09/18/2006 12:00AM

Vigil for an ailing champ

Bill Vassar
Lost in the Fog was grazing at Golden Gate Fields, with trainer Greg Gilchrist at his side.

ALBANY, Calif. - Greg Gilchrist was kneeling in the straw at the front of stall No. 6 on the side of his Golden Gate Fields barn facing the shores of San Francisco Bay. He had his cell phone in one hand and Lost in the Fog's right front foot in the other as he briefed his stable veterinarian, Don Smith.

"His temperature's 102.2, doc," Gilchrist said. "That's up a bit from when we took it last. He's got some filling in his left hind that I'm not too happy about. But I can't feel any pulse in his feet at all, and there's no distended veins, so maybe all he needs is a little Bute."

Gilchrist snapped his phone shut and stepped across the shed row as assistant trainer Karen Long kept a good grip on Lost in the Fog's halter. When she let go, the colt took a nip in her direction.

"Hey, that's the meat over there," Long said, nodding toward Gilchrist. The trainer held up a right hand bandaged at the base of the thumb.

"He got me yesterday," Gilchrist said. "Got me good, too. The feeling is just now starting to come back. But that's okay. When he stops wanting to bite me, then I really worry."

There is nothing but heartsick worry these days among the people closest to Lost in the Fog, the Eclipse Award sprint champion of 2005 and the most popular horse to come out of northern California since Seabiscuit. In August, inoperable malignant tumors were discovered in his spleen, near his kidney, and just beneath his spine, spirit-numbing news that has turned a Thoroughbred fairytale into a medical nightmare, wracked with complications that keep Gilchrist and his staff on constant alert.

"It's liable to be like this from now on," Gilchrist said as Lost in the Fog reached for his water bucket. "Just one little thing after another. His immune system has got to be affected by the chemo, and that means he could catch any little thing that comes along. But I won't quit on him, at least not until he's ready."

A visit to the Gilchrist stable began last Thursday morning, less than a week after Lost in the Fog had received his first chemotherapy treatment at the UC Davis equine clinic. Gilchrist was listening to a phone message as he waited for the sun to break through so that Lost in the Fog could graze in warmth on a lonely patch of grass, just a short walk from the Gilchrist barn. The trainer broke into a smile as the message played.

"There were four of us together in Vietnam, in the 82nd Airborne - me, Greg Gatlin, Patrick Beale, and Wayne Worley," Gilchrist explained. "We vowed that if we made it home we'd get together every year at Super Bowl time no matter what. And we have.

"That message was from Greg," Gilchrist said. "They just scattered Patrick's ashes over a whole lot of Irish countryside, just like he wanted, and now they're trying to drink up all the Guinness they can find. I'd be with them, too, if it wasn't for Lost in the Fog."

But then, a horse like Lost in the Fog tends to reorder priorities. More than just a reliable meal ticket or a lovable barn character, he raised the emotional stakes. Owner Harry Aleo would beam like a proud father whenever Lost in the Fog was mentioned. Russell Baze looked upon his most famous mount as a fellow artist and collaborator in high drama. Gilchrist treats Lost in the Fog like the younger brother he never had.

"I remember being at Pleasanton, and going weak in the knees when they told me what they found at Davis," Gilchrist said. "They wanted to put him down right away. But I said, whoa, let's at least give him a chance. We owe him that much."

A few yards away, beneath the shed row, Lost in the Fog was out of his stall and walking around under a shimmering white cooler adorned with Gilchrist's royal blue "GG" logo.

"It's amazing he looks as good as he does," Gilchrist said. "Then, he's always been a healthy horse. In fact, I've never had a horse with blood so rich. He'd always run a red cell count in the 11.5 range, on a constant basis, compared to the normal count down around 9.2. A horse will store more blood and read higher when they're excited. But that wasn't it with him. I guarantee you that right now, as sick as he is, I'm running horses who don't have as good a blood count as he does."

A few minutes later, Lost in the Fog was grazing, with Gilchrist at his side, shaking his head in amazement.

"I know there's times he must feel just rotten," Gilchrist said. "But here he is, enjoying the grass and the sun, and you wonder what kind of horse can be this brave."

At the very least, he's a horse who could win 11 of 14 starts - including the first 10 straight - at nine different tracks in California, New York, Kentucky, Florida, and Arizona. A son of the sire Lost Soldier, Lost in the Fog earned his last victory in the Aristides Handicap at Churchill Downs on June 3, and his last start was in the Smile at Calder on July 15. The tumors were discovered a month later.

As a fallen star with a national following, Lost in the Fog has touched the same sympathetic chords played since last May through the ongoing ordeal of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, as he continues to recover from the severe injuries he sustained in the Preakness Stakes.

"This office was filled with baskets of carrots and apples, flowers everywhere, and a big pile of cards," said Rowena Gilchrist, the trainer's 92-year-old mother, who wears a Lost in the Fog ballcap and keeps her son's office neat as a pin. "Look at this, what this lady sent from Novato, with the carrots and cookies."

It read: "Mr. Gilchrist. Please accept this basket I made for Foggy. The statue is of Epona - the Celtic goddess of the horse - she is for healing and has been holding vigil in my home for Barbaro."

"Here's another one," offered Patty Prospero, Gilchrist's significant other, as well as the Golden Gate paymaster. "This man from Indiana even wrote a poem."

It was a simple verse, a four-stanza ode to Lost in the Fog entitled "Don't Bet Against Him," accompanied by a note that read, in part:

"Dear Mr. Gilchrist & Mr. Aleo - I would like to express my admiration for both of you as you support the Fog in his recovery. You didn't leave your comrade on the field of battle and all of the supporters are grateful."

Across the Bay Bridge, in one of San Francisco's oldest neighborhoods, Harry Aleo sat at his desk at Twin Peaks Properties, on 24th Street between Noe and Castro. He likes to call the place "the Noe Valley Archives," and the clutter is rich with the bric-a-brac of local history. The predominating theme, though, is all Lost in the Fog.

"You know, he never had a chance to run his best race in his prime, as a 4-year-old," Aleo said. "But the Aristides, at Churchill Downs - it's heartbreaking when I think about it. He's growing that tumor, now the size of a football, underneath his spine, and he still comes through and wins that race."

Aleo picked up a thick manila envelope, filled to overflowing.

"I must have gotten a hundred letters from people, all over the country," said Aleo, the 86-year-old son of a grocer who famously turned down millions in offers for Lost in the Fog. "It's all so comforting. I answer every one of them - how could you not?

"A lot of people have suggestions about what we should do," Aleo went on. "I'll pass them on to the vets. There was one from a psychic healer who said that the horse didn't like his name, that we needed to change his diet, and that he needed to be out in a field.

"Then there was one from a lady in Florida, who had a kid that had cancer. She went and prayed to St. Michael, and promised if her son lived she would build a shrine to the saint. Her son lived and the shrine was built. She went there and prayed for the horse, then dipped a swab of cotton into the holy water, touched the shrine and had it blessed by the priest, and sent it to me to put on the side of his stall."

And did he do it?

"Damn right I did," Aleo said.

Aleo is no more anxious than Gilchrist to prolong Lost in the Fog's ordeal.

"My father died of lung cancer," Aleo said. "He swore to the end it was the chemo and radiation that was killing him.

"We'll give these next two chemo treatments for Fog a chance and then let them measure the tumors," Aleo said. "If they haven't been reduced, no more chemo. We'll just try to keep him comfortable. But when he starts to hurt, and stops eating, we'll know it's time."

Back at the barn, later in the afternoon, Gilchrist and Long were breathing easier after Lost in the Fog was administered a shot of Butazolidin. Within 20 minutes, his temperature had dropped by half a degree.

"Two days ago he had a pretty bad day," Gilchrist said. "He walked for a little while and then just laid down in his stall. After awhile he started lurching, and his gums went white, like some kind of awful colic. Then before too long he was up again, acting like nothing happened. I'm not sure I want him to go through too many more days like that.

"But he'll tell us," the trainer added. "He'll know. In the meantime, he's getting steroids, chemotherapy, homeopathic treatments, and 14 million people praying for him. He's even got a woman who comes out here every morning and plays him classical music. I'd say he's getting about every chance."