Dogwood Stables president Cot Campbell returns with Limehouse and fresh Kentucky Derby dreams.
OLDSMAR - Cot Campbell rambled down to Florida 56 years ago looking for his future. He returns today with the horse he hopes can win his first Kentucky Derby.
Maybe Limehouse finally is the one. Campbell thinks maybe, just maybe. He'll get a much better idea after his Florida-bred 3-year-old contests the Grade III, 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby today at Tampa Bay Downs.
"He's easy on himself, and he's professional," Campbell said. "I don't know if he will win, but he is a good racehorse. He understands the game."
Born the son of an oil wildcatter in New Orleans, the 76-year-old Campbell is quick with a quip and quicker with a story, and one of the better ones wraps around Tampa. It just took a half century to bring the president of Dogwood Stable back to town.
The lengthy chapter began in 1948, when Campbell was 21 and "flunked" out of college in Georgia, then decided his future was somewhere at the end of a long highway heading south. He packed a few belongings and stood by the roadside to hitchhike to Florida.
"I needed to go somewhere," he said.
Campbell hopped out in Winter Haven and soon found work as a boat driver in the water ski shows at Cypress Gardens.
"One day the emcee got drunk and did not show up, and they asked who would try it," he remembered. "I said, "Why not.' "
On one of those boat rides, Campbell decided he wanted to be a newspaperman, and he took a job for about six months working as a self-described "cub reporter" at the now-defunct Tampa Times.
"I covered civic clubs and other matters of enormous import," he said. "Obits and ship sailings and a few other minor things. I was pretty green. I left probably just before they fired me."
Campbell returned to Winter Haven as a sports writer and eventually sports editor of the News-Chief. It was there he witnessed some of the moments that helped weave the fabric of Florida's sports legacy.
"I saw Whitey Ford pitch his first game for the Yankees (in spring training) and Joe DiMaggio play his last in Lakeland," he recalled. "And I covered the great Sugar Ray Robinson fighting in Orlando."
After turning 30 and "getting serious," Campbell founded an advertising copyrighting firm and amassed a fortune that allowed him to play sports instead of covering them.
In 1969 he organized Dogwood Stable in his home of Aiken, S.C., the East's steeplechase epicenter, and started soliciting partners to buy and racehorses. Campbell came close to his dream in 1990 when Summer Squall finished second in the Kentucky Derby and won the Preakness. Impeachment, his sixth Derby starter, was third in 2000 after finishing second at Tampa Bay, a race Campbell did not attend. Dogwood owns 65 racehorses and won $2.2-million in purses in 2003.
All of Dogwood Stable's horses are purchased at yearling sales, then sold to breeders when they are retired from racing.
Limehouse's partners include three other men, but Campbell is the most involved as racing manager. It was he who decided to spend $140,000 for Limehouse at the 2002 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale.
"I look for horses with the physical attributes, the attitude and the pedigree," Campbell said. "But it's like recruiting a pro football player from a 10-year-old kid. I'd be quick to tell you I saw those three attributes in a lot of horses that have not turned out so well."
When he purchased Limehouse, a colt out of Dixieland Blues, he indulged his and wife Anne's love for jazz by naming the chestnut in honor of Douglas Furber and Philip Braham's 1922 standard Limehouse Blues.
Campbell said a strong performance today could point Limehouse, a three-time stakes winner, including the Grade II Hutcheson, toward an April 10 weekend featuring the Grade I Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes and Grade II Arkansas Derby. Trainer Todd Pletcher was less certain about the future than why the Tampa Bay Derby fit in the colt's schedule.
"The mile-and-a-sixteenth was attractive to stretch him out for the first time since the Breeders Futurity," Pletcher said. "We felt like a mile-and-a-sixteenth at this stage of the game would be a little more appealing."
Campbell will be in the stands to judge for himself, back in Tampa for the first time since the early 1970s. No hitch-hiking this time, but maybe another glimpse into his future.