I have heard people speak of Lost in the Fog, a 3-year-old thoroughbred who happens to be the most exciting racehorse in America, and swear they see in him the handiwork of God -- the lopsided blaze along his face, for instance, which is regarded with about as much reverence as the imprint on the Shroud of Turin -- and I have beheld the creature on a cold gray dawn in Albany, steam curling off his back and everyone around either too awed or too tired to talk, and I have, if only for a moment, understood why people might say such things.
True story: Earlier this month, on a Saturday afternoon at Bay Meadows in San Mateo, the horse was being escorted around the indoor paddock before his race, the $100,000, six-furlong Bay Meadows Speed Handicap, in which he'd go off as an absurd 1-to-9 favorite. Fans were packed six or seven deep behind the rail, cheering the horse though he was merely walking in circles. They had their camera phones thrust in front of them, a sort of weird benediction. There were so many camera phones, in fact, that anyone glancing around would've seen the horse's image, shrunken and pixilated, repeated again and again in the palms of a hundred hands.
Anyway, the horse was circling, and all the camera phones were firing merrily away, and suddenly Lost in the Fog stopped cold. The crowd froze. What was he doing? The horse blinked. He lifted his tail and -- there's no other way to put this -- unloaded a fairly prodigious pile of shit.
There are many ways to take the measure of a horse. Few sports provide us with so many options. You can simply look at his record, at the number and kind of races he wins. You can look at the margins by which he wins -- seconds, fractions of seconds, lengths -- or, if you have the time and inclination, at the complicated algorithms the sport has concocted to objectively determine a horse's speed. You can look at the money he earns. You can even look beyond the track, at the inches of newsprint devoted to the horse, or at the box office receipts when Disney finally makes the biopic. Later in his life, you can look at the stud farm's fee for his services, the price of his cock being roughly indicative of the quality of his career.
But here is another idea -- here is how we'll take our measure: We will look back behind the paddock rail the moment he lifts his tail and moves his bowels. How do people react? Do they look away? Do they cover their mouths and titter? Or do they do what the crowd did that day at Bay Meadows -- do they cheer?
There is, first of all, the matter of the name, perfectly suited to a horse owned by a San Franciscan -- 85-year-old Harry Aleo, a San Franciscan more by ZIP code than in spirit (unless you think the city's spirit makes room for an unregenerate Republican in a Stetson). In reality the name's inspiration was a weather pattern 3,000 miles away, when the colt was just a few weeks old.
"He was in one of the back paddocks with his mom," says Susan Seper, a breeder in Ocala, Fla., where the horse was foaled. "My girlfriend and I were walking up to him, and we couldn't quite see him" -- so thickly had the fog spread over the paddock -- "and then there he was, looking really lost. I looked at him. 'He's just lost in the fog,' then I looked at her and went, 'That's his name!'" Seper takes care to add that she "seldom" names her horses, that she typically leaves it to the horse's ultimate buyer. "But in this instance ...." In the blessed life of Lost in the Fog, it was only the first moment of perfect serendipity.
Today, Lost in the Fog is the best sprinter in the world, unbeaten in 10 starts, although he is sure to be tested this coming Saturday -- for the first time, if certain commentators are to be believed -- at the $1 million Breeders' Cup Sprint at New York's Belmont Park. It's his biggest race yet, not to mention the biggest, after the Triple Crown races, of the horse racing season. He will likely be favored, and with good reason: To this point, Lost in the Fog has not only won, but won decisively -- by 7 1/2 lengths, 10 lengths, 14 3/4 lengths, only once by less than four.
This can be a startling thing to watch. Everyone marvels at how smoothly he moves, how next to the other horses he appears to be running on a different, frictionless plane, bursting from the gate, then expanding his lead with every furlong. There is little suspense to his races -- he doesn't, or hasn't, run from behind -- and the excitement he generates isn't the sporting excitement of seeing a good, close race won at the line, but the more visceral thrill of seeing pure, almost otherworldly dominance. Last month, at a media luncheon two days before Lost in the Fog's appearance at Bay Meadows, a looped video of his previous races played on a bank of TVs. The stretch runs all were the same: just him, several lengths of churned-up dirt, and another announcer pitched into a frenzy.
"He's for real," the Washington Post's turf writer, Andrew Beyer, wrote in February. Beyer is the father of the indispensable Beyer Speed Figure, which provides a standard measure of a horse's relative speed, regardless of track and distance. At a minor-stakes race in Arizona last year, Lost in the Fog posted a Beyer figure of 109, the best by any 2-year-old in America in 2004.