Jockeys getting back in saddle despite dire risks

Nov 29, 2005 2:31 AM

Like bad tips, death and injury are always lurking at the race track.

Jockeys know this. They live with it. They ride with it. They accept it. Their profession offers no alternative.

Bettors know they can’t win with scared money. Jockeys know they can’t ride scared and win. Even though an ambulance follows them every time they ride in a race, they perform with fervor and zeal, as though their lives depend on it. Because they do.

Alex Solis, one of the best riders not in the Hall of Fame, was sidelined more than six months until early this year with major injuries suffered in a spill at Del Mar on July 23, 2004. He no sooner returned to top form when he was involved in a less-serious mishap earlier this month at Oak Tree. His injuries were minor, but body soreness forced him to miss more than a week.

Attaining the proper mind set to "get back on the horse" is not like jumping on a bike again after a tumble. Thoroughbreds weigh 1,000 pounds, travel at 35 miles an hour in traffic, have a mind of their own and are not the brightest animals on Darwin’s Origin of Species list. Foreheads hard as steel protect a brain smaller than their heart. They are bred for speed yet run on fragile appendages.

Those factors, plus the ever-present possibility of injury and death, must be purged from a jockey’s thoughts when it comes time to race.

"As soon as you get to the gate and the gates open, the only thing on your mind is to ride the race," said the 41-year-old Solis. "Before that you prepare by visualizing how the race should go and what you want to do on your horse and go from there.

"The truth of the matter is though, sometimes, in the back of your mind, you realize an accident could happen. But I’ve known that for 23 years (since he began his career). Every jockey knows that and it’s one thing you block out of your mind. You go on and do your business. If you’re going to be afraid of riding, you’re cheating yourself out of life. One thing or another could happen in a race; you could make a bad decision and become scared. But overall you have to ride your race and do what you love doing."

Virtually every rider, particularly in Southern California, adheres to that philosophy. Competition makes it so. Off the track as well as on, each is jockeying for position.

"The competition is very tough," Solis allowed. "We have some incredible riders here. At Del Mar, the riders meet with the stewards once a week to make sure everyone is on the same page as far as safety for both horse and rider. We really have to take care of horses in California, because if they get bumped around in a race, they can come back beat up and cut up and that’s how they get hurt. If jockeys can prevent that from happening by having meetings like this and reviewing films of the races, it’s obviously well worth it."

Solis is one of the most consistent and versatile riders in the nation, to the point that the majority of bettors take his skills for granted. But not Solis, especially after being out of action more than six months. He returned with a deeper appreciation for the game than ever.

"This is what I love doing," he said. "It’s not the first time I’ve been banged up. I’ve had broken ribs and broken bones before, so that’s part of the business. We all know every day we take a chance but again, I truly believe that if I want to live my life afraid of riding races or go out on the freeway afraid that I’m going to be hit by a car or be in an accident, I’m going to be cheating myself out of life. You can’t live your life in a bubble."

The homestretch

The announcement by Gary Stevens of his retirement should have been no shock to readers of GamingToday. In an exclusive interview with the 42-year-old Hall of Fame rider last October, he hinted of that in this statement:

"You never know in this business," Stevens said when asked about the possibility of retirement. "I play it day by day. Right now I’m enjoying myself and my immediate goal is to get through the Breeders’ Cup with a few winners. Then I’ll assess things after that."

”¡ On the recent turmoil that resulted in the firing of reprobate Jockeys’ Guild president and chief executive L. Wayne Gertmenian, Solis, newly elected secretary of the organization, had this to say:

"There’s a long road ahead until we resolve our many issues, but it’s a great opportunity and we’re very lucky we have support from track management and the racing industry in general which is very concerned about our plight. I’ve talked with my peers and we know that (ousted former Guild head John) Giovanni took us to a certain plateau and we needed somebody to take us to a better point.

"Unfortunately, we picked the wrong guy (in Gertmenian). Like anything in life, you learn from your mistakes and we learned from this experience. Now we’re going to try and find the best guy we can find. It’s very important for all of us to stick together so one day in the future we can have the Guild where we want it to be."

Hopefully, the Guild eventually will be in position to help riders like Gary Birzer, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a spill at Mountaineer Park in 2004. He has filed a $10 million lawsuit against the Guild and Gertmenian, who let the organization’s on-track insurance policy lapse several months before the accident.

Solis offered a touch of levity on his new post despite the dour scenario.

"I’m the secretary," he said, "but I’m not going to wear a little skirt."