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Aleo meets me on a recent Friday morning at Golden Gate Fields, where we are joined by one Lanford Adami, creator of a Lost in the Fog fan site. Adami, who will later pry apart his shirt, Superman-like, to reveal a Lost in the Fog T-shirt he had made, is here to take photos of the horse, and for the next hour Aleo introduces him as "Lansford" who has a "Web site or something." Aleo sort of squints and wrinkles his nose when he pronounces "Web site," as if it were some terribly exotic French word.
It is a dreary, wind-whipped morning along the bay. Aleo is wearing a flannel shirt, bluejeans, and a Stetson the color of cream gravy. He has a new titanium knee, the result of a recent operation -- people around the track keep asking how his knee is holding up -- and with his hat and his limp he looks, as his trainer, Gilchrist, loves to note, a good deal like Walter Brennan.
A typical exchange: "I'm buying you a new hat," Gilchrist says.
"I have a new hat," Aleo replies.
"Well, you look like Walter Brennan in that."
"I don't wanna change our luck."
At that, Gilchrist concedes. "OK. Keep it."
(At a press conference two days before the Bay Meadows race, someone asks Aleo if he and Gilchrist ever argue. "Do a husband and wife argue?" Aleo replies.)
In the world of horse racing, Aleo, who was raised in Noe Valley and now works there, is what passes for blue collar. It says something about the sport that a man whose real estate office is plastered in Ronald Reagan paraphernalia is talked about like something out of Horatio Alger. His office is familiar to any San Franciscan who has ever strolled down 24th Street. Just look for the window with the Uncle Sam statue, the American flags, and the sign that reads: "This is an island of traditional values in a sea of loony liberals."
He is certainly not a typical owner. Bashful in front of a camera, often gruff in his responses, Aleo doesn't have the studied ease of some of his fellow horsemen, many of whom have spent a lifetime in the public eye in some capacity. This actually makes him a great interview. In August, as Lost in the Fog approached the gate for the King's Bishop Stakes at Saratoga in New York, an ESPN reporter edged over to Aleo and asked one of the worst questions ever enunciated into a microphone. "You played minor-league baseball," he said. "You battled in World War II, the Battle of the Bulge. How does this compare to those lifetime moments?"
Said Aleo: "How am I going to compare this great horse, winning eight in a row, with the Battle of the goddamn Bulge? Forget it." End of interview. The exchange is now legendary among Lost in the Fog's fans, and it's not hard to see why: Here was this Northern California arriviste, putting one of those eastern types in his place. For many around the Bay Area, which much of the sport regards as the sticks (although to be sure, some think "the sticks" means anything west of Louisville), Lost in the Fog's success is not just about a local product making good; it's about the establishment's comeuppance.
Aleo, who as a kid used to drop 50-cent bets on the horses with the neighborhood bookie and didn't buy his first horse until 1979, has also distinguished himself from his peers in his handling of Lost in the Fog. Where most owners would've pushed to get a horse of Lost in the Fog's caliber onto the proving ground of the Kentucky Derby (a grueling proposition for any 3-year-old, let alone a sprinter), Aleo, along with Gilchrist, didn't think the horse was ready and withdrew him from contention. And where anyone else in Aleo's position likely would've already sold Lost in the Fog and collected a sizable return -- he was purchased for just $140,000 and, judging by the calls Aleo fields these days, could now command several million dollars -- Aleo has remained steadfast. "The horse is not for sale," he says. "All this excitement and fun I'm having, just to get some money? Then what? Then I've got to start looking for a good horse again? These don't come around once in a million. So I'll run the horse. After a couple years, I'll retire him to stud.
"A lot of people sell 'em right away. Like Smarty Jones. They sold him for $38 million. The guy is older than I am -- he's in a goddamn wheelchair. What's he going to do with $38 million that he can't do now, you know what I mean?"
Aleo is in many ways the ideal owner for his struggling sport, which is quick to dragoon its promising horses into stardom but then despairs as they fade into premature (and very profitable) retirement. Even if Lost in the Fog does achieve the stardom many people foresee for him, he will finish his career, health permitting, on the track.
It's made Aleo an unlikely sort of hero, the cult around his horse beginning to swallow him up as well. Back at Golden Gate Fields, Aleo greets a group of people who have come to watch Lost in the Fog's workout. These are some of Gilchrist's neighbors, actually, and Aleo goes around the circle, shaking hands pleasantly. "Harry," one of them says, "I heard a quote from Saratoga, where an ESPN reporter asked if Lost in the Fog compared to the Battle of the Bulge ...." Later, when the workout is over, an older woman in the group will ask Aleo to sign a stack of what look like racing programs. "This is a treat to have you do this," she'll tell a reluctant Aleo. "Thank you so much." These programs, the woman will explain as Aleo takes a Sharpie in his trembling hand, were made up for her late husband's memorial service. "My husband was so fond of watching your horse."