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Updated on 09/17/2011 10:36PM
Doing things differently
ALBANY, Calif. - The uniquely iconoclastic spirit of the San Francisco Bay Area has spawned Jefferson Airplane, hippies, sourdough bread, the newspaper columns of Herb Cain, the novels of Jack London, and a cooking revolution with Alice Waters at Berkeley's Chez Panisse.
On one side of the bay, sophisticates in San Francisco head to trendy cafes, trudge up and down wickedly steep hills, dart through fog that frequently envelops the city, all while living on a fault line that flattened the city 99 years ago. The other side is the home of Raider Nation, 21st century Visigoths.
Sports heroes? They've had plenty. Joe DiMaggio grew up in this area before making it in New York. Joe Montana and Steve Young led the 49ers to Super Bowl titles. Willie Mays was adopted by San Francisco when he moved West with the Giants.
A nationally prominent racehorse? Well, that kind does not come around here too often. Seabiscuit was born halfway between here and the Oregon border and raced here often. Citation and Noor had memorable battles more than 50 years ago. Phar Lap came here for a rest in 1932 after winning his lone North American start in Tijuana, Mexico. Then he died, likely from inhaling pesticide sprayed on a nearby field. The Australians still haven't forgotten.
Decades later, the serendipitously named Lost in the Fog has come along to give the Bay Area another top-class horse and make celebrities out of Harry Aleo, the colt's cantankerous 85-year-old owner, and Greg Gilchrist, the savvy 57-year-old trainer. With regular rider Russell Baze, 47, they have sent Lost in the Fog on an ambitious, calculated campaign that has seen him win all 10 of his races, eight this year. He heads into next Saturday's Breeders' Cup at New York's Belmont Park as the favorite for the $1 million Sprint, the leading contender for an Eclipse Award as champion sprinter, a contender for the 3-year-old championship, and one of several candidates for Horse of the Year.
Yet all that might have evaporated, like fog burning off, had Aleo and Gilchrist given in to temptation earlier this year by pushing Lost in the Fog to make the Kentucky Derby. And if they didn't want to do it, there were plenty of people willing to pay them for the privilege.
"Several million dollars," Aleo said one recent morning at Golden Gate Fields, when asked how much he was offered to part with Lost in the Fog.
More than $2 million?
"I've waited 27 years to get a horse like this," Aleo continued. "I don't need to make more money and let my kids blow it."
Racing fans got a glimpse of that feistiness the day Lost in the Fog ran in the King's Bishop Stakes at Saratoga, and Aleo incredulously asked how an interviewer could compare owning Lost in the Fog to fighting in, as Aleo put it, "the goddamn Battle of the Bulge."
He is his own man. Aleo lives in San Francisco and has an office in the city's Mission District, with "all the left-wing loonies," he said. He likes to tape pictures of conservative icons like Ronald Reagan to the inside of an office window. The windows then have rocks thrown through them. Aleo replaces the windows, and puts back the pictures of Reagan. He has three daughters from his lone marriage. "I've been happily divorced for 30-something years," said Aleo, who has been with Deannie Bartlett for more than 20 years now.
Aleo (pronounced AL-ee-oh) has lived in San Francisco his whole life, except for the three years he served in the Army during World War II. "The only move I'm going to make," he said, "is one mile to Holy Cross." Holy Cross is a cemetery. Hearing aids seem to be Aleo's only concession to age. He walks briskly even though he recently had knee replacement surgery, has a firm handshake, speaks with a booming voice, and goes to his nearby real-estate office every day from 9:30 a.m. until 3 p.m.
"You need structure in your life, or you mildew and die," he said.
So when the Derby aspirants in the spring came calling, and more recently breeding farms like Airdrie, Hill 'n' Dale, and Three Chimneys made inquiries, Aleo told them the same thing.
"He's not for sale now. I've told the farms that," Aleo said. "I want to run him as a 4-year-old and a 5-year-old, then sell him. Then he can live the life of Riley, and be a lover instead of a runner. He's got a chance to be one of the all-time greats. He could be. At least, we're going to give him a chance. Look at what they did with Smarty Jones. All that money. What are you going to do with it? It's not going to change my life."
Aleo has a soft side. Gilchrist said that Aleo's Twin Peaks Properties owns numerous apartment buildings in which seniors on fixed incomes reside. "They're just going to die if he kicks them out," Gilchrist said. "He rents them way below market value. He seems like a crusty old guy, but he'd give you the shirt off his back."
Asked about his elderly renters, Aleo said: "They've got Social Security, and that's it. Five dollars to them is a big thing."
Aleo was the lone child of parents who owned a grocery store. "They were" - he uses a pejorative for Italians - "who came over from Italy," Aleo said. He remembers watching Seabiscuit, Noor, and his favorite horse, Citation, compete at Bay Area tracks, and listening to the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race on a car radio. "Citation, I think he was the greatest horse who ever lived," Aleo said.
Aleo was a budding baseball star, a third baseman and pitcher, who signed a contract with the Dodgers in 1940. "I still have the letters from Branch Rickey," Aleo said. "But I was pitching one Sunday, threw a curveball, and click went my arm."
Aleo fought in the Army under the direction of Gen. George Patton. The winter of 1944 "was the coldest winter in history," he said. "We went through France, Germany, and Luxembourg. Then they said, 'Wait for the Russians.' I'm just glad I got back. I was lucky. I came close a couple of times. I'm convinced it's fate. A guy here is not hit, a guy over there is killed. When it's your time, that's it."
"Let's talk about my horse," he said.
Aleo became a horse owner after reading a story on tax deductions. "My ex-son-in-law, the only good thing he ever did was give me that article," Aleo said. A friend, Glen Nolan, had horses with Gilchrist, and put them in touch. That was 27 years ago. He has 15 horses now, eight at Golden Gate with Gilchrist. In addition to Lost in the Fog, Aleo owns the promising 2-year-old colt Frisco Star, a fast winner of his lone start at Santa Rosa.
Gilchrist has been around horses all his life. He was born near the California-Oregon border - "the nearest town is Crescent City," he said - the only son of Boots and Rowena Gilchrist, who did what they could to get by in the horse business. "My dad was an auctioneer, raced horses, had stallions, bred mares," Gilchrist said. "I'd spend summers at the track. We had a ranch, depending on what your definition of a ranch was. It was a mom-and-pop operation. There were a lot of them in those days. He had a card parlor. People did what they had to do to survive."
Gilchrist admits he was a bit of a hellion as a youth. "I didn't kill anybody. I was just a little wild," Gilchrist said. One last transgression, though, landed him before a judge who in 1968 gave him a choice: Bar-O Boys Camp or the Army.
"Five months later, I was in Vietnam," Gilchrist said.
"I did one year over there and came home," he said. "I was very fortunate. We lost about half our company. It was quite a learning experience. You learn how to stay real low to the ground and not get shot. Your butt or your elbows, that's all they see. Anybody who says they're not scared is lying. You're fighting to save your own ass.
"The whole experience," Gilchrist said, "was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I was kind of going the wrong way. I learned discipline, and what life is about. You tended to get your priorities in place real quick."
After he got out of the Army, Gilchrist came back to the Bay Area and started galloping horses at local tracks. He worked for trainers like Duane Offield and Willard Proctor before going out on his own as a trainer in 1974. His first major runner was Juan Barrera, who won the 1981 Del Mar Derby.
Gilchrist has never married, but he has been with the same woman, Patricia Prospero, for 16 years. She is the horsemen's bookkeeper at Golden Gate.
Gilchrist has fashioned a reputation of being a dedicated horseman who always puts the animal ahead of his own self-interest. He has been content to remain in the Bay Area - he lives south of Oakland in Castro Valley, equidistant to Bay Meadows and Golden Gate - with a moderately sized barn. He is based at Golden Gate, where his 90-year-old mother, who was widowed nine years ago, visits every morning.
"I carry 25 horses all the time," Gilchrist said. "I don't want a 50- or 60-horse stable."
That approach has left Gilchrist a popular figure locally, but not nationally. His best-known fling with the spotlight came with the fleet filly Soviet Problem, who just failed to hold off Cherokee Run in the 1994 Breeders' Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs.
"There's such a long run-up going six furlongs there that I think if that race was held at any other track, she would have won," Gilchrist said.
He has yet to need any excuses for Lost in the Fog.
Gilchrist first spotted Lost in the Fog at a 2-year-old sale in Florida. Bidding for Aleo, he went as high as $185,000, then dropped out when the next bid reached $195,000.
Lost in the Fog was bred by Susan Seper, who named him after a foggy Florida morning in which the young colt, by Lost Soldier, became separated from a pack of horses in a paddock. Seper sold Lost in the Fog as a weanling to Kelly Mitchell, who in turn sold Lost in the Fog as a yearling to Greg and Karen Dodds for $48,000.
The Doddses broke Lost in the Fog to saddle, then pinhooked him in the 2-year-old sale at which Gilchrist unsuccessfully bid on him. But two weeks after the sale, the Doddses phoned Gilchrist and told him they had bought Lost in the Fog back because he had not reached his reserve. They wanted to know if he was still interested. After negotiating, Gilchrist and Aleo agreed to purchase Lost in the Fog for $140,000.
The remarkable journey was about to begin.
Lost in the Fog finally debuted last Nov. 14 at Golden Gate and defeated maidens by 7 1/2 lengths going five furlongs. He has never lost. He has won his 10 races by a combined 66 3/4 lengths, has been favored in all 10 of his races, has been the odds-on favorite nine times, and has set track records at Turf Paradise and Golden Gate. His lowest Beyer Speed Figure is 102, his highest 116.
He always breaks sharply. "He walks in the gate, puts his head in that 'V,' and waits for the man to kick it," Gilchrist said. "And he frequently runs his second quarter-mile as fast as the first. Cheap horses can run a fast first quarter, but that second quarter, they don't look quite as good. He'll throw a quarter at you, then another, and give you more. You don't teach that stuff. It's raw talent."
Of the many remarkable aspects to Lost in the Fog, consider that he has made six cross-country trips this year - three to Florida, three to New York - while continuing to hold his form. The Breeders' Cup will mark his seventh cross-country trip from here and, as always, he will be accompanied by groom Pascual Garcia.
"That might be the bigger feat, to do all that traveling and perform at a high level," Gilchrist said.
Why has he been able to do it?
"I wish I knew," Gilchrist said. "It's his personality and his temperament. And he's like a kid going to the circus. He loves going to new places. He took a 14-hour van ride to Turf Paradise, and 14 hours back. You could buy his clone, and he'd probably not outrun a fat man. It's just something he has, that ability and talent. You just don't find many like that."
Lost in the Fog has a gorgeous white blaze cascading down his bay-colored face. He is put together well. "He's nicely balanced," said Gilchrist's assistant, Linda Thrash. "It's not until you get up close to him when you say, There's a lot of horse here."
In fact, Lost in the Fog doesn't have the blocky build of the prototypical sprinter. Gilchrist wants to stretch him out, but said that once he decided not to pursue the Kentucky Derby this spring, it made sense to remain in sprints for the rest of this year.
"There was a series of races about once a month for him," Gilchrist said. "Luckily, we've got a horse that you can jump on a plane with. Harry and I never felt pressured to run in the Derby. We were thinking about the longevity of the horse instead of one race. It just wouldn't have been the right thing to do.
"He just wouldn't have been prepared properly for a race like the Derby. And the way the race came up," Gilchrist said, referring to the Derby's scalding early pace, "it would have been a suicide mission. Look what happened to most of those animals. Two-thirds of them are probably on a farm."
Of the 20 horses who ran in this year's Derby, only three - Flower Alley, High Fly, and Sun King - were pre-entered in the Breeders' Cup races.
"No doubt," Gilchrist said, "we made the right decision. A lot has to do with an owner who didn't let ego get in the way of doing what's right for the animal."
The itinerary has been a costly endeavor financially. Aleo said it costs $20,000 round trip each time Lost in the Fog flies, so Aleo will have spent $140,000 on flights for the colt this year. And because Lost in the Fog was not an original nominee to the Breeders' Cup, Aleo had to spend $90,000 to supplement Lost in the Fog to the Sprint.
"It's going to cost me $110,000 to run in the Breeders' Cup," Aleo said, "but I have to do it for the horse."