Living in San Francisco's Noe Valley District, John Corey always thought there was a story in the crotchety octogenarian who would antagonize the liberal neighborhood by sticking pictures of Ronald Reagan in his storefront window.
"I wanted to do something on him," said Corey, then a producer for San Francisco's CBS affiliate. "But I was waiting for something meaningful to happen in his life."
Then the cantankerous neighbor, Harry Aleo, bought a horse named Lost in the Fog. Corey read about it in The San Francisco Chronicle.
The story "said it looked like he was on the Derby track," Corey said of the horse.
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That was rare for a horse at Golden Gate Fields, considered minor league horse racing compared to Southern California and Kentucky.
Corey sensed an opportunity to film a neighborhood character in whom he had long been interested and a horse possibly headed to the greatest race in the world. Soon, the filmmaker, who didn't think of himself as much of a gambler, was all in on the Lost in the Fog story.
The resulting documentary, Lost in the Fog, opens Friday at The Kentucky Theatre.
Unlike most documentarians, Corey didn't know how the story would end when he left his secure job to follow the horse full-time.
"I'll be damned if I didn't make a huge bet on this horse," Corey said.
By the time Corey devoted himself to the film, Lost in the Fog was undefeated in four races. But always looming was the spectre that one false step and the whole story could come to an end.
Such as when Aleo and trainer Greg Gilchrist elected not to aim for the Triple Crown races.
But photography director Frazer Bradshaw convinced Corey that that development made the story better. "He said it says something about these guys that they wouldn't go for the brass ring if they thought it wasn't the right thing for the horse," Corey says.
Plus, the story, no matter the outcome, had colorful characters, particularly Aleo, whom Corey describes as "desperately trying to hold back time."
He learned that when he tried to call Aleo and the phone just rang and rang. This was in 2005, and Aleo didn't have voice mail, or even an answering machine. He had a big, black rotary-dial phone with flashing buttons for different lines in his real estate office.
The film portrays prickly moments between Aleo and the media. When NBC analyst and former jockey Donna Brothers asks him one question, he answers that she must not know much about racing. When an ESPN reporter sets his notes down before an interview, Aleo asks, "What's this crap?"
Corey describes Aleo as "grouchy on a good day," but he says that he had a good relationship with him and that Aleo was generous with his time and in giving the filmmaker access to intimate moments.
Even though Lost in the Fog never made a Triple Crown run, he did have a stellar racing career, always ridden by jockey Russell Baze. Corey thought the film would end in the pastoral landscape of Central Kentucky, with Lost in the Fog maybe fathering potential Triple Crown contenders.
But, as the film's press materials say, "the equine gods intervened."
Corey had most of the film edited and was planning for a final interview and a trip to the Bluegrass when tragedy intervened. He says that prompted him to re-edit the film with a sense of foreboding.
"What's so unique is these guys did everything right," Corey says. "They didn't put him in races that were too grueling. In fact, they babied him. They went out of their way to protect him. And this is how they were repaid."
Lost in the Fog's fate is a matter of public record, although if you don't know it, it makes the film better to watch.
Making the movie immersed Corey in the horse-racing world, which he says was previously just a passing fancy. But for his next film, he says he'll tackle a different subject.
"Just like these guys feel like they caught lightning in a bottle with this horse," he says, "I feel like I caught lightning in a bottle with this movie."