Cot Campbell: Things Important

By Eddie Donnally: Ride the White Horse


When Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor and set off WW II, President FDR declared December 7, 1941 the “Day of Infamy.” Exactly 16 years later, W. Cothran (Cot) Campbell had his own day of infamy.

That day the man who pioneered Thoroughbred partnerships with Dogwood Stables, raced 1992 Preakness Stakes winner Summer Squall and this year’s Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice walked out of Atlanta’s Georgia Terrace Hotel and into a twilight of misting rain. Somewhere between drunk and sober, he stood in the gathering darkness and watched the downtown crowd walk about totting bulging shopping bags as they paused to look at holiday window displays. A talented ad agency junior executive, he had met that morning with his boss who coolly informed him that if he didn’t stop drinking he would be fired.

“I’d been drinking five days,” he said. “I looked at the Christmas shoppers and realized what a poor life I’d been leading. I said to myself, ‘I cannot give myself this kind of beating anymore.’”

Among his escapades  detailed in his book, “Rascals and Racehorses: A Sporting Man’s Life,” is losing three cars parked near three bars in three days and tarrying at a New Orleans bar so long one Sunday morning, a ham he was cooking for a live TV show, burned so badly it nearly set his apartment on fire. Campbell is a clever writer and the stories are comical.

Yet after over a half century of sobriety, he is quick to talk about an alcoholism that was anything but funny. “I’d done some horrible things,” he says. “I’d been in many jails, and I have no shame in talking about my drinking. Some of the best people I’ve known in my life are alcoholics. I started at age 13 to give me an identity and add a little glamour to my life. I liked it. I liked the feeling it gave me. I liked the people I drank with and the places where I drank. I didn’t know what it was like to not drink. That was not an option until I arrived at the point I couldn’t take it anymore. That day something finally clicked inside his head and I realized any kind of life was better than the one I was living.”

Like Clark Kent changing into his Superman outfit, Campbell found a phone booth, looked up the number and called Alcoholics Anonymous. “I walked the six blocks to the place, drank coffee and talked until midnight. I went to a meeting the next day. I immersed myself in AA.”

When his boss threatened his firing, Campbell told him, “I wouldn’t blame you if you did, but if you don’t you’re going to be glad the rest of your life.”  Within a year, Campbell rose to become vice president and was being groomed to become president when he left to start his own ad agency. Today, he occasionally attends an AA meeting, usually to speak and give hope to others. “I’m lucky enough to say that once I embraced AA I never again had an inclination to take a drink.”

How can a recovering alcoholic maintain sobriety in a world of high pressure horse trading, celebration parties, and long hours spent digesting the bitter pill of defeat?

“Entertainment is part of the job,” he says. “You would not know the hours, the days, the weeks and the number of years that I was where people drank. But I didn’t go live into a cave somewhere. I’ve thought from time to time that today would be a good day to take a drink but I have no more seriously considered taking a drink of alcohol that I have of taking a drink of arsenic.”

Cot’s message to those who relapse is to keep trying. “But in the end you have to be personally ready and can’t do it because your wife or mother thought it was a good idea. You have to do it because you owe it to yourself.  You have to give up, surrender.  Know that you can’t do this anymore. Know, I’m going to kill myself and anything is better than this.”

“Talking about it helped me. With me not having to drink was such a revelation that I quickly became proud of myself and discovered I had respect for myself. I saw other people’s reactions and realized that people are anxious to see you make a comeback. Once they see you’re trying they’ll put their hand out.”

Celebrating his 86th birthday in September, Campbell has made putting out his own hand part of a lasting legacy. In a sport as famous for its characters as it horses, he ranks among racing’s most storied bon vivants and raconteurs. If the long gone Damon Runyon had met him, a tweed-hat-wearing Cot Campbell would have wound up in “Guys and Dolls.”

Operating out of his Aiken S.C. base, he is known as an “old school hay and oats” horseman. He and wife Anne have made a lifestyle out of supporting and promoting racing’s charities. Gracing his resume is The John Galbreath Award for entrepreneurial excellence in racing, induction into South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame and the 2012 Eclipse Award of Merit. Riding a high and perhaps ending strongly, Palace Malice is in the thick of the battle for champion 3-year-old and after a Jim Dandy victory is heading for Saratoga’s $1 million Travers Stakes on August 24.

Yet, throughout his career, throwing a lifeline to those treading the treacherous waters of sobriety has remained a singular purpose. “I’ve helped many persons personally and I’ve gotten a kick out of that,” he says. “I’ve gotten letters from wives and children who have read my books or heard me speak and wrote that those things helped change their lives. I’ve not done much of importance in my life, but that is important.”