05/07/2010 12:00AM

Gilchrist steps aside in his prime

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Greg Gilchrist woke up Thursday morning not quite sure which way to turn. For the first time, for as long as he could remember, there was no particular Thoroughbred racehorse that required his attention. His barn gear - buckets, webbings, tack boxes, medicine cabinets, and the assorted trainer's bric-a-brac of nearly 40 years - had been packed away in a local storage facility. His name appeared nowhere in the entries.

The day before, Gilchrist had saddled his farewell filly in a race at Hollywood Park, and she won. Now it was Thursday morning, the first of what figured to be a lot of Thursday mornings, and Greg Gilchrist was a civilian. Again.

Thoroughbred trainers are not known for their graceful retirements. Those who have made a lasting mark are especially reluctant to let go. What they do best they can do until they run out of breath, which is why there always will be the indelible memories of old men like Jim Fitzsimmons, Buster Millerick, Henry Clark, and Buddy Raines still showing up to be with their horses. Of Charlie Whittingham, one eye blinded by botched surgery and cancer attacking his prostate, still there before dawn and walking the shed row. Of Woody Stephens, planted in his chair with his oxygen tank, still seeing things only he could see.

Gilchrist is just 62. By the traditional standards of the profession, he should be just getting the hang of it. His body of work, as a trainer based in Northern California, is rivaled only by the much larger operation of his contemporary, Jerry Hollendorfer. The breathtaking national campaign of sprint champion Lost in the Fog in 2005 was the valedictory gesture of Gilchrist's career, providing his friends and fans back home in California a series of satisfying "I told you so" moments.

But after Lost in the Fog died, in September 2006, and his chief patron and good friend Harry Aleo died 20 months later, Gilchrist looked up to discover that the racing game around him was suffering through an ignoble death march of its own. The standards by which he had conducted his operation were neither represented in the mainstream nor encouraged by management. The very infrastructure of the sport was under attack, like roads and bridges crumbling beneath his feet.

"The arrows are all pointing in the wrong way," Gilchrist said, "and no one seems to be all that concerned. The quality of racing in California just keeps droping off and off and off. And yet, at the same time, it's a very tough place to win. I've sold some horses during these past few months that have gone back East and they've all won - running for twice the purse against probably half the competition."

The fact that Gilchrist saddled and won with his last horse in Southern California - the filly Island of Zen in Wednesday's fifth - speaks volumes about his disillusionment with what has happened in his own backyard, where Bay Meadows was razed and Golden Gate has absorbed the bulk of the racing dates.

Gilchrist is a Northern Californian, a third generation horseman, bred and raised in the Bay Area and a resident of Castro Valley for more than 20 years. He began training on his own in 1973, after being discharged from the Army and spending most of 1968 and '69 in Vietnam.

"We all want things to be like they were 30, 40 years ago, depending on how old you are," Gilchrist said. "That's not going to happen. But it's just gotten so far afield - so many groups cutting up the money, people making decisions about racetracks that've never even been on blacktop - and I think our criticism is well founded. What really frustrates me is that you used to be able to embarrass people into doing the right thing, just if you got the press involved enough and got things out there. But they just don't care anymore."

In Del Mar, Gary Jones greeted the news about Gilchrist's retirement without surprise. Jones, who is among a select group of 10 current Hall of Fame nominees, stepped away from training in 1996, at 51. Health issues prompted his early retirement, but there were other reasons as well.

"He's kind of saying the same things I was when I left," Jones said of Gilchrist. "The game just wasn't the same game anymore, and compared to now it was pretty good back then."

The two Californians had a great time with a pair of fast fillies in 1994, when Gilchrist trained Soviet Problem, owned by John Harris and Don Valpredo, and Jones handled Cool Air for Frank Stronach. There was even a match race billed for the fillies on the grass at Del Mar.

"I chickened out," Jones said. "I didn't know if she could handle this turf course down here, and she worked terrible on it. Stronach wanted to run real bad, but I didn't want to take the chance. So she got sicker than hell."

Funny, though, how Cool Air recovered quickly and was on her game to meet Soviet Problem two months later and 3,000 miles away in the $200,000 Laurel Dash. Soviet Problem beat her by 1 1/2 lengths.

"Greg's a great horseman, a great judge of young horses, and a great caretaker," Jones said. "He'll become one of the premier bloodstock guys . . . if that's what he wants to do. But he's got to find something."

Gilcrist said he could buy and sell a few horses, or go fishing, or maybe even take up drinking.

"Yes, I might try that," he said. "I may finally see a last call or two. Fishing, though, I just get pissed off when they don't bite. I was walking up and down the bank the other day and told the guy I was with, 'I'm gonna start throwing rocks at them.'"

And then there's always that storage space, not too far from Golden Gate Fields.

"I kept just enough stuff that I could train a set of 20, 25 horses any time I wanted to, and I wouldn't discount that from happening," Gilcrist said. "It's not like I'm gonna forget how to train."