Pleasant Colony and the Crown of Thorns

Pleasant Colony and the Crown of Thorns

Forty years later, one contender’s run at the 1981 Triple Crown is a tale of failed promise, shattered lives and, in certain eyes, something deeply sinister.

“Can I see your ID?”

It’s not a request often heard before a champagne toast. Certainly not at one saluting the champion of the Kentucky Derby, an event seldom associated with temperance.

But forgive the server. The youthful celebrant standing before him in the Churchill Downs banquet room, clad in all white, looked younger than her years, with her curtain of straight, brown hair covered by a large, brimmed hat, circular eyeglasses obscuring an unmistakably girlish face. Nor could you blame the waiter for failing to recognize Janice Runkle. True, she was the veterinarian for the Derby winner. But she kept the lowest of profiles, more interested in connecting with horses than with people.

In fact, Runkle seemed comically miscast for her role in a subculture both sophisticated and sinister. A bookish, reflexively modest Midwesterner amid all those look-at-me backslappers—“the whiskey gentry,” Hunter S. Thompson called them—she was, by her own admission, “naive.” Plus, she worked in a male-dominated field. If she had a dollar for every time someone asked, You’re Dr. Runkle?, she could have bought her own champion thoroughbred.

So, on the night of Saturday, May 2, 1981, Runkle took no offense at this request for I.D. She rifled through her wallet and presented proof that she would turn 28 in one month. Her default was to avoid confrontation, especially on happy occasions.

Runkle had met the Derby winner, Pleasant Colony, just two months earlier, and judged him an underachieving and ungovernable 3-year-old. “I thought he was a gorilla,” she said. Now, on this night, thanks in no small part to her horse-whispering instincts and medical ministrations—a mix of art and science—the dark bay colt had triumphed at the 107th running of the world’s most prestigious race.

The vet didn’t much care about the trappings of the Derby—the parties, the star sightings, the photo op with Kentucky governor John Brown. Runkle was embarrassed by all the people calling her parents to say they’d spotted “Little Jan” on the ABC telecast. But her horse had won, and that filled her with pleasure.

So she permitted herself a sip of champagne, a smile creasing her face as she took inventory of the tableau. Just five springs earlier she had graduated from Michigan State’s veterinary school. Now, Runkle was already at the pinnacle of her profession, with a thriving practice certain to swell after this triumph. “It was,” recalls the older of her two sisters, Diane, “fairy tale stuff.”

So why was it that, before the summer of 1981 ended, the body of Janice Runkle would be discovered on the shore of Lake Michigan? And why is it that, 40 years on, her death remains shrouded in mystery?

As first jobs go, this was like a Supreme Court clerkship. Growing up in Detroit’s suburbs in the 1960s, Janice Runkle was enamored with all things equine. She read about horses, drew pictures of horses, preferred stuffed horses to dolls. She begged her parents for a pony until on her 16th birthday they relented, giving her one she named Piggy Bank. And she never fell out of love.

In 1976, with vet school graduation approaching, classmates lined up jobs working with household pets. Runkle, meanwhile, landed an apprenticeship in Long Island that was lottery-ticket stuff. The hours would be considerable and the pay inconsiderable, but her boss, Mark Gerard, was perhaps the country’s premier equine veterinarian. In ’73 he had tended to Secretariat during a glorious Triple Crown reign; now he was overseeing more than 400 of the top horses, mostly at Aqueduct Racetrack and at his Belmont Park base.

To work for him, Runkle moved to Long Island, near both a boyfriend and Diane. (John Parisella, a trainer at Belmont, says Janice lived briefly on his property, in the home used for the 1986 Tom Hanks movie The Money Pit.) The relationship fizzled, though, and Runkle saw little of her sister. Janice was at the Belmont barn by 4:30 a.m. and seldom returned home before dark. She spent most of her scant downtime reading or working on a horse-themed children’s book she titled Piggy Bank and the Magic Peppermint Penny.

Runkle was the only woman among the 20 vets at Belmont, but she quickly grew comfortable around the barn and at the track. “She plowed through,” says Diane. “She wasn’t a big women’s rights type, but she didn’t take any s—.”

Runkle was the only female vet at the Derby in 1981.

It also didn’t take long for her to see the underbelly of the business: A year into her apprenticeship, Gerard starred in one of the great scandals—equally brazen and bizarre—in horse racing history. On Sept. 23, 1977, at Belmont, a little-known Uruguayan horse named Lebón won a grass race, the last of the day, paying off at 57–1. It was an astounding upset: In his previous outing at Belmont, Lebón finished 11th in a field of 12. His earnings for all of ’76 had totaled $711. And his few successes in Uruguay had been in sprints on the dirt. Yet Gerard, who was not known to bet, laid $1,300 on Lebón to win and $600 to show. When the result posted, he set off to collect his $80,440.

Though Gerard was recognized at the window, the teller paid out. The track, after all, isn’t Wall Street. Inside information isn’t forbidden; it’s the tipsters’ currency with hungry handicappers. Initially, the doc’s windfall was attributed to nothing other than his intimate knowledge and expertise.

However, the racing editor at a Uruguayan tabloid, El País, exhilarated by this unlikely triumph of a native horse, asked for a photo of Lebón. The Associated Press complied. And with that, a wild scandal was off and running.

To the editor, the horse in the Belmont winner’s circle looked a lot like Cinzano, a well-known Uruguayan champion who had won seven of eight stakes races as a 3-year-old, in 1976. And so the editor enlisted an English-speaking colleague to alert the Jockey Club in New York.

As it turned out, in May 1977, Gerard had contacted an agent in Uruguay and bought two horses on behalf of Joe Taub, a technology exec and future owner of the New Jersey Nets. Gerard paid $81,000 for Cinzano (then a 4-year-old) and $1,600 for Lebón (an obscure 5-year-old). The latter was a high price for a horse who had just sold at auction for $600, and who, as New York Times columnist Red Smith later put it, “couldn’t beat a fat man from Gimbels to Macy’s.” But Lebón had one thing going for him: a striking resemblance to Cinzano.

In June, the two horses arrived by turbo-prop in the U.S. Two months later, Gerard reported that Cinzano died from a skull fracture, having reared his head into a ceiling on Gerard’s Long Island farm. He filed an insurance claim, then used a photo of Cinzano to obtain a certificate of foreign registration from the Jockey Club under the name Lebón. Gerard’s reputation was so gilded that Lloyd’s of London paid a $150,000 insurance settlement to Taub (who was later deemed to have no knowledge of the scheme) without examining the “dead” horse.

Alerted by the Uruguayan editor, investigators uncovered the ruse. The son of Cinzano’s former owner, a graduate student in Maryland, drove to New York, examined the horse and signed an affidavit attesting that Lebón was in fact Cinzano. But the strongest evidence was dental. A 4-year-old horse still has corner incisors—baby, or milk teeth—which are replaced around age five. The horse at Belmont still had milk teeth. (The body of the real Lebón was subsequently discovered at a Long Island dump.)

Later, as Gerard was tried on three felony counts, according to Janice’s other sister, Christine, a large, menacing man stood outside the Nassau (N.Y.) County courthouse, making clear to anyone who testified: This won’t be forgotten. Gerard retained F. Lee Bailey, then the top criminal defense lawyer in the U.S., and Bailey (later a member of O.J. Simpson’s legal team) earned his keep, getting his client acquitted of the two main charges. Ultimately, Gerard was found guilty of a misdemeanor—“fraudulent entries and practices in contests of speed”—and sentenced to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. In June 1980, in its decision to uphold that conviction but reduce the sentence by four months, a New York Court of Appeals judge wrote: “The record reveals a factual scenario that might have been authored jointly by an Alfred Hitchcock and a Damon Runyon.”

Runkle, in her grand jury testimony, tried to save her boss and shoulder some blame (though there was no evidence she had any knowledge of the scheme), and that loyalty did not go unnoticed in a community that prizes fidelity. Her reputation already ascendant, she bought out Gerard’s practice, inherited his clients and—suddenly, unexpectedly, still in her mid-20s—galloped to the top of her field. She became the vet to Belmont’s stars.

One of the foundational myths of horse racing is that it’s the sport of kings, a pastime of the moneyed class. This may be true of the owners, but the rest of the workforce is populated largely by folks on the gritty margins. They wear boots. They wake up early. They shovel manure, literally and figuratively. And often they struggle to make a living.

Some are seduced—and it really is a seduction—by this world of nimble and majestic quadrupeds. Some are drawn by the process of cultivating a champion, making the small decisions that differentiate win from place from show. Some are transfixed by the suspense of a race. Some are hooked by the transactional side—the betting, the breeding, the stakeholding, however small. . . .

Or, in the case of John Campo, all of the above. For Campo, horse racing was first a refuge, then a place—perhaps the only place—where he could be king. “I’m fat. I can’t dress. Can you picture me as a big executive? No,” he once told The Washington Post. “I figured I couldn’t make it anywhere but the track.”

Campo was born in 1938—the year Seabiscuit raced past FDR as the world’s most famous mammal—and grew up around New York City, his family moving from one rough Italian neighborhood to the next. When he was 11, the Campos settled in Ozone Park, down the street from Aqueduct, and in John’s classroom at P.S. 108 he could see the turf out the window. Between that view and his relentless watching of Roy Rogers movies, his fondness of all things equine blossomed into true romance. Such focus, though, extended to little else; Campo dropped out of high school. “I just didn’t have no interest,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1971. Instead, he went to work at the track.

Campo started as a hot walker—a stable worker tasked with accompanying overheated horses after workouts—for Lucien Laurin, the French Canadian jockey who would go on to train Secretariat. Moving from one outfit to the next, he graduated to groom and then, in his mid-20s, to assistant trainer, working for the well-respected Eddie Neloy, who taught Campo how to assess horses as well as the finer points of handicapping. (Campo, for his part, came up with an innovative, if controversial, technique for cutting out frogs—the spongy, heart-shaped growths on the underside of hooves—to relieve swelling and pressure.)

In the late 1960s, still with Neloy, Campo found himself handling Buckpasser, an all-time great thoroughbred, and quickly showed a sixth sense for training. Neloy told SI, “He knows how to make a horse happy.”

Campo, in classic form, at the Derby.

Campo was less companionable with humans. He stuck out his chest and, at 5′ 7″, threw around all of his 250 pounds. “He was very loud, outgoing,” says Parisella. “The kind of guy who speaks his mind.” Neloy even sent his trainer for a few months to a Dale Carnegie course, where he could learn how to win friends and influence people. But, said Neloy, “All Fat John cared about was the horses.”

The Fat Man, as Campo proudly called himself, stomped around the barn in a T-shirt, puffing cigars, and transformed horses who had been written off into champions. He boldly predicted in 1970 that he would saddle 100 winners in New York, something that only one trainer had ever achieved. (That trainer, Buddy Jacobson, would make headlines later for other reasons: In 1978, his girlfriend left him for a neighbor . . . whose knifed-up, bullet-riddled body was found weeks later in a charred wooden crate. Jacobson was convicted of second-degree murder and spent the rest of his life at Attica.) A year later, after his 101st win, Campo was the subject of an SI feature that posited: “Heretical as it may sound, some people consider squat Johnny Campo, off the streets of New York, the best trainer in the business.”

By the 1980s, Campo was still top in class. And it was still considered heretical to say so. He cut a fiercely polarizing figure as he pulled up to his stables in a silver Mercedes, barking orders and whistling at women. But his devotion to his work, and his results, were not open to dispute.

In March 1981, Campo received a call from a frustrated horse owner not known for his patience or passivity. Thomas Mellon Evans, the Yale-educated scion of one of America’s gilded clans, was an original corporate raider. A feared and fearsome businessman—the “embodiment of Jaws,” as one congressman called him—he had poured part of his fortune into a 495-acre cattle farm in the sloping hills of northern Virginia, which he converted into a thoroughbred operation, Buckland Farm.

The placidity of that estate was interrupted forever on May 5, 1977. That day, police determined, Evans’s wife, Josephine—separated from Thomas but still living at Buckland Farm—fired three shells from a 12-gauge shotgun into her chest, then discharged a fourth, fatal shot into her neck. In the aftermath a local prosecutor described “rather bizarre circumstances,” including “several notes” left by the deceased.

Eerily, almost exactly one year after that death came a startling birth. Evans owned a series of fine horses, and this marked the arrival of perhaps his finest yet—a tall, lop-eared, brown beauty with a spidery mark on his flank. Sired by His Majesty, Pleasant Colony was blessed in both heredity and environment.

The colt won two of five races as a juvenile and as a 3-year-old at the 1981 Florida Derby finished fifth, 13 lengths behind the winner—which wasn’t going to cut it for Evans, who, at 70, was unsure he’d ever have another horse with as much potential.

Evans made a bold decision. Just seven weeks before the Kentucky Derby he decided to replace Pleasant Colony’s trainer, Odie Lee—“This business has a way of inflating you and deflating you,” Lee lamented—and picked up the phone.

When Evans hired Campo (right), Runkle (left) was roped in on the ride.

Campo agreed to come on, but he wasn’t going to do it alone. He dispatched an entire team to Virginia, including his veterinarian, to examine the horse. Runkle’s first impression of Pleasant Colony: This emotionally volatile horse is supposed to win races? She later determined that he looked undeveloped, all legs and no girth.

Runkle and Campo administered the equivalent of an extreme makeover—adjusting the horse’s nutrition, grooming, training intervals, even his shoes—and it was as if a new animal emerged. Pleasant Colony put muscle on his tall frame (almost 17 hands high), improving both his endurance and durability. In a strikingly short time the stable had extracted greatness out of mere potential. So much so that Campo put down a 25–1 early bet on his new horse to win the ’81 Kentucky Derby.

In Pleasant Colony’s first race under new management, on April 18, 1981, the horse went off at 12–1 and claimed the Wood Memorial, a nine-furlong run at Aqueduct, long considered a crucial prep race for the Derby. In the winner’s circle Campo was something other than subdued. “F—— easy, that’s what it was,” he crowed. “And we’re goin’ to Kentucky and beat those motherf——, too.”

Two weeks later, by the time of the Derby, Campo’s confidence had grown even more plump, despite the packed field of 21 horses. Swaggering around Louisville in a Kentucky Wildcats cap, he told anyone within earshot that the winner resided in his barn. The actor Jack Klugman, in town for the race, watched Campo deploy that New Yawk accent and demeanor—I got da horse right here—and pronounced, “He’s by Damon Runyon out of a Don Rickles mare.”

Under jockey Jorge Velásquez, Pleasant Colony broke from the seven post on Derby Day. The horse started unremarkably, but in the final turn he found his best stride, took the lead and held off a late charge by Woodchopper, covering the 1 1/4 miles in 2:02. Thomas Mellon Evans finally had his Derby champion. So did the inimitable Johnny Campo.

As racehands swaddled Pleasant Colony in the traditional blanket of roses, ABC’s Jim McKay made his way over to Campo for an interview. Unable to conceal a smile, McKay began: “You’re always a very quiet man. You wouldn’t hazard a thought on this, would you?”

Campo took the bait. “I kept telling everyone this horse was going to win. . . . We won easy.”

How, McKay wondered, had Campo been so clairvoyant? “I’m a good horse trainer, pal,” Campo shot back. “And don’t ever forget it!” (Campo had similar sentiments that day for Smith at the Times: “I ain’t no genius, but I ain’t no dummy. Everybody thinks I’m a clown.” When Smith asked whether Campo had ever dreamed he would win the Derby, Campo responded, “I don’t dream. I win.”)

Pleasant Colony (seventh from left) got an extreme makeover, and the result was a win in Louisville.

Runkle had made history before the race even began: She was the first female veterinarian ever to care for a Derby entrant. And then her horse won. But her happiness mingled with darker emotions. Decades later, her sisters describe a picture taken around this time, the equivalent of a team photo. Bathed in late afternoon light, Runkle was surrounded by the other members of Pleasant Colony’s entourage, including the patrician owner and the famously obnoxious trainer.

When Runkle received a print, her sisters say, she wrote on the back: Surrounded by evil men on the balcony.

Two weeks after the Derby, Pleasant Colony was the favorite to take the Preakness, both with bettors and with Campo, who in a pre-race interview told ABC’s Howard Cosell, “We know the winner. . . . What’s there to predict about?”

Even the colt projected self-belief. Hours before the 13-horse race, when thoroughbreds tend to need calming, Runkle found Pleasant Colony snoring in the barn. At the starting gates, he betrayed no concern for the crowded field. Bold Ego took an early lead but Pleasant Colony kept pace, negotiating the track’s famously tight turns, and surged at the end, crossing the finish line first by a length in 1:54 3/5.

Suddenly Pleasant Colony was a mile and a half from becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner—and this unlikely horse, with its unlikely entourage, made for an irresistible story. One popular angle: the redemption of Velásquez, a veteran who never quite got his due, and who had recently been tainted by scandal. In 1967, then only 20, he won more races than any other U.S. rider. In ’69 he was the nation’s top earner. In ’78 he sat atop Alydar in the fiercest rivalry in racing history, narrowly finishing second to Affirmed in each Triple Crown event.

It was toward the end of that year that a race fixer named Anthony (Big Tony) Ciulla revealed he had been paying jockeys as much as $10,000 to throw races. (What happened, Ciulla was asked in court, when a jockey failed to deliver on a paid fix? “I smacked him every which way but loose.”) Ciulla confessed in an SI cover exposé and, before disappearing into witness protection, incriminated a number of top jockeys, including Velásquez.

While never charged with a crime, Velásquez denied all allegations that he took money. But within horse racing, the reputational damage was significant. Three years later, with two Triple Crown wins atop Pleasant Colony, he could finally rid himself of some of that taint.

As the trainer everyone loved to hate, Campo made for equally good copy. A lengthy profile in the Times observed that he “may no longer be regarded as unacceptable by some of the talent-rich society stables that have ignored him for years” and delved into the source of Campo’s vaulting ambition. His wife, Peggy, served up a theory: “He feels he was unloved as a child.”

Campo (center), Evans (sharing the reins, in olive) and Velásquez (atop Pleasant Colony at the Preakness) each offered a tabloid-teasing backstory.

And then there was Runkle, a demure, straight-arrow woman succeeding in this jagged world flooded with testosterone. On June 2, 1981, four days before the Belmont Stakes, The Washington Post headlined a story PLEASANT COLONY RESPONDS TO A WOMAN’S TOUCH. It began: “As Janice Runkle stood in the tack room doorway at the Pimlico barn waiting for the Preakness, she looked like a character in a romantic novel. She wore a long, flowing, designer dress and a corsage of roses and carried a rose bonnet.”

Runkle didn’t exactly play along. “I’m just any vet doing a job,” she said. “There is no reason that being a girl makes it different. I just want to be treated with respect.”

When it came to allocating credit among the jockey, the trainer and the vet, Runkle was quick to defer. Pleasant Colony’s improved diet was a factor in his success, she said, but so was Campo’s decision to train with longer-distance gallops during morning workouts.

Asked about Runkle, Campo showed less interest in spreading the love. “I don’t want anyone to think [Pleasant Colony] needs a vet all the time,” he told the Post. “I don’t want anything taken away from Johnny Campo.” Later, in the leadup to Belmont, CBS’s Chris Kelly interviewed the trainer for a benign feature on Runkle. Asked how she had contributed to their horse’s success, Campo responded, “What do you mean, ‘contribute to Pleasant Colony’s success?’ . . . Why would a vet contribute to Pleasant Colony’s success?”

Taken aback, Kelly asked, “Do you feel more confident with [Runkle] around?”

Campo: “Confident? . . . Janice is capable, she’s here, she’s on call if I need her. But . . . I don’t depend on a veterinarian to do my work. A veterinarian is like a doctor, you know. They are buried under mistakes.”

“Has she made any for you?” Kelly asked, at this point clearly gobsmacked.

Campo: “She made some. Not to the extent the horses die or something. But she’s made some. They all diagnose wrong; you can’t help that. It’s human.”

It was, at best, a curious way to treat a colleague—and a more curious way to treat a lover. Though Campo had been married to Peggy for nearly 20 years, with two sons at home, he and Runkle, by multiple accounts, held a long-running affair. Diane says that in 1980 she accompanied her sister to get an abortion, terminating a pregnancy for which, Janice had told her, Campo was the father.

“It was complicated,” says Diane, sighing. “I think that was her downfall. . . . Her biggest mistake was falling in love with Campo. I mean, why? He’s fat and ugly and slovenly and uneducated. . . . But he had a certain power over her. And, remember, she’s waking up at 4:30 a.m. and completely dedicated to her job. It’s not like she had much opportunity” to date seriously away from the track.

Strangely, back on home turf—the Belmont track where Campo and Runkle based their operation—Pleasant Colony seemed out of sorts, as if fully aware that history hung in the balance. He lost weight in the weeks before the race, wasn’t training at his peak and lacked his usual calm, casual demeanor.

Campo sensed this and turned uncharacteristically quiet. So bold before the first two races, he now downplayed his horse’s chances of winning this leg and, thus, the Triple Crown. The day before Belmont he told the media flatly, “We’re not gonna win.”

The Fat Man was, again, right. Pleasant Colony struggled to get into the starting gate and had to be loaded in. By then, he was soaked in sweat. Out on the fast track, the 4–5 favorite started slowly, made a charge but never caught up. He finished third, behind Highland Blade and the winner, Summing. “I have no excuses,” said Velásquez. “[Pleasant Colony] tried hard, but I can’t carry him.”

Campo was philosophical, too, in his inimitable way. He blamed neither horse nor jockey, telling The Thoroughbred Record, “Five years ago I would have strangled [Velásquez] after the race. And before I killed him I would have told him what a bad race he had ridden. . . . It’s no disgrace he got beat.”

Afterward, SI headlined its account of the event: THE RACE WASN’T PLEASANT. But the real unpleasantness was still to come.

Pleasant Colony’s Derby and Preakness wins are overshadowed by defeat at Belmont (far right, behind Summing, middle). 

After splitting with his wife in the mid-1960s, the writer Pete Axthelm turned into a serial dater, getting involved with coworkers, athletes he covered for Newsweek and other women he met on his travels. Axthelm presented as a likable rogue—a witty, educated, hard-drinking charmer. He was also a horse-racing connoisseur, and in the summer of ’81, covering Pleasant Colony’s Triple Crown bid, he won the affections of that horse’s veterinarian, who was 10 years his junior.

Decades later, friends of Axthelm say that he provided Runkle with comfort and ballast, a wise voice who didn’t work on the ground level of racing but understood the sport and its cast of characters. It was not a serious relationship; they dated only a few months. But by multiple accounts, when Campo found out, he was not pleased.

“You’re talking about a love triangle—John, Axthelm and the girl,” says Parisella. Adds Paul Cornman, a renowned horseplayer, “It got back to Campo [that Axthelm was seeing Runkle], and he sent word out that Axthelm better not see this woman anymore. [Campo] frightened him.”

If Runkle enjoyed Axthelm’s company that July, she also enjoyed some downtime. Pleasant Colony—tired and bearing what was described as a minor leg injury—skipped most of the remaining summer races, and Runkle hunkered down at her cabin, reading and tinkering with more children’s-book ideas. “She seemed happy,” says Christine. “Same old Jan, but with more time on her hands.”

Which is why Runkle’s family grew alarmed when they didn’t hear from her the last weekend of July 1981. She had said she planned to stay home with some of her horses while others raced with Campo at Saratoga Race Course—but in those days, calls went unreturned.

On July 29, Diane initiated her own search. She says she drove to the Belmont barns and found her sister’s Volvo parked in its usual space. Using a spare key, she opened the car and found a bank statement with a five-figure balance, plus a note directing the funds toward the care for Piggy Bank. Inside the cottage, Diane found a pile of books dog-eared to pages about murder and kidnapping and, she says, “fear of harm.”

A day later, on a secluded stretch of Lake Michigan waterfront, north of Chicago, Runkle’s credit cards and other identification were found in a trash bin. Finally, on Saturday, Aug. 1, a family of boaters found Janice’s corpse on a deserted patch of brushy beach. Her pockets contained $3.60 and a hotel room key. Her body, in an advanced state of decomposition, was covered in maggots.

In their investigation, police determined that the following had occurred: On July 25, Runkle and Axthelm dined at a Manhattan steakhouse. (Diane says Axthelm later told her he ended the relationship at this dinner.) She went back to Belmont and spoke to Campo from her office phone. Campo flew home, picked up Runkle and brought her to Saratoga Springs, where after attending the races on Sunday the two had an early dinner. On the 27th, instead of flying back to New York, Runkle decided to visit her parents and directed Campo to drive her to the Albany airport, where she paid $204 in cash for a ticket to O’Hare (under the alias M. Clark) and boarded a flight. Upon landing, she mailed handwritten letters to Diane and to Axthelm, expressing sadness—“You just can’t understand the loneliness,” she wrote to Axthelm—and asked both to look after Piggy Bank. In her letter to Axthelm, Runkle wrote about her emotionally turbulent time in Saratoga and Campo’s displeasure over her new relationship: “The first two hours he spent threatening to kill both of us. . . . Funny part is, a couple of years ago, I went out with someone he knew, and he hardly batted an eye.”

Runkle, circa 1960s.

In Chicago, police said, Runkle checked into the O’Hare Hilton, again using the alias, and paid in cash. On the 28th, she took a cab to Illinois Beach State Park, in Zion, where she ate a hamburger, strolled to an isolated area and then, police theorized, ingested fatal doses of barbiturates.

Runkle’s death was quickly ruled a suicide. The Lake County coroner found pentobarbital and Dilantin—a concoction commonly used by vets to euthanize animals—in her system and police ruled that she “voluntarily took either an accidental or deliberate overdose.” Buttressing that theory, the report referenced abrupt and mysterious absences from work, as well as the letters she’d sent before her death, which “indicated despondency.” In New York, a state police detective was assigned to the case, and he reached the same conclusion. A reporter from the Times reached out for comment and was told the detective had already moved on to his next case.

Campo, throughout, distanced himself from the whole ordeal, leading to this New York Daily News back-page headline on Aug. 4, 1981: CAMPO DENIES AFFAIR WITH DEAD VET.

Here’s how he put it to Time: “We were close, sure, but I never touched her. Our relationship was one of employer and employee. I made her what she was. She would have been nothing without me.” Asked whether he would attend the funeral, Campo said he would not. “I’ll send her a bunch of flowers.”

It made no sense. None of it. When Janice Runkle’s family members heard the news of her death, their overwhelming grief was matched by overwhelming skepticism. Police held up a few emotionally charged letters, but Runkle’s siblings and parents had decades of context to go on. There was no indication, her sisters say today, that Janice was anywhere near despondent enough to end her life. Dramatic, as her writing suggested? Perhaps. But “she was the happiest young lady there ever was,” Janice’s mother, Shirley, said at the time. “She was on top of the world.”

At the very least, it was all wildly out of character. Janice’s whole mode of being was to overcome obstacles and find solutions. As for the scene at her cabin: the money left for Piggy Bank, the books turned to suggestive pages? “There’s no doubt in my mind she was trying to send a message,” Diane says. “What I saw was evidence of her feeling in danger and trying to find a way to communicate that. . . . We started looking for her immediately.”

Janice’s father, Robert, said in the aftermath: “It’s our contention she didn’t commit suicide.” Christine was more direct, telling Time, “We feel that she might have found out something she wasn’t supposed to know.”

That gut reaction only intensified when they began to look into the logistics and the forensics. First, Janice had no obvious connection to Chicago. No friends. No family. Why would she have flown there when greater Detroit was her home? That question was never answered by police, who in their investigation relied on an 18-year-old hotel clerk’s report that Runkle paid for her room at the O’Hare Hilton in cash, and that she had neither I.D. nor credit cards. (The clerk said she claimed they were stolen.) If so, then why were her I.D. and credit cards found days later at the beach, near her dead body? And given that EMTs needed machetes to extract Runkle from the dense lakefront brush, how is it that they found her with no scratches on her body (unless, as the sisters believe, she was killed somewhere else and dumped there)?

The family’s request for the autopsy report triggered more questions. Based on the ruling of a drug overdose, they hired a pathologist from Wayne State, in Detroit, who asked to see Janice’s internal organs—but that request was denied. Ultimately, that doctor (who died in 2001) conducted a private autopsy. And the results led him, too, to question the suicide ruling, concluding: “Jan certainly did not go peacefully.”

The family also hired a private investigator, plus a lawyer who filed suits against anyone and any institution that might have had additional evidence, from the Lake County coroner’s office to New York’s district attorney. In the latter suit, the estate alleged that “behind [Janice’s] death lay a struggle for control of the largest and most advanced veterinary practice in racing and over the manner by which breeding syndicates would transact their business.” The theory shared by Runkle’s two living sisters, whose parents died in the 1990s: Janice had come across information that would depress Pleasant Colony’s stud value, and some undetermined party stood to gain from that information being concealed, whatever the cost.

They have a theory, too, as to why the body was found where it was. The Runkles had a summer house in Cheboygan, Mich., on Lake Huron, the site of some of Janice’s most cherished childhood memories. According to the sisters, after Janice’s death Campo called to console the family, saying: At least she ended her life at “the place she had always gone to as a girl.” That Runkle had died on Lake Michigan, not in Michigan—just south of Sheboygan, Wis., not in Cheboygan, Mich.—was not lost on her family. Recalls Diane, “We all said, ‘Johnny, ya got the wrong state.’ ”

Runkle’s death may have convulsed the racing world, but as quickly as the story caught fire, the authorities’ ruling of suicide extinguished it. “I think about it to this day,” says Diane, now 78. “Maybe it’s because we didn’t have connections in media, in racing. But it was like the story just went away and her life was being discredited.”

Steven Crist, a cub Times reporter on the horse racing beat at the time (and who would go on to become a stalwart of the space; for a stretch he owned the Daily Racing Form), recalls four decades later how rumors and speculation ran rampant. One detail in particular sticks with him: Runkle’s wallet and I.D. were found, but where were her eyeglasses, which, by necessity, she wore at all times?

Axthelm, who died in 1991, never wrote a word about Runkle’s death, despite his intimate connection to her and his affinity for the true crime genre. Old acquaintances say he had a good reason: He was scared. “He went to Florida for a few weeks after [Runkle’s death] and laid low,” says one close friend. “He definitely was not convinced she had committed suicide.”

That October, Crist covered the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, where, had Pleasant Colony won, he would have earned Horse of the Year. But the day before the race, the colt was withdrawn after what was described as a “training mishap.” According to Campo, the horse cut its right hind ankle during a 7 a.m. workout-—but Crist inquired with the clockers (neutral track workers who time and grade workouts), and none could verify that Pleasant Colony had been on the track that morning at all, much less confirm the injury.

Crist wrote about the incident in the Times, noting the track speculation that “Pleasant Colony was not sound.” He still views it all with a raised eyebrow. “The idea that [the clockers] would have missed the appearance of an injury to a Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner just seemed impossible,” he says. “Between the Runkle story and the attempt to fabricate the workout incident, there was very much a general feeling around the racetrack that bad and dishonest things were going on with that horse.”

Still, the sport continued apace. A new year would bring new horses and fresh stories and other Triple Crown hopefuls. Having nosed out Pleasant Colony for Horse of the Year in 1981, John Henry became the sport of kings’ new king. Says Crist, “Everything moved on.”

In the fall of 1986, a suburban-Chicago accountant named Sander Stagman ran for Lake County sheriff against Mickey Babcox, the incumbent, who had been the coroner at the time of Runkle’s death. As part of his campaign, Stagman looked into Babcox’s handling of the examination, and he concluded that Babcox had covered up a homicide. As Stagman put it to the Chicago Daily Herald: “The more I find out about this case, the more I am convinced this girl was murdered.”

Babcox responded, “I can see where [the Runkle family] wouldn’t want to admit that she had committed suicide. But that girl had problems.” Babcox won the election, died a few years later, in 1988, and that was that.

Thomas Mellon Evans would never own another horse like Pleasant Colony. But he would remain in the racing ecosystem, mostly as a shrewd breeder. He would also keep up his reputation as a Wall Street shark, making many more millions in boardroom takeovers, even when it meant opposing his own sons. In 1997, he died at age 86.

Johnny Campo’s life plowed ahead, too. After his triumph of 1981, he spent the next 15 years training horses, though none as successfully as he did Pleasant Colony. Whether it was his failed flirtation with the elusive Triple Crown, the sudden death of Runkle, or simply old age, he became noticeably less bombastic.

In January 1986, Campo experienced tragedy of a different kind when a fire ripped through the wooden barns of Belmont Park, killing 36 of the 38 horses he stabled there. The fire was not deemed suspicious—the barn was more than 100 years old and the sprinkler system had been disabled by a burst pipe. Campo, though, was devastated. Not a day would pass, he’d tell friends, that he wasn’t haunted by getting that phone call at 1:30 in the morning.

Campo retired as a trainer in 1996, and when he died in 2005, at 67, the first line of his obituary inevitably referenced Pleasant Colony. Nowhere, in the thousands of words that followed, was any allusion made to Runkle.

Six years later, Mark Gerard died as well. After serving his sentence for swapping racehorses—and, consequently, transferring his veterinary practice to his unassuming female protégé—Gerard found himself effectively exiled from the sport. But not from horses. The man who’d looked after Secretariat quietly moved to Palm Beach, where he spent decades tending to polo ponies. Upon Gerard’s death at 76, his sister said he requested that his ashes be scattered “where happy horses graze.”

Louisville, where it all started for Pleasant Colony (five horses in from the left).

As for the creature who catalyzed this saga, Pleasant Colony seemed, somehow, aware of the tragedy and chaos swirling around his barn in 1981. After a grueling Triple Crown run, he ran the Travers Stakes in August and on a sloppy track finished second. When he took the Woodward Stakes at Belmont that September it would be his last win. After the leg injury Campo alleged the horse to have suffered at the Gold Cup, he was effectively retired to stud. From ’82 until ’98, Pleasant Colony resided near Lexington, where he sired 77 stakes winners. His offspring—including, two generations removed, Tonalist, the 2014 Belmont Stakes champion—earned more than $66 million.

Upon Pleasant Colony’s death in 2002, he was transported to Buckland Farm and buried amid the same undulating Virginia hills, where a dutiful, young veterinarian once ministered to him, teasing out his greatness. Though if she were alive today, she’d likely resist that narrative. She’d say she had just been doing her job.

Janice Runkle was memorialized on Aug. 6, 1981, in Michigan, and John Campo did send flowers, as promised. Christine, now 74, recalls the arrival at her home of “the hugest bouquet you’ve ever seen,” shaped like a downward-facing horseshoe.

Campo himself didn’t show up, but the horse racing community was well represented. As was the sport’s netherworld. Christine recalls “there were questionable people who came, that we didn’t realize were questionable at the time.” That lot included the large, menacing man who’d stood sentry outside Mark Gerard’s trial years earlier.

Runkle’s was an empty-casket funeral, in part because the body had been so badly decomposed, but also because the family’s pathologist had been conducting his autopsy during the memorial.

Toward the end of the service, Christine stood to read a poem that her sister had written earlier that summer, titled “I Am the Protagonist”:

Come closer while I whisper out our favorite story, the tale of the ermine flowers and how the meadow bloomed evilly with them, one verse read. Wiping pure physical beauty across the landscape like cold paint, defacing human values with every brushstroke.

“It was pretty clear to us,” says Christine, “my sister was writing about a world beautiful and pristine on the outside, but dark and evil once you entered.”

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