Judging from the reaction he received Monday at the Aiken Rotary Club, Cot Campbell might have thought his horse had actually won the Kentucky Derby.
“I got a standing ovation from people for the excitement that they had a little bit on Saturday afternoon,” said Campbell, whose horse Palace Malice faded to 12th in the 19-horse field. “It’s absolutely been amazing the interest and support there’s been in this whole region. It’s very heart-warming.”
The local excitement stems from watching the familiar lime and lemon silks of Aiken’s Dogwood Stable leading the charge through the first three turns at Churchill Downs. Palace Malice broke clean out of the gate and raced to the lead at the first pass of the finish pole. The beautiful bay stayed in front as much as two lengths down the entire backstretch as he led uncontested through the first three-quarter mile – his 45.33 second fraction at the half-mile mark the fourth-fastest in Derby history, despite the sloppy track.
As the horses made the final turn toward the home stretch, Palace Malice lost its nose on the lead and faded in the stretch. But for 90 seconds it was quite the rush.
“From the standpoint of people watching it back here, many of whom thought he’s going to keep on, it was a great thrill,” Campbell said. “Then finally they gradually were resigned to the finish. But they had a lot to yell for awhile.”
For Campbell watching from his owner’s box on “Millionaires Row,” the sight of his horse bolting to the front wasn’t as pleasant. It certainly wasn’t the plan they’d asked of veteran jockey Mike Smith.
“I knew when I saw the first fractions and he’d gone a half mile in 45 seconds, there’s no way you can do that and still be around when the finish comes. Not at a mile-and-a-quarter,” Campbell said.
“He didn’t show anything he hadn’t shown before. We know he’s got the speed, it’s just that he produced it at the wrong time. We had told the rider to try to lay in the second tier. Don’t be up with the front runners and then make your move around the turn coming for home. That was the ideal scenario hoping some other horses would go out there like scalded dogs and soften things up and we’d come with our run. The blinkers tossed that plan in the trash can. Mike said he was either going to have to fight with him or let him go, hoping he would settle when he got the lead. But he didn’t even settle then.”
It was Orb who laid back and raced to the win at the finish.
“He set it up for Orb and some of those others,” Campbell said. “Those horses that were with him all faded to the back of the pack. To be him or those following him was not a good idea on that day.”
Trainer Todd Pletcher had opted to use the blinkers on his 3-year-old after a distracted run to the wire at the Blue Grass Stakes cost Palace Malice the win by a head to the late-charging Java’s War on April 13. But the tack didn’t have the desired effect the first Saturday of May.
“We thought the blinkers would focus him more and his training in the blinkers had seemed to,” Campbell said. “But I think when he got in there with 19 other horses and 150,000 people and he knew this was the real McCoy, I think he was very rank and that’s not him. He’s just been the easiest horse to ride and put him wherever you want to and ask him whenever. So I think the blinkers had to be the culprit.”
At 20-1, Palace Malice was the 10th choice among the morning-line favorites, so Campbell wasn’t going in expecting this would be the horse to finally fulfill his Derby dreams in his seventh attempt. But the sloppy track and lack of a dominant superhorse favorite certainly allowed room for dreams.
“I thought he would pull off a good race,” Campbell said. “I would never be dumb enough to say I thought he would win the Derby. To win the Derby you have to have a good horse and he’s got to be lucky that day and you have to have some others that have got to be unlucky. I thought always he’s a very genuine, consistent, hard-knocking and capable horse. In the right case scenario he could be right there. I thought he fought on bravely.”
The tough effort in Kentucky made it easy for Campbell to decide not to send his horse to Pimlico for the Preakness Stakes, where Summer Squall gave Campbell his only Triple Crown race victory in 1990.
“I think he just wouldn’t come back in two weeks off of this race; it took a lot out of him, of course,” Campbell said. “He’s had an active campaign up to now and I think to send him to Baltimore would just be very foolish. The Belmont is conceivable – probably not but conceivable. Mostly we’ll be looking at a summer campaign that would include the Travers and some of those big races at Saratoga.”
As for Campbell, he hasn’t given up on his Kentucky Derby quest just yet and wanted to make that clear after hearing NBC’s Tom Hammond’s comments during the post parade.
“He said that this horse is owned by Dogwood Stable, that’s Cot Campbell who is 84 years old and retiring after this,” Campbell said. “I just made some remarks here at the Rotary Club and said, ‘First, I’m 85 years old. And second, I ain’t even close to retiring.’ We don’t carry as many horses as we did – used to have 65 and we’ve got maybe 28 now. That’s comfortable. I enjoy doing that and it’s about the pace I want to go. But I’d be unhappy retired. I really would. I have a nice life, I enjoy leading it and love what I do and I’m going to keep on doing it until I fall off the perch.”
To that end, Campbell bought some yearlings and three 2-year-olds in April to see if one might pan out to carry Dogwood’s colors at next year’s Kentucky Derby.
“I wouldn’t rule it out,” he said. “I’m moving ahead to try to get another one. We’ve got some good prospects. That’s the great thing about the horse business. You always think you’re right on the verge of coming up with some great things.”