A Hero Named Harry

I love Harry Aleo, and I’ll tell you why. For starters, Harry Aleo loves horses–and he puts his money on the line to prove it. Harry is the 86 year-old owner of a small string of race horses, stabled in San Francisco. Money is not the name of Harry’s game, it’s all about his love of the horses.

I only heard about Harry a little over a month ago when his most famous horse, Lost in the Fog–a 4 year-old unparalleled sprinter, with beauty to match, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Harry had been offered millions for Fog before this happened and when Fog was winning everything in sight, and Harry wouldn’t take it. He loved Fog with a passion that had him in a near brawl last year with a race fan who appeared at one of Fog’s races wearing a t-shirt with a disparaging message about Fog. Harry wouldn’t have it and went to the defense of his horse’s honor. Harry stands up for what he believes and for what he loves. I love Harry for that.

With Fog’s diagnosis, Harry’s only concern was for Fog and his comfort. Many owners in a situation like that would have had their horse euthanized on the spot, as soon as the diagnosis had been delivered–racing for many is a business, period. Not Harry. His horse, despite his grim prognosis, was not in pain. He was at a research hospital where the tests had been performed. Harry didn’t want him to spend his last day on earth there in a place he didn’t know, surrounded by strangers. My love for Harry grew again.

Harry brought his horse home–expressly to give him the good life for as long as the cancer would allow. He wanted Fog to be surrounded by his family–the people that he knew and loved, the same people who had been taking care of him ever since he had had the good fortune to come into Harry’s possession. He wanted Fog to be pampered, and shown all the love that the world could give him.

Harry did try treating Fog’s cancer–something he was more than willing to do, as long as Fog was not in any discomfort. And for a few weeks Fog did just fine. And then one day, after returning from one of his twice daily outings to graze, while under the watchful eye of his devoted trainer, Greg Gilchrist, Fog went into acute distress that couldn’t be alleviated by medications. Harry gave Greg the go-ahead to give his horse the greatest gift of all–a release from suffering that was not going to end. My heart broke for Harry that day.

I, and thousands of others, sent Harry notes of condolence. Just one week later I received something I could hardly believe. A handwritten thank you note from Harry himself, written on the back of a photograph of Fog. My heart broke again as I loved Harry even more.

Who was this reportedly hard-nosed businessman who had made a fortune in real estate, and yet who had such a tender heart that he honored his horse’s comfort above all else, and then took the time and made the effort to write to all of those who had written condolences to him on his horse? I began to investigate.

I googled Harry. What I found made me love him all the more. Harry is his own person, and he leaves no doubt about it. Harry is as opinionated as he is kind-hearted, and even though his opinions don’t necessarily coincide with mine, particularly in the political arena, the more I found out about Harry, the more my respect and love for him grew.

Harry is an American patriot, and he’ll make sure that anyone in his path knows it. He keeps his storefront office window plastered with political Americana dating back to Eisenhower and Nixon, and intersperses that with signs referring to “the sea of liberal loonies” (his neighbors) from which his office offers “an island of traditional values and a breath of fresh air.” I may not agree with all of Harry’s views, but I sure do like his style.

Harry defends this country in the same way he defended his horse against that fan who dared to disparage him with a t-shirt. One journalist who visited Harry reported Harry’s shouting his unfaltering opinion that the United States is the best country on earth. As I continued to read, Harry was more and more reminding me of someone.

I had been so touched by Harry’s handwritten note to me–and I was sure he was writing similar notes to all who had contacted him about Fog, that I just had to talk to this man–and, I hope, eventually meet him. So, I called Harry.

Harry still goes to his office every day and answers his own phone. No frills or pretenses here. Harry doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘retirement’–at least in any way that would apply to him. I told him who I was and that I was calling to thank him for his note to me, how much it had meant, and also to thank him for being who he was–a role model for horse owners everywhere, and particularly race horse owners–who often are the ones most pre-occupied with the money end of the sport.

Harry was so humble that I nearly cried. “Of course I want to personally thank all of the wonderful people who have taken time out of their lives to write to me. They didn’t have to do that, you know.”

I asked him if he had read the recent article on him that a journalist who came to his office and interviewed him extensively had posted on an online version of the San Francisco Chronicle. He hadn’t. He didn’t even know it was out there. Harry doesn’t have a computer. (I printed the article out and faxed it to him.)

He went on, “I still can’t believe I ever owned such a horse as Fog.” I assured him that it was surely by divine plan that Fog had come into his hands, because very few owners would ever have loved Fog so much or given him as much–especially at the end–as Harry had given to Fog.

Harry is ambivalent about the upcoming tribute planned to honor Fog–as well as Harry and Greg–at Golden Gate Fields, Fog’s home track and where Harry stables his horses. “I’m not even sure I will be there. I just don’t want anyone thinking that I am exploiting what happened to this horse for my own recognition.”

I knew then who Harry reminded me of, and I told him. “You remind me so much of my father…I know you two would have been great friends had you ever had the chance to meet.” Harry took that as the compliment it was intended to be.

I didn’t agree with my father’s political views either, but he and Harry were definitely in sync with each other on those and so much else. I admire who my father was and who Harry is.

Harry and my father are men of the same era, my father having been ahead of Harry by just 12 years. My father left this planet five years ago. Harry has become my earthly reminder of him.

I love Harry Aleo. He is my hero.

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