(Originally published in the May 22, 2010 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
The relative health of the Thoroughbred industry can be judged in
various ways—handle, purses, attendance, TV ratings, sales prices, stud
fees. The results of each are subject to interpretation.
when the sport loses a man such as Greg Gilchrist, there is but one
conclusion to draw: It’s in lousy shape.
Gilchrist, 62, is but a
babe in trainer years. It is not because of age that he retired the
first week in May. And it is not because he’s lost his passion for
horses. Gilchrist is not one to make excuses or crave sympathy, so when
he explains the predicament racing is in at his Northern California
base, it behooves us to listen.
“It’s not so much that I want to
quit training horses, because I love it,” he said. “But up here it isn’t
even horse racing anymore. It’s a joke. The fields are short. Races
don’t go; you can’t count on a first-level allowance going. There are a
few guys starting all the horses, and if they don’t have one of their
own, they wait for a small guy with a good one and pay them off to
This isn’t sour grapes from a guy who can’t make it.
Gilchrist could keep bumping along, sending out winners at 25% as he’s
done most of his career, for the foreseeable future. In fact, he got
Island of Zen, his final starter, to the winner’s circle May 5. But the
game has lost its luster for him. Outside the boutique meets at Saratoga
and Keeneland and Oaklawn, the product being sold is watered down and,
frankly, not very good.
For the sake of full disclosure, Gilchrist
is one of my favorite people in the sport. He’s affable, fun-loving,
and honest. We’ve been bicoastal dinner and drinking buddies—at his
favorite Italian joint in Oakland, favored by Raiders football legends,
and at the hotel bar near Monmouth Park during the 2007 Breeders’ Cup
week. I’ve left him at closing time speaking in tongues. I’ve arrived at
his barn at 6 a.m. the following morning to observe him, already 90
minutes into his workday, directing his operation with military
precision. His body some day—hopefully in the distant future—should be
studied by medical researchers.
One other thing, with full credit
to Pleasant Colony’s conditioner, John Campo: Greg’s a damn good horse
trainer. Fifteen-hundred-plus victories, 140 of them in stakes. And he’s
got a great eye. Most of his success came with stock he picked out of
2-year-old sales for modest prices.
He trained such top fillies as
Indyanne, Work the Crowd, and Soviet Problem, the latter a gutsy little
runner that missed by a head to Cherokee Run in the 1994 Breeders’ Cup
Sprint (gr. I). He would participate in that race two other times, with
Smokey Stover in 2007 and, two years earlier, with Lost in the Fog, the
champion with whom he will most be remembered.
The genius of
Gilchrist is he doesn’t only appeal to aging hippies like myself. The
Vietnam War veteran bonded with a straight-arrow, conservative World War
II vet named Harry Aleo, himself a native of the Bay Area, and the two
enjoyed a father/son-type relationship that crested when the two traveled the country with Aleo’s Lost in the Fog, picking off stakes in
California, Arizona, Florida, and New York. Aleo, then an octogenarian,
clearly was having the time of his life.
When Lost in the Fog
mysteriously took ill, the two left no stone unturned, getting him the
finest medical care to determine what was amiss. When the diagnosis came
back terminal, Gilchrist did everything in his power to make the horse
as comfortable as possible for as long as possible until the inevitable
end. Torn apart inside, Gilchrist never took a step backward; never
uttered a cross word to the curious; never left an opening for anyone to
feel sorry for him.
He has put his tack in storage now. Perhaps
one day, brighter than these in which we now toil, and at a different
venue, he will have cause once again to use it. Until then, he might buy
horses for people, or he might just go fishing and, in his words, “try
to stay in the boat.”
They’re gone now, the Harry Aleos and the
John Mabees and the Bart Hellers. Their passion for the sport hasn’t
continued to the next generation.
“When you lose those kinds of
people, that’s a big hole,” said Gilchrist. “You just don’t replace
A lesson, with Greg Gilchrist’s departure, we must learn
Lenny Shulman is features editor for The Blood-Horse