Owners of high-priced thoroughbreds invariably put their horses in the care of a few elite trainers -- men such as Bobby Frankel, Todd Pletcher, Nick Zito and Bob Baffert -- as if those men have a monopoly on the skills needed to win big stakes races. Yet when seasoned trainers from the supposed minor leagues unexpectedly find a top horse in their barns, they often distinguish themselves.
Tim Ritchey did an exceptional job managing Afleet Alex through the Triple Crown series this spring, just as John Servis did with Smarty Jones last year. And nobody in recent years has managed a racehorse better than Greg Gilchrist has done with Lost in the Fog.
Gilchrist was little known outside of northern California before he began training the speedster, who will attempt to improve his career record to a perfect 9 for 9 when he runs in the King's Bishop Stakes at Saratoga on Saturday.
In the hands of most other trainers -- including the big names of the profession -- Lost in the Fog would not be undefeated. Other trainers would have been seduced by the lure of the Kentucky Derby, where the 3-year-old probably would have been out of his element at the 11/4 -mile distance. But trainers such as Gilchrist, who knows what it's like to struggle for survival in the business, learn to be pragmatic instead of dreaming an impossible dream.
Gilchrist was introduced to the sport when he accompanied his father, trainer Boots Gilchrist, as he toured the California fairs with a small stable of cheap horses. "It was like a Mickey Rooney movie," he recalled. "We'd sweep out that old three-horse van, sleep in one side and cook in the other." When Gilchrist launched his trainer career in Arizona in the early 1970s, his stable consisted at one point of a single horse. After moving to northern California, he slowly established himself; he now operates a barn with about 25 horses, and he regularly compiles a solid winning percentage. But he has not changed his philosophy since those early days.
He believes a trainer should not try to impose his will on a thoroughbred: "Instead of you deciding where he runs next, monitor the horse and let him tell you." And he still heeds a maxim his father taught him: "Horses don't win you races; conditions do." By this Boots Gilchrist meant that he would look for eligibility conditions that fit his horse neatly. If a horse has won a single race, you look for a condition of "non-winners of two races." Even if you're training Man O'War, you don't pass up the right spot.
This was Gilchrist's mind-set when Lost in the Fog came into his life. He liked the colt so much when he first saw him at a sale that he encouraged owner Harry Aleo to buy him for $195,000. Lost in the Fog justified Gilchrist's assessment, running so fast in the first races of his career that he looked like the most brilliant colt of his generation. Could such a horse be a Kentucky Derby winner?
The vast majority of owners and trainers in the United States would have been motivated to find out. Small-time trainers would reason that this would be the only chance of their lives for Derby glory. Most of the big names would have taken the shot, too, because their operations are geared to winning the 3-year-old classics.
But Gilchrist knew he would have asked for too much too soon in order to get Lost in the Fog ready to run 11/4 miles, and he recognized that the colt might be a pure sprinter anyway. If he were trounced in the Derby, Gilchrist said, "It's not just a matter of losing one race. It's the repercussions of that race." Pushing a horse to the Derby can take a fearsome toll if the horse is ill-prepared. With Aleo's support, Gilchrist said, "It was not a hard decision to keep him sprinting."
The trainer felt vindicated when he saw the way the Kentucky Derby unfolded, with a suicidal early pace taking a toll on all the speed horses in the field. He happily mapped out a schedule for Lost in the Fog that consisted of the richest six- and seven-furlong stakes for 3-year-olds. The colt has been so dominant that his win payoffs in his last four victories have been $2.10, $2.80, $2.10 and $2.30.
While many observers rate him the best sprinter in the country and the favorite for the Breeders' Cup Sprint, some skeptics still question Lost in the Fog's legitimacy. Daily Racing Form handicapper Mike Watchmaker only grudgingly puts the colt on his list of the nation's top 10 sprinters, writing, "I don't believe his record withstands real scrutiny." Watchmaker points out, correctly, that Lost in the Fog had made his reputation beating a bunch of patsies. But Gilchrist is unapologetic about taking the path of least resistance: "Some people are more interested in finding out what a horse can't do, instead of letting him do what he can."
Lost in the Fog should have another easy romp in the King's Bishop, now that Nick Zito has opted to run the formidable Bellamy Road in the Travers instead, but he is about to run out of soft spots. He will soon have to start facing his elders; in order to be a champion he'll have to run in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.
Gilchrist isn't obsessively cautious; when he trained the ace female sprinter Soviet Problem in 1994, he ran her against males, tried her at a mile, ran her on the grass and ran her in the Breeders' Cup (where she lost a photo finish). He'll give Lost in the Fog his shots at glory. But he's not in a hurry to do so; the principle that a trainer should manage horses carefully and patiently is too deeply ingrained in his nature.