Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Lost in the Fog: Recollections on Making the Movie

Lost in the Fog: the movie trailer

by John Corey

I was disheartened to hear today that Indyanne had to be euthanized. The references to Greg Gilchrist and John Sikura in the press naturally made me think back to my experience with Greg, Harry Aleo, and Lost in the Fog.

Back in 2005, I was working for CBS in San Francisco. It was a nightly program that concentrated on the lighter side of news in the Bay Area. I was running the show and producing pieces of my own at the same time and was always on the lookout for colorful characters that I could profile on my program. There was a guy in my neighborhood in San Francisco that fit the bill perfectly. He ran a dusty old real estate office on 24th St., the commercial heart of Noe Valley. In what was once a blue collar area, 24th St. was indicative of the changes that had occurred in the neighborhood over the last thirty years or so. What was once Herb's diner, is now a hip restaurant called Toast. What was once Surf Super, an old style supermarket that delivered, is now a Wells Fargo. In the middle of chain stores and expensive boutiques, Twin Peaks Realty held on for dear life. Aside from being a holdout from a previous era, Twin Peaks really stood out as the most shocking and unpopular political forum in the neighborhood. The owner, a cranky old guy that nobody ever seemed to see, populated the windows of his real estate with pictures of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon and placards saying things like, "Welcome to an island of traditional values in a sea of liberal loonies!" Suffice it to say that in a liberal neighborhood in a liberal city, this storefront was none too popular.

I walked by this office every day for years, first grimacing and then eventually chuckling at the provocative signs in the window. I knew I wanted to do something on this guy for my show but I was waiting for another angle, something in addition to the windows would really fill out the story. Well, in February of 2005, I found it. I was reading the San Francisco Chronicle one leisurely Saturday morning and there was an article about a brilliant young racehorse over at Golden Gate Fields. This precocious colt by the name of Lost in the Fog was seemingly destined to run in the Bay Area and his handful of triple digit Beyer figures seemingly destined him to run in the Derby. In addition to detailing the three year old's blazing speed, the article went on to describe the hard-working, straight-shooting trainer Greg Gilchrist and the horse's owner, Harry Aleo, a cantankerous old-time San Franciscan who delighted in antagonizing the local liberals with conservative paraphernalia in the windows of real estate office in Noe Valley. It was my guy.

I immediately called Harry's office. Keep in mind that it was a working business and I figured that, at worst, I'd get the answering machine. I didn't. The phone just rang and rang and rang. Harry, ever nostalgic, still employed an answering service - the kind that would actually pick up the phone and relay messages. As I would find out later, Harry was feuding with his answering service and they had stopped picking up his calls. Vintage Harry. So I was forced to do it the old-fashioned way, in person. I walked the two blocks from my house down to Harry's office and introduced myself. Much to my surprise, Harry was anything but the grumpy guy that I expected. With a warm smile, he welcomed me into his office and, ultimately, his life. I explained to him that I wanted to do something on him and his horse for television and he enthusiastically called Greg Gilchrist, his longtime trainer and friend. As I left the office that day, I somehow sensed that my life was about to change. By the time I walked the two blocks home, I had made up my mind. I was going to quit my perfectly good television job and jump into this story with both feet.

As a kid born and raised in the city, I am not what you'd call a horse person. I didn't know a thing about them and, if anything, I'm intimidated by them. But when I went over to the backside at Golden Gate Fields to meet Greg and saw the bustling community in the middle of about five major freeways, I was hooked. It was colorful, exciting, and the people who populated this anachronistic setting - like Greg - were the salt of the earth. A week later I was there with a crew shooting a Lost in the Fog workout. A couple of weeks after that, we were shooting the Bay Shore at Aqueduct. By that point, Harry and Greg had ruled out the Derby, choosing to protect their prize horse rather than throw him into the grueling Derby preparations. As a filmmaker, the Derby certainly held interest. It's the top, after all, but little did I know that their choice to skip the Derby would propel the story to even greater heights than I could have anticipated.

I didn't really know what I was getting into when I took on this project. I guess I figured I would just stick with it until the horse lost. That would seem like a fitting end. If he lost lost in the spring, I've got a 30-minute piece. If he kept going, I would keep going. Sure enough, while all the other Derby horses faded away after the Triple Crown, there was Lost in the Fog. The Riva Ridge, The Carryback, and what Greg would call his Kentucky Derby - The King's Bishop at Saratoga on Travers Day. For a couple of guys who had achieved modest success in their racing careers, they had reached the top of the game. The oldest track in the country, the most prestigious day of the summer, a Grade I race, and they were heavy favorites. Although I didn't have a stake in the horse, I certainly had a stake in the story and getting to Saratoga was an incredible thrill but not nearly as thrilling as listening to Greg and Harry through their wireless microphones as Lost in the Fog rumbled for another win. It was the sound of sheer, unadulterated joy. Not only had the horse become a multi-million dollar stud prospect, he was now the prohibitive favorite for the Breeder's Cup Sprint.

If Saratoga was pure joy, the Breeder's Cup was serious work. Greg and Harry both knew they were close, very close to closing out a legendary season. Undefeated, Breeder's Cup Champion, the Eclipse Award, it was all within reach. I showed up at Belmont on Friday morning with my crew and Greg was all business. The horse had worked brilliantly and effortlessly all week. Greg schooled him in the paddock that afternoon, and I'll never forget the horse's extreme confidence. He wasn't running that day but he let every horse in that paddock know that he was the top dog. It's the Breeders Cup so the paddock was populated by racing's elite. They know what a good one looks like and I smiled as I overheard one of the other trainers say breathlessly, "Look at the size of him. I can't believe that horse is still three years old."

Despite Greg's best efforts, much had changed by the following day. Lost in the Fog, always preternaturally calm before a race, was extremely agitated. His time in the detention barn was contentious and draining. He didn't run well that day and it could have been for any number of reasons: perhaps he wore himself out before the race, perhaps multiple cross-country trips had finally taken their toll, or perhaps the cancer that would ravage his body in the ensuing months had begun to sap him of his amazing strength and speed. It was a cold, disappointing day for everybody but for a couple of hardened combat vets like Harry and Greg, it wasn't the worst day of their lives by a long shot. Their inspiring sense of perspective was demonstrated to me in earnest a couple of weeks later at the Eclipse Awards. Greg, a fish out of water in his tuxedo, leaned over to Harry, another fish out of water, and says, "It sure beats fighting at the Battle of the Bulge." Harry turned back to him and said, "It sure beats being point man in Vietnam." Harry slapped his good buddy on the back and, ten minutes later, walked up to collect Lost in the Fog's Eclipse award. Another moment of unadulterated joy.

I couldn't have been happier for Harry and Greg that night but I was happy for myself, too. I had the story of a lifetime, complete with a nice little bow on it at the end. Little did I know that the story was about to change in the most unpredictable of ways. Harry, of course, was reluctant to retire the horse. Despite the fact that Lost in the Fog was worth in excess of ten million dollars, Harry wanted the thrill of seeing his long-awaited big horse run again. Greg turned him out and brought him back as a four year old and knew right away that he wasn't the same horse. Greg, being the consummate horseman, was most worried about his temperament. Sure he could still run but his big rowdy three year old had turned into an ornery four year old, a potential sign that he had a sick horse on his hands. But not even Greg could have guessed what Lost in the Fog was fighting.

He ran reasonably well as a four year old, even winning the Aristides at Churchill. But after a troubled start at Calder in the Smile Sprint Handicap, Greg knew it was going to be very difficult to get the horse back to his previous level. On a Sunday morning in August 2006, Harry reluctantly agreed to retire the horse. Coincidentally, he intended to sell him to John Sikura at Hill 'n' Dale partly because it was a fair offer, but more importantly because Harry personally trusted and respected John. More vintage Harry. Unfortunately, that same afternoon, the horse came down with what seemed like a bout of colic. Greg sent him up to UC Davis and a day later they broke the terrible news - it wasn't colic, it was cancer. Harry and Greg had missed their huge payday by one day but that was the last thing on their minds. If Saratoga and the Eclipse Awards were sheer joy, the day that Harry got the call from Greg that the cancer had metastasized was sheer despair. I was there in Harry's office that day, just doing a final de-brief on the season. I knew what it was when the phone rang and naturally told Harry we would stop shooting. I didn't want to intrude on a moment like that. Naturally, Harry said to keep shooting. He had let me hang a mic on him and shoot him during some of the best moments of his life and now he was going to let me shoot him during one of the worst moments of his life. That's a level of generosity to a filmmaker that I will never forget. It's but one of many instances of Harry's generosity, however.

After Lost in the Fog was euthanized, I cracked the movie open and started fresh, now tasked with a much more complicated story. Greg always used to joke with me that I was the only one to benefit from Lost in the Fog's tragic ending and I agree. It was the last thing I wanted but, as a filmmaker, you couldn't ask for a more improbable and dramatic ending. Professionally it was gold, but on a personal level there was one more dramatic ending left for me. A couple of months after Lost in the Fog was diagnosed with cancer, Harry was diagnosed with cancer, too. In the meantime, I had started submitting the movie to various film festivals. I was fortunate enough to get accepted at CineVegas, an up-and-coming festival put on by a couple of programmers from Sundance.

I finally had an excuse to throw Harry a big party and show the movie to all his friends. Unfortunately, Harry was back in the hospital. He convinced the doctor to let him out to come to the screening but he was just too weak to make it out that night. As the screening ended, the packed house of friends and family jumped to their feet in a standing ovation, less for the movie I think than for Harry. I took the movie to Las Vegas where it was enthusiastically received. Knowing that Harry was at home, literally on his death bed, I made plans to skip out early from Vegas and say my final farewell to my good friend. But as I was thanking the lead programmer for the festival, he told me I should stick around until the end of the week. It looked like the movie was going to win an award. I thought long and hard about it and decided to stick around. I figured that if it won an award, it would a wonderful final gift for Harry. As it turns out, the movie won the audience award for best documentary - largely due to Harry's charisma. I scooped up the award and went straight to the airport. As I got off the plane in San Francisco I had a message on my phone from Greg. Harry had died that morning.

From my perspective, there's a silver lining to all this, though. Harry did get to see the movie. In fact, he would often invite his friends over for dinner and then recommend that they watch a DVD afterwards - LOST IN THE FOG. I'm glad I could give him that. I'm glad, too, for the incredible opportunity that Harry and Greg both gave me to tell the story of their lives through the telling of LOST IN THE FOG. If I hadn't read the paper that day, if I hadn't walked into Harry's office, I never would have met these guys and my life would be a lot less rich. They gave me the story of a lifetime but, more importantly, they granted me friendships that would last a lifetime. So I'm thinking about Greg today and Harry, too, and if I know Greg he's feeling bad but he's at the barn still working. Racing is a tough game but if Harry and Greg taught me anything, it's that when times go good, stay humble and when they go bad, you have to dust yourself off and get back in it. And Greg is in it in a big way. He has a barn full of good horses and he's looking forward to the Sunshine Millions at the end of the month where he might saddle as many as three horses. It couldn't happen to a better, more hard-working guy. -- J.C.

My thanks to John Corey for sharing his experiences with Lost in the Fog. It is a beautiful documentary and one I highly recommend. For information, or to order your own copy, go here.
-- Mary Forney


Anonymous said...

I absolutely loved the film, "Lost in the Fog" and enjoyed reading the backstory, albeit both made me cry.

Anonymous said...

a truly compelling story...i went to Bay Meadows with trainer Matt Chew, who was there to shoot photos for his wife Candice for a calender she was to design...we showed up at Greg Gilchrist's barn the day before he was to run his last race before the Breeder's Cup on October 1, 2005...for two days Greg and his staff allowed us full access to the great Lost in the Fog...Greg was a true gentleman and i even had a chance to meet and shake hands with Harry...from the moment the Fog left the receiving barn the atmosphere was that of a rock concert...Fog won for fun and those two days for me were very memorable...what a horse!

Joyce said...

The first time I ever visited Golden Gate Fields was when Lost in the Fog was in a three-horse race ... nobody wanted to run against him! He won by, oh, maybe half the track? ;-) I also had the great pleasure of meeting Harry Aleo at a TOC meeting at Bay Meadows a few years ago. Definitely we differ politically, but so what? There's room in this world for everybody, and I think there's a special place in heaven for horse lovers. Lost in the Fog was a great horse. Just to watch him move across the track--it was like he glided or was riding on rails. It just seemed effortless for him. I feel blessed to have been a witness to some of that grandeur. Can't wait to see the documentary.

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