By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
I have seen Lost in the Fog hats and Lost in the Fog shirts and Lost in the Fog oil paintings being sold alongside Lost in the Fog tote bags. I have seen a LST N FOG vanity plate and sipped a Lost in the Fog martini made with a hunk of dry ice.
I have heard people speak of Lost in the Fog, a 3-year-old thoroughbred who happens to be the most exciting racehorse in America, and swear they see in him the handiwork of God -- the lopsided blaze along his face, for instance, which is regarded with about as much reverence as the imprint on the Shroud of Turin -- and I have beheld the creature on a cold gray dawn in Albany, steam curling off his back and everyone around either too awed or too tired to talk, and I have, if only for a moment, understood why people might say such things.
True story: Earlier this month, on a Saturday afternoon at Bay Meadows in San Mateo, the horse was being escorted around the indoor paddock before his race, the $100,000, six-furlong Bay Meadows Speed Handicap, in which he'd go off as an absurd 1-to-9 favorite. Fans were packed six or seven deep behind the rail, cheering the horse though he was merely walking in circles. They had their camera phones thrust in front of them, a sort of weird benediction. There were so many camera phones, in fact, that anyone glancing around would've seen the horse's image, shrunken and pixilated, repeated again and again in the palms of a hundred hands.
Anyway, the horse was circling, and all the camera phones were firing merrily away, and suddenly Lost in the Fog stopped cold. The crowd froze. What was he doing? The horse blinked. He lifted his tail and -- there's no other way to put this -- unloaded a fairly prodigious pile of shit.
There are many ways to take the measure of a horse. Few sports provide us with so many options. You can simply look at his record, at the number and kind of races he wins. You can look at the margins by which he wins -- seconds, fractions of seconds, lengths -- or, if you have the time and inclination, at the complicated algorithms the sport has concocted to objectively determine a horse's speed. You can look at the money he earns. You can even look beyond the track, at the inches of newsprint devoted to the horse, or at the box office receipts when Disney finally makes the biopic. Later in his life, you can look at the stud farm's fee for his services, the price of his cock being roughly indicative of the quality of his career.
But here is another idea -- here is how we'll take ourmeasure: We will look back behind the paddock rail the moment he lifts his tail and moves his bowels. How do people react? Do they look away? Do they cover their mouths and titter? Or do they do what the crowd did that day at Bay Meadows -- do they cheer?
There is, first of all, the matter of the name, perfectly suited to a horse owned by a San Franciscan -- 85-year-old Harry Aleo, a San Franciscan more by ZIP code than in spirit (unless you think the city's spirit makes room for an unregenerate Republican in a Stetson). In reality the name's inspiration was a weather pattern 3,000 miles away, when the colt was just a few weeks old.
"He was in one of the back paddocks with his mom," says Susan Seper, a breeder in Ocala, Fla., where the horse was foaled. "My girlfriend and I were walking up to him, and we couldn't quite see him" -- so thickly had the fog spread over the paddock -- "and then there he was, looking really lost. I looked at him. 'He's just lost in the fog,' then I looked at her and went, 'That's his name!'" Seper takes care to add that she "seldom" names her horses, that she typically leaves it to the horse's ultimate buyer. "But in this instance ...." In the blessed life of Lost in the Fog, it was only the first moment of perfect serendipity.
Today, Lost in the Fog is the best sprinter in the world, unbeaten in 10 starts, although he is sure to be tested this coming Saturday -- for the first time, if certain commentators are to be believed -- at the $1 million Breeders' Cup Sprint at New York's Belmont Park. It's his biggest race yet, not to mention the biggest, after the Triple Crown races, of the horse racing season. He will likely be favored, and with good reason: To this point, Lost in the Fog has not only won, but won decisively -- by 7 1/2 lengths, 10 lengths, 14 3/4 lengths, only once by less than four.
This can be a startling thing to watch. Everyone marvels at how smoothly he moves, how next to the other horses he appears to be running on a different, frictionless plane, bursting from the gate, then expanding his lead with every furlong. There is little suspense to his races -- he doesn't, or hasn't, run from behind -- and the excitement he generates isn't the sporting excitement of seeing a good, close race won at the line, but the more visceral thrill of seeing pure, almost otherworldly dominance. Last month, at a media luncheon two days before Lost in the Fog's appearance at Bay Meadows, a looped video of his previous races played on a bank of TVs. The stretch runs all were the same: just him, several lengths of churned-up dirt, and another announcer pitched into a frenzy.
"He's for real," the Washington Post's turf writer, Andrew Beyer, wrote in February. Beyer is the father of the indispensable Beyer Speed Figure, which provides a standard measure of a horse's relative speed, regardless of track and distance. At a minor-stakes race in Arizona last year, Lost in the Fog posted a Beyer figure of 109, the best by any 2-year-old in America in 2004.
"There's a certain aura about a horse with brilliant speed," says William Nack, a longtime turf writer and Boswell to the great racehorse Secretariat. "The one quality you associate with a thoroughbred racehorse, or when a layman thinks of a thoroughbred racehorse, is speed. This horse has as much of it as about any horse I've ever seen."
Some even have Lost in the Fog in contention for the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year, which would be an upset of enormous proportions. A sprinter, after all, is regarded as a lower class of thoroughbred. In racing, the longer distances, the so-called "classic" distances, are seen as the true test of a horse -- the 1 1/4 miles of the Kentucky Derby, say. Only those races at classic distances carry any sort of mythic juju. (Ask anyone why that is, and the answer is generally the same: That's how it's always been.) Were Lost in the Fog to win Saturday, and then later win Horse of the Year, it's safe to say he'd be the biggest story in horse racing, the biggest in years, in fact.
But the question remains: What would that story be, precisely? Even the great horses rarely get to "write" their own stories. That is typically the province of the popular imagination, always quick to grab onto stars or future stars, and in whose hands a horse story inevitably reads like a fairy tale for adults. It is at once wonderful -- a distraction from some of the industry's coarser elements -- and wholly distorting.
Consider the story of Seabiscuit, horse of the people, avatar of a broken but resilient country during the Depression, and -- this is the inconvenient detail that is often elided -- the prized possession of one of the richest men in California. Or Smarty Jones, the reputedly blue-collar horse who came within a length of winning a Triple Crown in 2004, a horse who actually achieved something close to national stardom. When he was retired last year as a 3-year-old -- supposedly because of a few minor injuries, though some suspect it was because his owners didn't want to jeopardize his stud value -- his fans were dismayed; their working-class hero had left and so had betrayed them. Of course, neither the horse nor his owners had betrayed anything but the fairy tale that had been written for them, perhaps in racing's haste to anoint a new savior. As Jay Hovdey, executive columnist for the Daily Racing Form, says, "We're looking for the Seabiscuit story."
This sort of thing, the anthropomorphism, the projection of human dramas onto the horse, is a mug's game: It's easy to forget that horse racing is foremost an industry, that the sport is almost incidental. Horsepeople, by and large, behave according to the imperatives of capital. Inasmuch as it is a sport, moreover, racing is an inherently elitist one, heavily controlled by those noted eugenicists called breeders. In this sort of world, can there be any such thing as a "blue-collar horse"?
The obvious exception, the horse who still seems to defy our best efforts at personification, is Secretariat, who with his name (after the League of Nations' secretariat) and his birth date (1970) might easily have been deployed as some sort of symbol of the Vietnam era. And yet, in the eyes of history, his amazing physical gifts, the 31-length margin -- 31! -- by which he won the Belmont, more than suffice. Secretariat, you could say, wrote his own story.
And what of Lost in the Fog's? His story is being written right now -- most literally by people like Beyer and John Corey, a former producer for KPIX's Evening Magazine who's now shooting a documentary about the horse ("It's a wild story," Corey says. "There are so many interesting elements -- a bizarre kind of destiny"), but also by the people in Lost in the Fog's orbit, the 50-some folks joining Aleo in the winner's circle these days.
Perhaps there's an even greater author. "I really feel like God had a hand in this," says Karen Dodd, who bought the horse as a yearling and broke him at her farm in Ocala. In March 2004, she sold the horse to trainer Greg Gilchrist, buying on behalf of Aleo. "I don't mean to come off as a religious fanatic, 'cause I'm not, but I do believe God's hand has been in all this." She cites the name, ready-made for San Francisco iconography. "We could've called any trainer in the country, but I think it was meant to be that Harry has the horse."
The rough draft of Lost in the Fog's story, as it's being told today, goes something like this: A blue-collar sprinter from horse racing's backwaters -- trained by a guy out of the "leaky-roof circuit" (bib overalls, corncob pipes, the works) and owned by a charmingly crusty octogenarian who once took orders from Patton -- transcends his modest pedigree and fogs up the monocles of the eastern racing establishment. "This is a blue-collar horse," William Nack says, "and he will attract the masses. He's one of us -- we all have questionable pedigrees. We're not all Queen Elizabeth's kids. We're all mongrels, and this horse is a bit of a mongrel." It is a story any racing fan who's not smoking Montecristos in an owner's box can relate to, never mind that it's not entirely accurate.
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."
Gilchrist's stables are a collection of low-slung green buildings not far from the track. As we wait for Lost in the Fog to be led out of his stall, Aleo and I watch some of the other horses canter to-and-fro, many of them beneath a female rider. "A lot of women in this business," Aleo says. "I used to hate it, years ago. It just didn't go with the horses. But over the years I've thought, 'You know, they get along better with the horses.'" A heftier woman bounces by on a horse. "Now there's an extra-sized rider," Aleo says. "That's kind of like a batter when he picks up two bats. The horse loves the jockey then."
After a few moments, Lost in the Fog materializes in the distance, next to his groom, Pascual Garcia. Garcia knows the horse as well as anybody. He flies with him for out-of-town races (Lost in the Fog, it is said, "travels better than a Samsonite"), coos to him all day in broken English ("Heyheyhey, where you goin', Foggy?"), even sleeps in the barn with him, or at least close by him, the night before races. Garcia was with Gilchrist back when the trainer had Soviet Problem, the 1994 California Horse of the Year, but Garcia says this horse, Foggy, is his favorite. "This is the big horse," he says. The big horse: It's that rare simple phrase in the lexicon of the track; horsepeople use it to refer to the breadwinner of any given stable, but also, more generally, to any great horse. "Too much class, this horse," Garcia says.
Now Lost in the Fog is in front of us, being mounted by Russell Baze, the Hall of Fame jockey who is probably Northern California's best contribution to the sport since Seabiscuit, and we all get a good look at the horse. People always say he is beautiful, which he undoubtedly is, though one has to wonder if there's ever been an ugly 10-0 horse. He has a dark brown coat, which grades to black around the legs, and which ripples thickly with his every movement; across it is a complicated network of veins. The thing that strikes you, though, is the blaze, the white stain that takes a kind of gypsy path off the left half of his face, a wonderful quirk for a great horse.
Aleo stands off to the side. "I can't believe, looking at that horse, that he's the No. 1-rated sprinter in the world," he says softly. "You know that?"
Says Adami: "And you own him."
"Can you believe that? It's unbelievable."
As captivating as the horse himself is, it is how people react to him, how they behave in his company, that's truly remarkable. There's an almost reverential silence, not just among the visitors, but among the grooms and assistants in the stable, too. Granted, that may have as much to do with the early hour and the foul weather, but nevertheless everyone around him is watching; no one seems to be moving except Baze, still pulling himself into the saddle. People have noted that an intensity radiates off Lost in the Fog, which is probably why the other horses in the stable shrink a little when he's led from his stall. Como un diablo, Garcia says. Like a devil.
He has always been that way, a complication for anyone looking for a genial symbol of the underdog. "He was obnoxious," says Kelli Mitchell, also of Ocala, who bought the colt from Seper as a weanling. "Don't use that word. He was awfulto take care of." She sounds cautious, as if this were a minor blasphemy. "He would just bite you every step of the way. Like when you'd want to walk, he'd want to trot. You'd want to go left, he'd want to go right. He was just annoying." She hastens to add: "It's fairly typical. All colts have some amount of that in him. He probably had more than a typical horse."
Lost in the Fog has, as horsepeople like to say, a modest pedigree. He is by Lost Soldier, his sire, out of a mare called Cloud Break, his dam. On paper, on a lineage chart, he was anything but impressive. At an Ocala yearling sale in 2003, Karen Dodd scanned the consignment sheet and asked her husband if he wanted to see "a Lost Soldier." He said: "I don't care nothing about a Lost Soldier." At the time, Lost Soldier was not a well-regarded stallion, but as Dodd points out, the industry is notoriously fickle, with studs drifting in and out of fashion. When he was paired with Cloud Break, Lost Soldier's stud fee was $5,000; today, at Buck Pond Farm in Kentucky, it stands at $12,500, and his photo is plastered on billboards all over Lexington, calling him the "sire of the fastest 3-year-old in the world."
Waiting for another horse, Dodd and her husband saw Lost in the Fog walk by. "We both looked at each other, like, 'Wow,'" Dodd says. "We both knew what the other was thinking. He was a gorgeous animal -- the balance. He had the balance and the power."
Aleo likes to play coy whenever people ask what makes his horse special -- "He runs fast," is his stock answer -- but it's the horse's efficient motion that more than anything accounts for his brilliance on the track. The same thing caught Gilchrist's eye at the sale last year. "It's a fluid motion," he says. "His motion goes forward, not up and down." It's worth noting that, shortly after his birth, he was up on his feet almost right away -- within 15 minutes. "He didn't have any trial and error," his breeder, Susan Seper, says. "He just got up. Sometimes they're wobbly, but he didn't fall back down. His legs locked, and he got situated, and he was good to go. Kind of an amazing little thing."
The Dodds wound up getting Lost in the Fog for $48,000, expensive given his pedigree. He was still "a little bullheaded," Karen Dodd says, but by that point Mitchell had worked out many of his kinks, and he quickly learned how to run, how to gear up and down at a rider's command. "He was not a mean horse," Dodd says. "He liked to bite, which a lot of colts do. It wasn't malicious. He wasn't trying to attack you, but he'd get you if he had the opportunity." Today, Garcia has bruises on either arm, which he reveals with a big smile. "Some of the greatest horses in history have been some of the orneriest sons of bitches," Greg Gilchrist says. "Barry Bonds ain't the public's favorite. I can't stand the bastard, but he's one of the best players to ever put on a uniform. You can find that in most people who're successful. Most people who do well in life have a little backbone to 'em. They don't go down easy."
Out on the track, Lost in the Fog works four furlongs in just over 47 seconds, a swift and easy tuneup for him. From Aleo's perch against the rail, a good distance from the horse's starting point, all that can be seen of Lost in the Fog is the red blur of Baze's jacket. One spectator turns to Aleo, awe-struck. "He started up fast," he says. "Goddamn he started up fast." Limping back to the barn, Aleo is greeted by just about everyone, including one man who tells him, "You're a good man, Harry Aleo."
"What did I do now?" Aleo asks.
"You stood up to that jackass that stuck that microphone in your face. You're a national hero right now."
We gather by the stable and watch quietly as Lost in the Fog gets his sponge bath and alcohol rubdown, the steam rising from his back in spectral tufts. "Look at him," Aleo says. "He knows he's good. I never used to believe that, but my trainer tells me when they get good, they know it. Look at him, the way he's standing. Amazing. He knows he's special. Look at him bucking up there, the son of a gun. Once in a lifetime. Maybe never, huh?"
Spend an hour at a track like Bay Meadows, and horse racing's various strata are plain to see. There are the tiny Hispanic jockeys, and the stocky Hispanic grooms (often with handlebar mustaches); there are the hard, wizened bettors -- Asian, as often as not -- back in the darkened theater, watching races halfway across the country; there are the old folks up in the clubhouse, happily dropping a Social Security check on a horse because it shares a name with their dog; there are the frat boys at the bar; there are the owners up in their boxes, hair swept back and cigars aflame; there are the novices, puzzling over their Daily Racing Forms. You can even see the divisions among the Bay Meadows employees: the young Hispanic women in the turquoise shirts working the private boxes; the older, whiter people in the green shirts behind the betting counter; the track's management, white, sun-reddened, and generally well-dressed.
So it is something to see when, on the Thursday before the Bay Meadows Speed Handicap, Lost in the Fog is led into the indoor paddock. He has been brought here merely to acclimate him to the new surroundings, and yet everyone at the track -- the hard bettors, the old folks, the frat boys, and in general the sort of midweek contingent that doesn't come for the pageantry of the sport -- presses against the rail. Even track employees dot the crowd, snapping photos like everybody else.
This was why Aleo elected to run Lost in the Fog here, instead of a better race with a much bigger purse at Belmont. "You've got all your friends here and everything," Aleo says. "It should be a big deal." Moreover, with the horse's victories piling up and with the Breeders' Cup fast approaching, the Bay Area's Lost in the Fog craze was starting to peak. It had started back in May, when he broke the track record at Golden Gate Fields. Later, at a workout in Santa Rosa -- a mere workout -- people packed the grandstand and gave the horse a stirring ovation. Two different painters picked up their brushes and began working on portraits (horse, Golden Gate Bridge, fog). One hat company made up a Lost in the Fog ball cap; it sold out. The papers started picking up the story, too, everyone finding room to mention that Aleo once pitched to Joe DiMaggio in a pickup game out at the old Funston Field (DiMaggio fouled out on the third pitch, "a dinky curve"). In September, you couldn't watch TV without seeing a Bay Meadows spot promoting the race ("Saturday, Oct. 1, the Fog rolls in at Bay Meadows!"). The Daily Racing Form swooned: "He has grabbed more headlines than Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston."
As it is, Lost in the Fog sits at the intersection of the Bay Area's thirst for a redeemer -- experienced turf writers have to think for a long moment before naming a great recent Northern California horse -- and the sport's need for a star, which may explain why he's been pressed so quickly into celebrity despite his owner's and trainer's best efforts at forbearance. His invincibility thus far, which brings with it its own special stardust, hasn't hurt either.
There are doubters, of course, and they are dealt with severely, as heretics. Mike Watchmaker, the national handicapper for the Daily Racing Form, rates Lost in the Fog the favorite in a weak Breeders' Cup field but notes "he has never met this kind." His skepticism, he says, has drawn angry letters from Fog fans, letters calling him a "mental midget," letters saying he's bad for the sport and demanding he be fired. "It's ugly," says Watchmaker, who goes to great pains to say he does not "hate" the horse. "But I can take it. I'm a big boy. ... I'm just saying, 'Wait a second!' Before you say he's the greatest thing since sliced bread, let him prove it against a good horse first. If that makes me a party pooper, so be it."
The crowd at Bay Meadows applauds as Lost in the Fog is led out of the indoor paddock. Outside, as he begins to make his way back to the barn, you can hear one man's voice above the din.
"Look at you!" he yells, though it comes out as one word, "Lookatchoo!"
"Lookatchoo!" he yells again.
And then again: "Lookatchoo!"
"That's the status he's reached," says John Corey, the Lost in the Fog documentarian, as we near the horse's stall. "He's kind of a rock star." It's certainly true, and in a way it puts the lie to the popular version of the Lost in the Fog story, all that blue-collar nonsense. There is nothing blue collar about this horse. He is imperious, and people respond to him not as a cuddly mascot of the underclass, but as something regal, almost fearful. You can begin to see the cracks in the story -- the bit about the leaky-roof circuit, for instance. The only things I've seen Greg Gilchrist put to his lips are his wife and a glass of Crown Royal, never a corncob pipe.
As Gilchrist says: "The horse has made it all fall into place. It's all about the horse. It's not about Mr. Aleo. It's not about myself or the people who work for me. It's about the horse. You can make a human interest story about everything else, but what's actually going on here is about him."
We put so much weight on our great horses -- not just the rent checks bet on them, or the perfection demanded of them (there've been three Triple Crown winners since 1950, and yet it's not until a horse flirts with one that racing hits the front of the sports page). It's also how we freight them with metaphors and deeper meanings, and express through them base human feelings like class anxiety (all this talk about modest pedigrees and "blue-collar" horses) -- quite a load for the impossibly thin ankles of a thoroughbred. But now here is Lost in the Fog, a horse who might be something else altogether. He is an imposing thing. He outruns the metaphors. He can write his own story, and when he does, that story will likely not be a paean to the common man.
I ask around if anyone has ever heard of a horse being applauded for defecating. No one can recall -- with one exception. There was a horse, years ago, at the Preakness, William Nack remembers: "Secretariat was walking from the barn to the paddock ...."
Lucas is cool. This is his job, you see. Everyone else is half-crazy right now, following the horse out of the paddock and into the fading afternoon. Not Lucas. Lucas just stays behind with his shovel. "I have to peek up all the horse sheet," he says in fractured English. I look at his shovel, which is indeed full of horse shit. Not just any shit, mind you. The shit of the most exciting racehorse in America. The big horse's shit, which I'm mildly disappointed to report is not at all different from your garden-variety horse shit. "Everybody say thees is the best horse, you know?" Lucas says. "Maybe he's gonna win. You never know. I think he's a good horse, you know?"
It's the first day of October at Bay Meadows, a big day not just for Lost in the Fog, who gets to race in front of his hometown fans, but also for Bay Meadows and Northern California racing in general. Both could use some help: There is a proposal before the San Mateo City Council that would replace the 70-year-old facility, the state's longest continually operated track, with office complexes and condos; the near-empty grandstands on race days have not aided the preservationists' cause. There is, more broadly, the matter of the thoroughbred industry in these parts. It's no secret Northern California does not produce many great horses. Why it doesn't is up for debate -- it might be the hard dirt or the smaller purses or the low-rent tracks -- but some seem to feel there's at least a snooty eastern provincialism in play. Lost in the Fog, then, is Northern California's response, though it's curious that a horse who was sired, reared, and broken in Florida, with the occasional stop in Kentucky, can be considered anyparticular region's horse at all.
Today's races draw more than 8,000 fans, double the track's usual Saturday turnout. Lost in the Fog T-shirts are given out at the door. Tom Chapman, a jockey turned artist, sells prints of the horse from a table inside. Everyone, it seems, is here for Foggy: the kids wearing the giveaway shirts down to their ankles; the guy with the limp and the grocery bag who announces to no one in particular, "They named that horse after me, because I'm always lost in the fog"; the woman placing a small bet on him just so she can keep the betting slip as a souvenir (profit on a $2 bet: 10 cents) ; the many, many people who approach Aleo to tell him just how long it's been since they've come to the track and how much they liked that ESPN interview.
As the five horses near the gate for the eighth race -- all of them patsies with the exception of one named Halo Cat -- Aleo is wedged into a corner in his private box, surrounded by family and friends. One of John Corey's cameras is trained on him, and Aleo's Stetson is just visible over the clutch of fans who've stationed themselves nearby. Down on the infield, the track tote board has fritzed out. "He broke the whole damn board," someone says. (Which may or may not be true. One explanation later offered, perhaps apocryphal: Lost in the Fog attracted so much place betting across the country that the board couldn't handle the extra digits.)
Lost in the Fog is in the one hole, which puts him on the rail, and just moments after the horses are shot from the gate, the race is already won. His first few strides are remarkable, an easy lope to the front of the pack, not a violent rush. As Gilchrist's assistant, Linda Thrash, later notes, he now runs with an ear cocked, listening for hoofbeats behind him, a sign he is not just sprinting to please his jockey -- he is competing. Lost in the Fog's lead after a quarter-mile is a length and a half, then it's 2 1/2 lengths, then it's four, and at the line Halo Cat is more than seven lengths behind.
On the TV broadcast, the announcer's call of the stretch run is a steady crescendo of jabber about Lost in the Fog; with every half-sentence, you can almost hear the horse widening his lead: "And it's Lost in the Fog! He's all over this group! He approaches the final furlong in complete command! Halo Cat can only watch him run away! So it's Lost in the Fog! He will remain undefeated! A perfect 10 for 10! But still! One more victory is required! To silence the skeptics! And prove to everyone that he's the best sprinter in the world!"
Later, after the winner's circle photos and about a thousand handshakes, after the media interviews in a tiny office and several Crown Royals in the clubhouse bar, after everyone has loosened his tie and someone swipes John Corey's clapboard and starts yelling, "Action," Gilchrist, his wife, and a few family members escape to the barn. Outside the sky is darkening, and the grooms are kicking a soccer ball around the infield. It is almost 7 p.m. Lost in the Fog is in his stall. "He's taken a couple bites out of people," Thrash says. "He's feeling like King Kong ... a little bit on the grumpy side." We watch quietly for a while as Garcia ministers to him. Behold, the big horse: eyes bloodshot, mouth working over a bale of hay, now turning his back to everyone, now lifting his tail ....