06/25/2008 12:00AM

No playacting in this film


About two years ago, television reporter turned documentary filmmaker John Corey thought he had a happy little horse story all wrapped up and ready to go, complete with a feel-good ending that was sure to send an audience smiling from the darkened theater.

Then, without warning, feel-good went very bad. Corey's story took a twist that needed telling when the star of the piece, a champion racehorse, was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Corey figured he owed it to the colt, and the people closest to him, to stick with the project until the inevitable, bitter end.

As a result, "Lost in the Fog" did not make its film festival debut until this spring. But when it did, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Unsuspecting viewers at last week's CineVegas Film Festival in Las Vegas were taken on a dramatic roller coaster of a ride through Lost in the Fog's remarkable life, in the company of owner Harry Aleo and trainer Greg Gilchrist, stretching from the 10 straight wins that began his career, to his crowning moment at the 2006 Eclipse Awards Dinner as champion sprinter of North America in 2005, and finally to his shocking demise less than eight months later.

The reviews could not have been any better. "Lost in the Fog" won the prize in the Documentary Audience Award category at CineVegas last Saturday, giving Corey a much-needed boost as he now goes about the business of finding some kind of commercial distribution.

It is an occupational hazard for a writer or a filmmaker to get wrapped up in the subjects at hand. This writer pleads guilty on several counts. Corey, a novice to racing before his project began, had become a virtual member of the Lost in the Fog family.

Racing fans from coast to coast will recall the highlight reel. Lost in the Fog won stakes at Aqueduct, Belmont, Saratoga, Churchill Downs, Gulfstream Park, and Turf Paradise in addition to his hometown tracks of Bay Meadows and Golden Gate. No horse had come out of Northern California with such intensity since the days of Seabiscuit. All this is captured in the film, along with a steady narrative dose of colorful, rough-edged Harry Aleo himself, the World War II veteran whose real estate office storefront in the Noe Valley community of San Francisco flaunted his flagrantly right-wing politics in the face of decidedly liberal neighborhood values.

"I'm from Noe Valley," said Corey, 41, who spent seven years with San Francisco's CBS affiliate. "I grew up close to where Harry grew up, 50 years later, and I'd go by his office all the time, and wonder what kind of a kook he must have been.

"Then, when I was looking for a subject for one of our three-minute film features for our broadcast, I ran across a story about a local horse who was making national headlines," Corey went on. "When I read the owner had an office in Noe Valley full of all this extreme right-wing material, I thought, 'Hey, that's got to be my guy!' "

Corey did the piece about Aleo and his colt for his station, then decided there was more to the story. A lot more. At the urging of his wife, he quit his job to devote full time to chasing Lost in the Fog around the country, vowing that the movie would be done when the colt finally lost a race. It didn't happen until the 2005 Breeders' Cup Sprint, but losing a horse race was nothing compared with what followed in the summer of 2006, when a diagnostic examination of Lost in the Fog revealed inoperable tumors.

The most amazing moment in the film is the phone call. You'll know it when you see it. The scene was not staged or re-created. Nothing was digitally tweaked for dramatic purposes. It happened when it happened and the way it happened.

"We were at Harry's office to kind of go over the horse's career once more, kind of a debrief," Corey said. "We knew there was a chance he might get a call from Greg some time that day. I got about five words into my first question when the phone rang. Harry couldn't hear very well - he had a special attachment on his crazy old rotary phone, and we could hear Greg's voice as clear as a bell."

The news was the worst. Gilchrist was recommending that Lost in the Fog be put out of his misery.

"The air was just sucked out of the room," Corey said. "Everybody was on the verge of tears, including Harry. I mean, as a writer or a filmmaker you love it when something dramatic happens, and you feel guilty when you consider that something might. But I had a sentimental attachment to the horse, and to these guys. It hit me pretty hard."

Corey clearly got that feeling into his film.

"I added a little coda at the end of the film, to give people a little hope," Corey said. "Then it's quiet for a few seconds, and the screen is dark, and you could hear people just sobbing."

Corey flew home to San Francisco last Sunday to share the film's award with an ailing Aleo, who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer about four months ago. Upon Corey's arrival, a message was waiting: Harry had died earlier that afternoon, at the age of 88, at home in Noe Valley. On Friday, Aleo's friends and family will say farewell at Holy Cross Cemetery in San Francisco.

"It was Harry's charisma that engaged people in the film," Corey said. "I wanted to tell him that."