At the tender age of 85, after nearly three decades in the business of owning and running horses, Harry Aleo finally felt the love of the racing gods.
They delivered unto him the horse that would fulfill his wish to travel his beloved United States of America and run that horse in top stakes races, earning cheers of fans from coast to coast. Decked out in his Western-style suit and cowboy hat, Aleo gave off a contagious boyish enthusiasm that would have been remarkable from a man half his age.
The beauty of him, though, was he felt the same joy when he’d come out to Golden Gate Fields on a Tuesday morning to watch a horse work.
“Lost in the Fog was the pinnacle,” said trainer Greg Gilchrist, the only conditioner Aleo hired in his 30 years in the business. “But he had that same enthusiasm for a $10,000 claimer. He missed three races in 30 years of running his horses. That’s how much he loved the business and the horses and the people who worked around them.”
Harry Aleo was what people like to call an American Original. As far as I can discern, that goes to being honest, hardworking, fun-loving. A person who says what he thinks, proper etiquette and political correctness be damned.
The great thing about Aleo—and his kind are all too rare—is although he was outspoken in his politics, he didn’t judge you on your political beliefs or the cut of your hair. If you measured up as a person, he embraced you and let you inside his world.
A lot of that world was his horses and his beloved San Francisco. He lived and worked virtually his entire life in Noe Valley, in the Mission district of the city south of the skyscrapers. His parents ran a grocery store in the neighborhood, and Harry drove the delivery truck. Between runs, he became a regular at John’s Pool Hall, two doors up from where he would eventually open his realty office. Billiards was not his thing; laying 50-cent bets on horse races with the bookie in the back room was.
On his 22nd birthday, Dec. 7, 1941, Aleo climbed to the roof of his apartment building and oversaw a darkened city, its electricity turned off to thwart a possible Japanese air strike.
Shortly after, Aleo wore the uniform of the Army’s 87th infantry, fighting in France and Germany and serving under Gen. George Patton in the Battle of the Bulge.
Returning home, he opened Twin Peaks Properties on 24th Street. He did well in business, and equally well by people, keeping rents affordable even after gentrification of the area led others to make “killings” in the market.
Aleo didn’t much care for the gentrification or the alternative lifestyles that took root in the city. He kept a shrine to Ronald Reagan in his storefront to tweak his political adversaries. But he also fought like hell to keep chain stores out of the area, fearing they would hurt the small businesses that made up the fabric of the neighborhood. He served on various boards and in organizations to fight for the independents, and today 24th Street bears the fruits of his labors.
Walking into his office was like entering a time tunnel. The wood-burning stove, 1940s-era radios, papers and files stacked everywhere. The one computer, on Harry’s desk, he employed to track his horses, not realty. The walls were adorned with photos of Joe DiMaggio; Sonny Shy, his first winner; and Lost in the Fog, his great champion.
Oh, how he loved where Lost in the Fog took him. After watching him win the King’s Bishop Stakes (gr. I) in 2005, Aleo gushed, “I love Saratoga. All those big Victorian homes with the porches, dormers, an American flag in every yard. People lined up at 6:30 a.m. to get into the track. Musical groups everywhere. That’s my kind of place.”
When the multi-million-dollar offers started flying in to buy his star, Aleo was shocked; and then flabbergasted at the people who said he should go ahead and sell.
“All those millions wouldn’t change my life, and I wouldn’t have the horse that has given me all this excitement and enjoyment,” he explained. “I’m not in the selling business. I’m in the racing business.”
Said Gilchrist after his client and friend passed away too soon June 21 at the age of 88, “The problem is, when we lose guys like Harry Aleo, there is nobody to replace them.