- Bill Finley
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Greg Gilchrist had to work hard to get somewhere as a trainer, but his efforts and perseverance paid off. Once a relatively unknown trainer with nothing more than mediocre horses in the barn, he got a few breaks, developed stakes winners like Soviet Problem, Smokey Stover and Lost in The Fog and established himself as one of the top trainers on the Northern California circuit.
Then one day he quit.
The game just didn't work anymore for Gilchrist, which, sadly, says more about the game than it does the 62-year-old former trainer.
To carry on my career, I would have had to go somewhere else, maybe Southern California. I just couldn't do it.
”-- Retired trainer Greg Gilchrist
Getting good horses in his barn turned out to be a mixed blessing for Gilchrist. Every trainer aspires to have the type of horses that can take you to the Breeders' Cup, but once you have them they need to run in big races against the best horses. In Northern California, a racing region that has fallen on hard times, Gilchrist had no place to run a lot of his horses.
"You work all those years to get to a certain place, why would you leave when I did?" he said. "I don't want to come off as a sour grapes person and I want racing to be strong. But with where I was located and with the clients I had and the horses I was buying, we had no place to run. To carry on my career, I would have had to go somewhere else, maybe Southern California. I just couldn't do it. I had some commitments, including family commitments, and I just couldn't move. You have to make choices in life. My family means more in life to me than anything else."
He said the passing of longtime client Harry Aleo, who owned Lost in the Fog and died in 2008, also had a bearing on his decision.
"(Aleo's death) changed things for me a lot," Gilchrist said. "I used to joke around that if Harry died on a Thursday I was going to quit on a Friday. It certainly wasn't that quick, but his passing had something to do with what I've done. His passing hurt me a lot. He was a big part of my life both as a client and as a friend. You don't see that kind of loyalty very often. People like that are hard to find."
Gilchrist made the decision to leave racing at what was the height of his career. In 2008, he won 49 races with a winning rate of 30 percent and won 13 stakes races. A year later, he won 36 races for 25 percent and won a $500,000 and a $300,000 race.
But he didn't like what he was seeing, especially in Northern California, where the racing seems to get worse all the time and virtually every card is dominated by five-horse fields with odds-on favorites.
"If things were better in Northern California I would not have quit," he said. "I wasn't paying top, top dollar for horses, but we were buying some good horses and it became very difficult for me to keep those kinds of clients."
"Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. I am very concerned about the state of racing, particularly on the west coast. We need some leadership and more cohesiveness. Somebody needs to make some really good and really tough decisions about our future. The numbers keep going down and the competition for the gambling dollar keeps going up. Sometimes just putting on a show for the sake of putting on a show hurts you more than if you have no show at all. We got to the point where we had nothing but five and six horse fields, I don't even want to watch that. Why would anyone want to watch that?"
Gilchrist, who took out his trainer's license in 1973, started his last horse on May 5, 2010 at Hollywood Park. Since then, he has adapted reasonably well to life outside the racetrack.
"My golf clubs were thrown in the lake a long time ago," he joked. "I don't play golf. I like to fish. I'll make trips to Reno and Vegas once in a while. I make the best use of my time. But, yes, sometimes I get bored. Right now, I have no regrets. I am very happy with my situation."
Gilchrist won't rule out making a comeback, but he's not in a hurry to do anything right now. He'll watch the sport from the sidelines and hope that things get better. If not, well, there's always fishing.
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Through its subsidiary InCompass, the Jockey Club has unveiled a computer program that will help racetrack executives monitor post times around the country. The hope is that tracks will have a new tool available to them to make sure that their races aren't going off at the same time as races from other tracks. Let's hope that it helps. The sport needs to do a far, far better job of coordinating post times so races don't trip over one another nearly as often as they do.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.