02/01/2005 12:00AM

Meet America's most exciting horse

Unbeaten 3-year-old Lost in the Fog wins the Sunshine Millions Dash. His owner has turned down offers as high as $2 million for the colt.

HALLANDALE, Fla. - Before he appeared Saturday at Gulfstream Park, Lost in the Fog had never competed at a top-class track or defeated a horse of any consequence. Yet he was already the most talked-about and coveted 3-year-old in America. "He has grabbed more headlines than Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston," handicapper Byron King wrote in Daily Racing Form.

Nothing excites the racing world like a youngster with enough raw talent to conceivably develop into a Kentucky Derby winner. And nothing stirs people in the business more than the possibility of buying such a prospect before he has realized his potential. Lost in the Fog hardly possesses textbook credentials. But if Funny Cide could emerge from New York-bred competition to win the 2003 Derby, and Smarty Jones could go from Philadelphia Park to win the Derby in 2004, why can't a modestly bred colt from Golden Gate Fields do it in '05?

Lost in the Fog made his racing debut at the northern California track in November and won a sensationally fast maiden race by 7 1/2 lengths. The next month he shipped to Turf Paradise in Arizona, where he won a minor stakes by 14 lengths, smashing a track record and earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 109 - the best by any 2-year-old in America in 2004. Owner Harry Aleo's telephone started ringing with offers.

Aleo has been a racing fan since the era of Seabiscuit and a Thoroughbred owner for 25 years. He got involved in the sport after reading an article titled, "How to Make Money When Your Horse Loses," and he understands the pragmatic side of horse ownership. So when he received offers as high as $2 million for his still-untested colt, he knew what his most rational course of action would be. Even his trainer, Greg Gilchrist, advised him to sell. Aleo said no.

Instead, he and Gilchrist brought Lost in the Fog to Gulfstream for the $250,000 Sunshine Millions Dash, where he would face serious competition for the first time. One of his rivals was Bushwacker, a fast front-runner who had finished within two lengths of the nation's champion 2-year-old, Declan's Moon. It is easy for speedsters such as Lost in the Fog to look impressive dominating lesser rivals, but against other fast horses, Lost in the Fog could easily be drubbed and devalued. Aleo understood this. "This is the one we've got to win," the owner said before Saturday's race.

The speed horses came flying out of the gate in the Dash, and Lost in the Fog found himself abreast of Bushwacker and another lightning-fast front-runner from California. After they battled for a quarter of a mile, Lost in the Fog proceeded to run his rivals into the ground. He cruised away from the field (the demoralized Bushwacker struggled home eighth) and won by 4 1/2 lengths, running six furlongs in 1:09.96 and earning a 102 Beyer Speed Figure. He's for real.

But a real what? Is he is a one-dimensional sprinter or a horse, like Funny Cide or Smarty Jones, who can carry his speed a classic distance? Gilchrist isn't sure. All he knows is that this colt has exceptional talent. He was convinced of it when he encouraged Aleo to buy the colt for $195,000 despite his modest pedigree. (His sire, Lost Soldier, is a well-bred horse of moderate accomplishments who stands at stud for a $7,500 fee.) The trainer betrayed his conservative nature with his effusive assessment of Lost in the Fog. Months before the colt ever ran, he brought Golden Gate's Hall-of-Fame jockey Russell Baze to his stall and said: "I want you to remember this horse. You're going to be on him."

But Gilchrist was thinking about having a fast horse, a productive horse, not necessarily a Derby horse, and now he is at a crossroads. The trainer has to decide whether to put Lost in the Fog on the fast track to the Kentucky Derby, knowing the colt is not ideally bred for the classics; Lost Soldier's best distance was one mile. Gilchrist does believe, at least, that Lost in the Fog could learn to relax at longer distances instead of being the tearaway speed horse that he has been in his sprint victories.

Still, if it were his decision, he'd take the money and let somebody else take the chance that Lost in the Fog will be more than a sprinter. "If it had been my call," the trainer said frankly, "he'd be running for somebody else."

But it is the owner's call, and the owner is a man of firm opinions. Aleo has operated for 57 years out of the same storefront real-estate office in a San Francisco neighborhood that has become a bastion of liberalism. In Aleo's window is a sign that reads: "This is an island of traditional values in a sea of loony liberals."

Nobody is going to tell Harry Aleo what to do with a horse. "People keep calling me and making me offers and calling me back, but this horse is not for sale," he insisted. "I couldn't buy this kind of excitement and adventure for any price.

"I'm 85 years old. What am I going to do with more money? I'd just buy more horses anyway."