The Shape We're In - By Lenny Shulman

(Originally published in the May 22, 2010 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at 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.

However, 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 sell.”

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 them.”

A lesson, with Greg Gilchrist’s departure, we must learn once again.

Lenny Shulman is features editor for The Blood-Horse

21 Comments

Leave a Comment:

Tim Tecmo

It is a sad day for racing in Northern California when someone of Gilchrist's caliber hangs it up. His many great horses - and Lost in the Fog, in particular - energized racing in the bay area. To get the real scoop on Gilchrist, Aleo, and their doomed champion, check out the documentary LOST IN THE FOG. Sure, it's about a big horse but it's also about a couple of guys (especially Gilchrist) with big hearts. Good luck out there, Gilly.

18 May 2010 2:21 PM
Stephie Clare

I'm heartbroken.  What a great trainer he is!  We are going to keep losing guys like this until we can save the sport.  Look at Bay Meadows now -- just a pile of rubbish.  I fear that Golden Gate Fields is not far behind.  Hollywood is next.  I guess horseracing in CA is going the same direction that the State is in general.  Gilchrist's retirement is a vision of what is coming down the pike.  

18 May 2010 2:57 PM
Somethingroyal

I live in Southern CA and I remember what racing was like in the 70's and 80's at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita. The stands were packed and took almost a good 30 minutes to find your car. Now days I enjoy parking closer due to fewer people coming out. What is happening scares me and after reading Lenny's article. I'm finding it real difficult to a  positive mental attitude. And for the life of me. I can't help but wonder if CA really wants horse racing to just go away. I sure hope I am wrong.  

18 May 2010 6:13 PM
nobody beats the wiz

Lenny's human interest stories are the best-bar none!

18 May 2010 9:23 PM
LouAnn (Walters) Cingel

Unfortunately, I don't live in California but I do faithfully, watch thoroughbred racing on television.  I enjoy the racing from the California tracks the most.  I can't even imagine what it would be luck to no longer have those tracks around anymore.  What is happening in this world of ours?  Select people out there are destroying horse racing that so many of us enjoy.  I can't even imagine life without thoroughbred racing, especially from California.

I so much hope & pray that something gives and that there are ways coming up that save the wonderful tracks in California and etc.

Love watching the horses run!

LouAnn (Walters) Cingel

(Union, Missouri)

19 May 2010 8:57 AM
Nancy

I don't know about the mega barns, but the average groom rubs five.  FIVE.  talk about working in a cubicle.  I've always thought the groom was the most important person in a horses' life.  When I was galloping and having a tuff time figuring out a horse...I asked the groom....  You gotta start with happy horses.  This dilemma is much worse than we think.

19 May 2010 10:23 AM
Rachel

Sigh...♥

19 May 2010 12:01 PM
Casinodiva

This is sad and a lot of people feel sad. So, make a change...get involved in this glorious sport! Form a partnership, claim a horse and enjoy the thrill of racing!

19 May 2010 12:10 PM
What's going on

I started follwing horse racing only about 12 years ago, and the comments Lenny makes here are right on. It used to be fun. I used to go every weekend religiously. I could be having a bad day, but only needed to hit one race to get well, per se. But with these short fields now days that isn't possible any more. Where the business is going is scary, down the tubes I suppose. Will it ever turn around? It looks bleak.

19 May 2010 1:37 PM
Robert

California racing is the joke of the industry.  Their biggest problem started years ago when they let Politicians determine their racing surface rather than trainers.  As usual, the ignorance of political leaders was born out.  If California racing is to be saved, and thats a BIG IF, they must return to dirt racing.  After reading this article, I am seriously concerned that California racing is already on life support.

19 May 2010 2:36 PM
steve from st louis

Gilchrist reminds at the track, it isn't about how to survive the storm, but how to dance in the rain. That he did.

19 May 2010 4:12 PM
Assault

Robert,

Stay back east and don't open your mouth about California racing surfaces.

This article was about Greg Gilchrist. Let's keep it there.

Understood?

19 May 2010 4:48 PM
Mike Relva

We NEED MORE trainers' like Mr. Gilchrist and less like the others'.

19 May 2010 5:53 PM
Louie Dula

When I didn't see Greg at the Calder sale this year I thought it very strange as he never missed it and with his sharp eye he always bought horses that he turned into wonderful runners.  I first met him when he had Lost In The Fog and was forever grateful to him for letting me hang around his barn for hours taking photos of the great Fog.  Ever since then when he's come to Florida he's let me hang around his barn and it's been an honor to get to know him and I'm very sad that he retired but I certainly wish him the best as he deserves that and more for all he's done for this sport.   Happy fishing Greg, stay in the boat... but think about coming back to racing someday because it needs someone like you who really cares.  All the best to you and I sure am going to miss seeing you.

 Louie    

20 May 2010 2:43 PM
K.H. Justinn

Thanks for your commentary in this column. I've owned horses since 1972 and you could write a book on the situation with racing now Vs the good old days. It's obvious to me we have lost our way.

22 May 2010 6:25 PM
Randy

well I've had the pleasure of knowing Greg: (Gilly) for along time, horses like Gold Seal, and Minutes Away, always got the best outa a horse. And like the author of the article spent a few hours socially with Greg (do you remember where we left the car?)Class act and a fun guy. Seems like all the old characters are cashin-in or cashin out. Had a cheap home bred, that wouldn't break, and then wouldn't go between horses. He's a great Pony the only one left @ the track. (Butch not Byron). Man did Greg hate that name. best of luck old friend.   Record guy

24 May 2010 11:35 AM
sentinel

It's so sad to see a trainer of Greg

Gilchrist's caliber leaving racing.  All we'll be left with is the "factory" trainers - the "mega" trainers.  Give me back the good old days.

24 May 2010 11:33 PM
frank lewkowitz

The little owner has been left out of the equation. The owners groups and associations are controlled by the jacksons,moss's and harris' the one or two horse barn has no fighting chance. you reported the nominees to the breeders cup board the other day , no horseplayers one horse owners or down to earth punters. horseracing is in its dying gasps,,,alas

25 May 2010 3:47 PM
Flora

I still miss the great Foggy and now I will miss Mr. Gilchrist, he is something special indeed.

25 May 2010 3:56 PM
Gene Williams

I, too, have basked in the sunshine of his smile and his keen snese of what is right. His rapport with the media is as open and genuine as anyone in the sport. I was shocked to hear of his decision, but certainly understand where he's coming from. Working in California at times during each year, it has become more and more obvious as time has passed that racing in the Sunshine State in in a gloomy state.

I'm saddened by his departure. Perhaps someday he will be back amongst us and we can once again enjoy him and what he brings to the sport.

By the way, Lennie, would the "favorite" Italian restaurant happen to be Bertola's Side Door, a place I reveled in many times during Air Force days in California.

01 Jun 2010 2:44 PM
Bruce Greene

Losing a trainer like Greg Gilchrist certainly is a tragedy.  Throughout my years covering races in Northern California, Greg was always accessible, knowledgeable, and passionate.  Add to that mix, a great sense of humor, and a superior eye for the equine athlete.  So many memories, so many horses beautifully turned out in post parades; first timers to stakes winners.  One of the best.  I certainly hope he's not done.  He speaks the truth about the terrible thing that's happening to California racing.  I'd keep my eye on him, he knows what matters most and just might figure out how to come back on his own terms, somewhere, somehow.

01 Jun 2010 8:07 PM

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