Pete Vuckovich will never make the Baseball Hall of Fame for what he did on the playing field: 93 wins, 69 losses, a career earned run average of 3.66. But he's already in the sports cliché Hall of Fame for this gem, which he supposedly said to a cousin as a life's lesson: “Show me someone that doesn't mind losing, and I'll show you a loser.”
Cot Campbell doesn't like losing. I found that out first-hand earlier this year at the Eclipse Awards in Florida when I asked how one of his Dogwood Stables horses did earlier that day at Gulfstream Park.
“Ran second,” Campbell said, rather tersely.
“Well, that's not so bad,” I said, immediately realizing it was probably not the best choice of words. His eyes shot through me like a laser and for a second I was afraid this octogenarian might jump out of his seat and deck me.
Finishing second is losing, especially when it's a horse that carries so much hope, one that broke its maiden in August at Saratoga when everyone who is anyone wants to win a maiden race for 2-year-olds.
This wasn't the last time Campbell and his Dogwood partners would have to endure defeat with this particular runner, a bay son of Curlin named Palace Malice that trainer Todd Pletcher had indicated was good enough to be a serious contender on the road to the Kentucky Derby.
A month later came a narrow defeat in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds in Louisiana, narrow as in being the third nose on the line in a blanket finish. Losing.
￼Then followed a seventh-place finish after all kinds of traffic problems in the G2 Louisiana Derby. Plenty of excuses, but the bottom line: another loss.
The dream of making the Kentucky Derby starting gate was beginning to slip away, but Campbell and Pletcher called an audible: the G1 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Palace Malice roared to the front in midstretch of that race but lost his focus near the wire and got nipped by Java's War. Losing was getting old, but at least this got him into the big dance at Churchill Downs.
Pletcher changed things up by adding blinkers in the Kentucky Derby, and so did Palace Malice. Instead of racing from off the pace, he went right to the front under Mike Smith and set ridiculously fast fractions, understandably tiring late to be 12th of 19. It was his fifth consecutive defeat.
Palace Malice skipped the Preakness. For whatever reason, Pletcher rarely sends a horse to race in the Triple Crown's middle jewel. He started training in New York like the colt who showed so much promise as a 2-year-old. Clockers noted his improvement in his morning work, but he still had something to prove in the afternoon.
He did, finally putting it all together on the afternoon of June 8, winning the Belmont Stakes over Preakness winner Oxbow and Kentucky Derby winner Orb, and giving Campbell and his partners “the mother of all great moments.”
Horse racing, in some ways, reminds me of what former President Richard Nixon said about life as he exited the White House in shame some 39 years ago. “Only if you have been in the deepest valley,” he said, “can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.”
In racing, as in life, there are setbacks and defeats. You can't win ‘em all – not by a longshot. But losing is seldom fun and winning almost always is.
Cot Campbell is a competitive guy who loves to win horse races. It's what drives him at 85 to have such enthusiasm for a game that he knows has seen better days. He especially loves winning when the grandstands are packed and the crowds roar. Seeing him and his longtime friend Paul Oreffice leading Palace Malice down Belmont's victory lane was one of the great visuals of this 2013 Triple Crown.
It might even wash away some of those memories of defeat.
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