that he won’t be surprised. “Some people said he couldn’t do it, some nitwits,” he rasps. “But I’m telling you, he was just playing around with those other horses. Pleasant Colony is one of the greatest racehorses ever.”
That characterization may be premature, but Campo has emerged as one of the hottest trainers in recent years—and certainly the loudest. “Yes, he goes on and on,” says ex-jockey Eddie Arcaro, who became embroiled in a shouting match with Campo after Arcaro, now an ABC commentator, needled the trainer about his record prior to the Preakness. “But John is no dummy, believe me—and he has a lot to rave about.” Yet despite having won $13 million in purses and more than 1,100 races over the past 13 seasons, Campo had never won a Triple Crown race until this year. Then, just seven weeks before the Kentucky Derby, Pleasant Colony’s owner, Thomas Mellon Evans, decided to switch his horse from another trainer to Campo. The results were impressive. “It’s amazing that John could do what he did,” says Pleasant Colony’s veterinarian, Janice Runkle. “When the horse came in, he looked underdeveloped—all leg and no girth. John’s put hard training into him, and now he’s got muscle. Some horses wouldn’t have been able to take that change in training, but he was ready. Now he’s running like Bill Rodgers.” Campo’s hole card as a trainer is hardly a secret: He spends up to 20 hours a day with his horses, devoting special attention to their legs and their feet. “He feels that if you can fix their feet, you can make them run,” says his wife, Peggy. “If you put on a pair of shoes and they hurt, you’re not going to walk right. It’s the same with horses, he always tells me.”
Born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the son of an Italian sewing machine operator, Campo’s first exposure to horses was as a passionate fan of Roy Rogers. He bought his own version of Trigger, an aged palomino named Ginger, for $160 when he was only 16 years old. He dropped out of high school the same year and went to work at Aqueduct racetrack, just across the street from his parents’ new home in Queens. In 1959 he was hired by a top trainer, Eddie Neloy, who made him his assistant after four years but insisted on smoothing Campo’s rough edges with a 14-week Dale Carnegie self-improvement course. “It was a pretty nice course,” says Campo. “I think it would help a fellow who ain’t so high-strung.”
Married to Peggy Maiello in 1961, Campo struck out on his own seven years later, often mucking out stalls himself. In 1970, his second full season, he won 101 races, more than any other trainer in New York. But the next year his luck changed, and Campo was suspended for 30 days for helping to conceal the identity of a hidden part owner of one of his horses. In 1972 Campo narrowly escaped being kidnapped by two men waiting in a van outside his Long Island home. They later told police they planned to force Campo to drive to his bank, where they believed he had $200,000 in cash and $25,000 in jewels. In 1977 Campo’s second son, P.J., almost drowned in the family pool. A year later Campo was mentioned in connection with a race-fixing scandal, though no charges were ever brought against him. “I’m not in this business 26 years to go around fixing races,” he fumes. “But for two years I just had to live with what they said about me. The whole thing was wrong.”
Understandably, such experiences have fostered a certain paranoia in Campo, who is close to almost no one outside of his family. “I’ve always been alone,” he says. “Always.” Though he smiles tolerantly when people call him the Fat Man, Peggy says her husband “just hates being fat” and has struggled for years with diets. Yet at only 5’7″ Campo still tips the scales at 250 pounds, which may be one reason he drives around the track during morning workouts in a gray Mercedes 300SD while other trainers saddle up themselves or watch from the rail.
Away from the track, Campo is an insomniac who often stays up late watching a videocassette of his favorite movie, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and plotting strategy for the next day’s races. He reportedly watched a tape of Pleasant Colony’s Kentucky Derby win hundreds of times while preparing for the Preakness, and obviously his dedication paid off. “One thing you’ve got to understand about me,” says Campo, in a rare philosophical mood, “is that I’m constantly on the defensive. It’s been that way my whole life. I understand where I’ve come from and I know what I’ve accomplished. And I never want to lose it.” More than that, he is deeply conscious of the class barriers that exist in racing—with the Whitneys and the Phippses on one side and the Campos of this world on the other. “We went to the Belmont Ball last year and they sat us in the men’s room,” he recalls grimly. “I said, ‘You gotta know your place in life, cowboy.’ This year I think we’ll get a better table.”