Obituaries

Cot Campbell, who spurred the democratization of horse racing, dies at 91

Jockey Mike Smith (left) and Mr. Campbell held the Belmont Stakes trophy after Smith rode Palace Malice to victory in the 2013 Belmont Stakes in Elmont, N.Y.
Mark Lennihan/Associated press/file
Jockey Mike Smith (left) and Mr. Campbell held the Belmont Stakes trophy after Smith rode Palace Malice to victory in the 2013 Belmont Stakes in Elmont, N.Y.

NEW YORK — Cot Campbell, a dapper racehorse owner and writer who brought democracy to the sport of kings by pioneering shared ownership of thoroughbreds, died Oct. 27 at his home in Aiken, S.C. He was 91.

His death was confirmed by his daughters Lila Campbell and Cary Umhau.

Just three months ago, Mr. Campbell — formally W. Cothran Campbell but widely known as Cot — was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., as one of its Pillars of the Turf, individuals cited for “extraordinary contributions” to the thoroughbred industry.

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For decades, horse racing was mostly a pastime for the moneyed elite, and the best horses were bred and often owned by such old families as the Phipps and the Hancocks.

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But in 1969, Mr. Campbell put together his first ownership syndicate, which allowed people from all walks of life to buy as little as 2.5 percent of a thoroughbred.

“Years ago I bought a thousand-dollar filly with two pals, and thus I stumbled into the idea of group ownership of a racehorse,” he told a large Hall of Fame gathering at his induction. “It made sense, and it caught on.”

Indeed it did. He established partnerships that operated under the name Dogwood Stable, bringing more than 1,200 people into racing, by his count. Dogwood’s horses have won more than 80 stakes races, including two American classics: the Preakness Stakes, won by Summer Squall in 1990, and the Belmont Stakes, captured by Palace Malice in 2013.

Mr. Campbell, who was president of Dogwood, estimated that more than half the people racing horses in the United States now belong to some sort of partnership.

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The democratization of horse racing he inspired was never more apparent than at this year’s Kentucky Derby, where nine of the competing 20 horses, including the winner, Justify, were owned by partnerships. (Justify went on to win the Preakness and Belmont to sweep the Triple Crown.)

Wade Cothran Campbell was born in New Orleans. On his 17th birthday he enlisted in the Navy and served on the transport ship USS Bull in the Far East from 1944-46.

His résumé included such jobs as master of ceremonies for a water ski show, valet car parker, citrus grove worker, and apprentice funeral director.

It was in journalism and then advertising that he discovered his knack for storytelling and the art of persuasion. Mr. Campbell worked for newspapers, mostly as a sportswriter, in Florida and Georgia, and then for advertising agencies in New Orleans and Atlanta.

In 1964, he and a fellow advertising executive, Jack Burton, founded Burton-Campbell, which, based in Atlanta, became one of the South’s leading ad agencies.

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He found another outlet for his communication skills, along with his Southern charm, at the racetrack, a place that at first evoked mostly bad memories for him.

“My father sold a Coca-Cola bottling franchise in 1940 to go into the racehorse business, and within two years he was broke,” Mr. Campbell told the Hall of Fame audience. “I didn’t inherit any racehorse head start from him. In fact, it was quite the opposite.”

Still, he was a horse enthusiast. In his memoir “Rascals and Racehorses: A Sporting Man’s Life,” Mr. Campbell recounted the beginnings of his horse career, when he showed a horse at the Nebraska State Fair. Later, as the ownership partnerships picked up steam, he decided to sell out his half of the agency and try to make a life in horse racing.

For nearly 50 years he was a fixture at racetrack backsides in the mornings and in its clubhouses in the afternoon.

He was a dandy, often sporting seersucker suits, paisley ties, pocket squares, and a fedora. An extraordinary raconteur with a Southern drawl, he also knew when to listen, especially when in the company of some of the sharpest breeders and horsemen in the sport.

Mr. Campbell wrote two other books: “Lightning in a Jar: Catching Racing Fever,” and “Memoirs of a Longshot: A Riproarious Life.”

“Cot knew how to sell the sizzle,” said Carl Myers, a longtime client and a partner in Palace Malice. “I wanted to get in the game but didn’t know how. He made it affordable and did all the heavy lifting, but more than that he was an ambassador for the sport. He made you love horses as much as he did.”

Mr. Campbell was as at home conducting horse business with the Aga Khan, Queen Elizabeth II, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum of Dubai as he was conversing with the $400-a-week grooms who took care of Dogwood’s horses. He specialized in picking out overlooked horses at bargain-basement prices at horse sales and identifying up-and-coming racetrack figures.

Along with his daughters, Mr. Campbell leaves Anne, his wife of 59 years; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

He was a member of the Jockey Club, honored with a commemorative plaque at the Saratoga Walk of Fame, and inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame in 2007.

“All my life I have been besotted with racehorses,” Mr. Campbell said in his Hall of Fame speech. “Now, as I pointed out, I’ve got a little age on me. I’m probably the only person in this building — or maybe this town — who ever saw Man o’ War. And I thank Man o’ War, because he lit the fuse that caused me to pursue an absolutely wonderful life.”