Wild About Harry
Updated: Friday, September 22, 2006 12:44 PM
Posted: Friday, September 22, 2006 12:44 PM
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 22, 2005 issue of The Blood-Horse.
Photo: Scott Manchester
San Francisco realtor Harry Aleo campaigned Lost in the Fog.
Harry Aleo got to the finish line faster than his star horse, becoming the first being--human or equine--to defeat Lost in the Fog. While the exciting speedster must win the TVG Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) Oct. 29 to attain legendary status, Aleo did so in August on live television when he summarily dismissed a reporter who asked him a stupid question at an inopportune time. An octogenarian with a quick turn of tongue is surefire box office, and Aleo became an instant folk hero to anyone watching the Travers (gr. I) day telecast.
One of San Francisco's favorite sons, Aleo can come off crustier than week-old sourdough bread. His values are old-time, rock-hard conservative, and he's not shy about displaying them publicly. In the window of his Twin Peaks Properties office in the city's Mission district, Aleo tweaks his liberal neighbors with hand-written signs and a pictorial shrine to Ronald Reagan. Also in the window sit his baseball glove and spikes from 60-some years ago when he was a strong-armed third baseman/pitcher. On gentrified 24th Street, surrounded by coffeehouses, boutiques, and trendy eateries, Aleo's storefront office hasn't changed much in 58 years. You expect to see Sam Spade behind a desk, blue cigarette smoke curling up to the ceiling fan. Instead, you get a friendly, even charming Aleo holding down the fort. For 35 years his parents, who emigrated from Italy, ran a grocery store a couple of blocks away. Aleo was driving the delivery truck in 1938 when he pulled over to listen to the War Admiral-Seabiscuit match race on the radio. By then he was a regular at John's Pool Hall, just two doors up from where his realty office is today, making 50-cent bets with the bookie in the back.
"Everyone was interested in the horses back then," he said. "You didn't have any of the professional sports teams here, and when a hundred-grander at Santa Anita came around, the front page of the sports section ran pictures of all the horses. It was a big thing, and I followed it closely."
His first love, though, was baseball, and Aleo was good enough to be signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers off the San Francisco sandlots. A couple of weeks before reporting, Aleo snapped off a curveball, felt his arm click, and saw his pro career end before it started. He still has the letters written to him by famed Dodger general manager Branch Rickey, and remains the rarest of species--a Dodger fan living in San Francisco.
He did make it into the uniform of the Army's 87th infantry during World War II. "I missed D-Day, thank God, or I'd have been dead," Aleo said. "But we went through France and Germany, the Battle of the Bulge, all that crap. I got home, so I was lucky." After three years in the service, he returned to a job with the Navy Department, but his time at war had made him too restless for desk work, and he began selling real estate on the weekends.
Soon he was making more money on those two days than the other five, so he opened the storefront on 24th Street and sold residential real estate in the neighborhood, working seven days a week for a dozen years--no vacations--to take care of his wife and family, which would eventually grow to include three daughters.
Fast-forward 30 years. "A son-in-law at the time showed me an article titled, "How to Make Money When Your Horse Loses." It was all about deducting vet bills and depreciation and all that," said Aleo. "It really made an impression on me, and even though I didn't have much money--this was 1979--I decided to buy a horse."
A friend referred Aleo to trainer Greg Gilchrist. Aleo wanted to claim one at the bottom level for $3,000, but Gilchrist talked him out of that, and they went to Pleasanton and bought Sonny Shy for $10,000. "I went to the racing office, got a license, and picked out my colors--bright, bright, flame orange so I could see them on the backstretch," said Aleo. "We ran the horse that week and he finished fifth, and two weeks later he ran again and won and got claimed." The win photo of Sonny Shy's race hangs on the wall right above Aleo's desk.
His next claim turned into an allowance runner. "That was fine; I was making money because all I had was bills for one horse," said Aleo. "Then I started buying more and I found out how the horse business really is--how fragile these animals are. But each year I kept buying horses, buying yearlings. As I'm getting older I'm doing better--I have more money."
Aleo, who said he's been "happily divorced for 30-something years," has had a few tastes of success through the decades. Minutes Away won the Bay Meadows Derby (gr. IIIT) and two other stakes in 1985. Beyond Brilliant was a multiple stakes winner around the turn of the century; likewise Frisco Belle and Taraval in 2002-2004.
But Aleo's big breakthrough came in 2004. Gilchrist had urged him to kick up his commitment at sales from the $50,000-$75,000 range to roughly double that. Aleo was ready to step up. "I wanted a stakes runner who could take us back East," he said. They bid on a Lost Soldier
colt in Ocala, but the horse didn't meet its reserve. Two weeks later the colt's owners, pinhookers Karen and Greg Dodd, called. The Dodds had sold Aleo Beyond Brilliant and the parties did business again, with Aleo paying $140,000 for the already-named Lost in the Fog.
"I name most all my horses and try to give them San Francisco names, but I didn't name this one," said Aleo. "Lost in the Fog--how could I change that?" It turns out there was very little Gilchrist had to change with his new charge, either.
"This horse seemed to have it all," said the trainer. "Not so much that his breeze was that fast, but he got around there like you'd want to see a good horse do it. And he was a beautiful animal when I looked at him. A couple of things in his conformation weren't the greatest, but he's such an athlete that he gets right through them. We brought him home, worked him a couple of times, fired his shins, and turned him out. I knew right away when I got him back here he was special."
"I guess the law of averages just caught up or something," said Aleo. "After buying hundreds of them, one went 'boom.' I put out more money and we got lucky. You've got to get lucky; you know that."
Lost in the Fog has gone boom 10 times now without tasting defeat, earning just under $900,000 and quickening the pulse of racing fans around the country. It would be no stretch to call him the most exciting horse to come out of Northern California since Seabiscuit. "I think he's given racing around here a real shot in the arm," said Aleo proudly. "That's why I wanted to run him at Bay Meadows before the Breeders' Cup. When he's run at Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows, attendance doubled. They gave him a big cheer and it was really fun."
For Aleo, the fun means a helluva lot more than the money. "It's very difficult to come out ahead in this game unless you get a good horse and sell him," he said. "That's the only way to make money. And I've never done that."
After Lost in the Fog won his first race by 7 1/2 lengths in the slop, a prominent trainer walked into Gilchrist's barn offering $500,000. In his next race, Lost in the Fog went to Turf Paradise and broke the track record for 6 1/2 furlongs, winning by almost 15 lengths. The $1- and $2-million offers followed that performance.
"You wouldn't believe the ones I've gotten since then," said Aleo. "People whose biggest thought is money, who don't look at anything else, are the ones who don't understand why I don't sell the horse. They'd sell their wife if they could get enough money. If I took all those millions I'd still be sitting here today doing what I'm doing, and I wouldn't have that horse that has given me all this excitement and enjoyment. I'm not in the selling business. I'm in the racing business."
As much as the horse has meant to Gilchrist, on a business level he recommended to Aleo that he sell. "I have to tell him what I think is the right thing to do," Gilchrist said. "I knew he was going to say 'no,' and there was not a happier guy than me when he did. When people start talking about why Harry doesn't sell Lost in the Fog for eight or $10 million, well, there are a lot of people these days who have eight or $10 million, but only one guy's got Lost in the Fog, and that's Harry Aleo. And until he decides he wants it different, that's the way it's gonna stay."
Aleo further endears himself to racing fans who have seen so many top horses retired early. "If this horse stays sound we're gonna run him through his fourth year and through his fifth year," stated Aleo. "Then I'll discuss breeding rights. He's a runner, not a lover, and I'm in no hurry to retire him.
"Watching him run, it's everything. First, the apprehension. I've been around long enough to know anything can happen. You hope he gets out of the gate all right; hope he runs good; hope he can stay out front. You're sweating it out all the time. The emotions are enormous. I guess that's part of the thrill of it all. You're always one step away from nothing in this business. One misstep. But, yeah, it's exciting."
It's debatable how much real estate is being moved by Twin Peaks Properties these days. The office houses more racing publications than multiple listings books, yet Aleo still punches the clock each day. "I need to keep structure in my life," he said. "Keep doing what you're doing and you don't know how old you're getting and you stay healthy. Otherwise, if you retire, you mildew and die."
On a sunny September afternoon five visitors entered the office. One inquired about rental properties; the other four were well-wishers: "I read about your horse, Harry." "How's your horse doing, Harry?" "When is your horse running, Harry?" After exchanging pleasantries with one man for a few minutes, Aleo turned to his assistant. "Who the hell was that guy?" he growled.
With a brand new knee, Aleo is moving with the ease of a man half his age, and is ready to pick up his golf game. He gets out to all his star's workouts, and goes in style, tooling around the city in a late-model Jaguar. Back in the office, Aleo picks up a recent article about him.
"'Eighty-five-year old--' That's my first name now -- "85-year-old Harry"--They gotta keep reminding me." Aleo obviously enjoys the attention his horse is getting in Northern California, and he handles the media well, even his celebrated exchange with the ESPN reporter in Saratoga who asked him to compare watching Lost in the Fog with fighting in the Battle of the Bulge.
"Ah, everybody made a big deal out of that," said Aleo. "The guy sent me a letter of apology and I called him. It was OK. He asked me a question, I answered it, and forget it. It's over. It was a dumb question, and it was less than a minute to post."
Aleo, who has eight horses with Gilchrist and one broodmare, has gotten his wish and more--"that stakes horse who would take him back East" has gotten him to Florida three times, and Breeders' Cup will mark his fourth journey to New York. "I loved Saratoga," said Aleo.
"All those big 1800s homes, porches all around, dormers, an American flag in every front yard. People lined up at 6:30 a.m. to get into the track. Musical groups everywhere. That's my kind of place." Best of all, there's another good 2-year-old in the pipeline. Frisco Star, by More Than Ready
, won his only race by 8 1/2 lengths, setting a track record at Santa Rosa in the process. Racing better prepare to see more of Harry Aleo next year, when his new first name will be "86-year-old Harry." He's getting better with age.
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