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

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