Those who had the pleasure of meeting Aiken horse trainer and Dogwood Stable President Cothran “Cot” Campbell over the years knew he was a true gentleman, but also a character.
We’re talking about a man who had the quirky habits of wearing monster masks and occasionally driving around town with an oversized doll named “Darlene” seated in the passenger seat.
Sadly, on Saturday, Oct. 27, Campbell passed away at 91.
A celebration of Campbell’s life will be held on Thursday, Nov. 1, at 2 p.m. at Aiken’s First Baptist Church, followed by a reception on the grounds of the Aiken Training Track at 538 Two Notch Road at 3 p.m.
It’s a sad week for the close-knit horse community of Aiken.
Just this summer, Campbell was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame as “Pillar of the Turf,” which is an honor given to individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to the sport.
Campbell was a racing visionary, who truly revolutionized horse ownership in this country.
But he was also a blast to be around.
Over the years, the Metro Spirit was able to interview Campbell on several occasions and each experience was unforgettable.
Shortly after Campbell wrote his second book detailing the horse-racing life titled “Rascals and Racehorses: A Sporting Man’s Life,” the Metro Spirit sat down for an interview with Campbell about his life and legacy.
The book was a follow-up to Campbell’s 2000 release, “Lightning in a Jar,” in which he outlined the pluses and pitfalls of thoroughbred ownership. Campbell also wrote a third book called “Memoirs of a Longshot.”
Although Campbell kept himself extremely busy between the horse racing and breeding seasons, he said he always made time for writing and spent much of his professional life doing it.
“I was a sports writer, I wrote radio copy for an advertising agency and produced radio shows, which I wrote,” Campbell said in 2002. “And I’ve always thought I was a good, clear writer. Writing advertising copy was good, because it teaches you brevity.”
Campbell, however, said he had to think twice about getting into book writing, initially turning down a publisher’s request to write the book that became “Lightning in a Jar.” Campbell’s wife, Anne, convinced him to rethink the idea.
While Campbell painted a romantic and fun-filled landscape of the horse-racing industry, it would seem the sport could lend itself to cut-throat competitiveness, owing to its high stakes.
But Campbell always said the sport rarely got personal.
Instead, Campbell said, it was more about pitting one animal against another in the race to the finish.
“I think we all try to beat each other; we try to win races,” Campbell said in 2002. “But I don’t think there’s any particular emphasis on beating another person. I’ve run in races with close friends, and you want to beat them, they want to beat you, there’s no doubt about it. But I don’t think it ever gets really personal. I really don’t.
“There’s a lot (of horses) I don’t necessarily pull for, but there’s nobody I think, ‘I want to beat that son of a bitch,’ and I don’t think there’s any of that directed toward me.”
In “Rascals and Racehorses,” Campbell was very honest about his life. He recounted the beginnings of his horse career as a pudgy kid showing a horse at the Nebraska State Fair.
From there, readers were taken on a zany journey introducing them to some of Campbell’s colorful relatives and associates along his path to thoroughbred success, which includes a Preakness win and a third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby.
For instance, there’s Campbell’s account of his ne’er-do-well Uncle Al, who attempts to liven up a party with a dip in the pool:
“With all the spirit of an Australian lifeguard entering the surf, he dove enthusiastically into the pool,” Campbell wrote. “There was no water in the pool. That broke up the party. And it sure as hell broke up Al. He spent the night in a nearby hospital suffering from a fractured collarbone and a severe hangover!”
Then there’s Albert Warner, a former horse partner of Campbell’s, whom he takes up in the chapter “Drinking and Drinkers.”
Warner liked to drink, an affectation that would often cause him to be absent from winner’s circle photos. When the photos arrived at home, Warner’s wife often questioned him about his whereabouts on the heralded day.
Finally, Warner went and had a studio photo made, which he then instructed the photographer to superimpose into the winner’s circle picture each time it was made, often with varying results of believability.
However, it seemed to satisfy his wife.
“Mrs. Warner was not interested in scrutinizing the picture, once she had ascertained that Albert was ‘tending to business,'” Campbell wrote. “The fact that Albert sometimes seemed to be levitating escaped her.”
Campbell, who swore off drinking when he was 30 upon joining Alcoholics Anonymous, also gave several unapologetic accounts of his own imbibing days.
Such as the time he set off in his pink Packard for a night of drinking in Atlanta. Emerging from the bar that night, he couldn’t manage to find his car and therefore had to rely on renting one in order to search for it.
In the process of the search, he stopped in at another liquor joint, and, you guessed it, he lost that car, too. Campbell rented a second car, which he also lost, before finally recruiting a friend’s help.
“When the sun finally got over the yardarm that day, we had located and checked in the two rental cars, and I was in proud possession of my pink Packard,” he wrote.
Campbell, who was born in New Orleans, La., and spent much of his life in Atlanta, called Aiken home for the past several decades.
Campbell was proud that Aiken had a presence as a horse-training community that extended around the globe.
Horses also brought much to the city of Aiken, Campbell said.
“In the horse world you can go to Paris, France, or England and talk about great training centers and they know about Aiken, South Carolina,” Campbell said in 2002. “So I think it creates a personality for the city and brings a lot of rather glamorous visitors in, who come for polo or horse shows or horse races or training of horses. There’s no doubt about it; it brings some heavy money into the city for visits; some of them stay and live here.”
When he wasn’t horsing or writing, Campbell enjoyed playing tennis and having quiet get-togethers with friends.
He was always a people person.
“I like watching people. We go to Saratoga and we do unusual things. We go to the fair — the little country fairs around there,” Campbell said in 2002. “I like knowing people in every walk of life. I like the fact that the people on the racetrack, the grooms and people in lower stations, know me and like me, and I know their names.”
Among Campbell and Dogwood’s accomplishments over the years were Summer Squall’s Preakness Stakes win in 1990 and filly Storm Song’s sales-topping bid of $1.4 million at the 1997 Keeneland November sale. Dogwood had purchased Storm Song two years earlier at Keeneland for $100,000.
Over the years, Campbell’s Dogwood Stable raced more than 80 stakes winners, including Palace Malice, who won the 2013 Belmont Stakes.
Unfortunately, Campbell and Dogwood Stable were never able to win the Kentucky Derby.
It was Campbell’s dream.
He always said if he ever did win the Kentucky Derby, the first thing he would do is throw a colossal party in Aiken.
“Winning the Derby would be a wonderful thing, and it would have stamped my report card with an A-plus on there that could never be taken away,” Campbell said. “My report card’s pretty good now, but winning it would be a marvelous thing and the ripples from that would go out like a rock thrown into a pool for the rest of your life. And they still go out from winning the Preakness. But winning the Derby, that would follow you to your grave with great glory and accolades.”
Despite never winning the Derby, Aiken and the local horse community will always be grateful for the love, kindness and devotion shown by Campbell.
He will be truly missed.