Kentucky Derby, Hall await Solis

Mar 17, 2009 4:00 PM
Golden Edge by Ed Golden |

Life has a way of beating you down.

That’s why old folks walk hunched over. They carry the world’s woes on their shoulders. It’s an unshakable burden, and not everyone can shuck it.

Alex Solis is an exception. He’s no geezer, even though he will be 45 on March 25, which qualifies him as a senior citizen in the youth-oriented meat market of professional athletics.

In this, his 27th year as a world-class jockey, and with 20 riding titles and more than 4,600 career victories, he has re-invented himself. In 2004, his career was in serious jeopardy. He was out five months with a fractured vertebra suffered in a spill at Del Mar. He wore a grotesque and painful "halo" to help him heal. When he did resume riding, he had to endure barbs from critics who said he lost his nerve. In 2007, he won only 14 races at Del Mar, and only 12 at Oak Tree.

On Jan. 28 this year, Solis shocked the racing cognoscenti by firing his agent, Scott McClellan, after a successful run of 16 years, and hiring Brian Beach, who had aborted the sport for a go at private business.

McClellan, who played Colonel Parker to Chris McCarron’s Elvis for years before representing Solis, also handled affairs for teenage sensation Joe Talamo while running the show for Solis.

"I just needed a change, really," Solis told me at the time. "I just want to start all over again . . . I made a lot of mistakes the last few years . . . Now I feel I’m 100 percent . . . I chose Brian because I want somebody to concentrate 100 percent with me."

Fast forward to March, 2009. Solis is healthy, physically and emotionally. He is winning races again. Cheap ones, too. His 31 wins at Santa Anita (2 on Sunday) has him in the top four. His critics are on sabbatical. Beach represents only Solis, who is the regular rider of The Pamplemousse, a major contender for the Kentucky Derby. Solis is one of three finalists to be elected to racing’s Hall of Fame. Life is good.

"I just had to erase those old memories and concentrate on what I want out of my career from now on," Solis said. "That was the most important thing I had to keep in mind. I had to have a clear idea of how I want to live my life. Now, I’m focused again, I have a new agent and I’m at a point that I wanted to be. But I still have a long way to go. I wanted to start fresh, and now great things are happening and I’m very excited.

"I’ve got some good mounts, and I’m having a lot of fun. There are a lot of great things happening. I’ve got The Pamplemousse. He’s a good horse, and I just pray to God that he stays healthy.

"Brian and I have been friends for a long time. We share one thing in common; we both enjoy wine, and he’s a great agent. He’s very motivated and he loves the game. I thought we would make a great combination, and it’s worked out great."

Still, it’s one step at a time. "Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say," cautioned Beach, who has represented Hall of Fame jockeys Kent Desormeaux, Julie Krone, Mike Smith and Gary Stevens. "It’s going to take some time to build Alex back up to where he was before in his heyday. He’s had some down years and some physical ailments that I think kind of all contributed to his circumstance.

"Now we’re trying to build, one horse at a time . . . He’s been on a lot of live horses and he’s riding really well. He’s making good decisions, and I think a positive attitude has a good effect, not only on your daily demeanor, but also on the horses you ride. It translates to them, and Alex feels really good about things right now. He’s happy to be out working in the morning. And he’s got a smile on his face."

Winning the Derby would fill a major void on Solis’ resume, as would his election to the Hall of Fame. He’s been eligible several times. Also on the ballot are Randy Romero and Eddie Maple, both long retired. On the theory that out of sight is out of mind, and that Solis has a prominent Derby horse, his chances of winning this year seem at their apex.

"I hope so," said Solis, a native of Panama who began his career in 1982. "I’m flattered that I’m a finalist, and I hope it happens."

Meanwhile, Solis has no intention of slowing down, no matter the impediments. With Shoemaker, Pincay, McCarron, Delahoussaye and Stevens no longer residents in Southern California’s jockeys’ rooms, Solis qualifies as a learned pro tem leader.

"All those young kids have given me motivation to keep up with them," Solis said. "I have to think and feel like I’m 25 again, so that’s what I’m doing, training by going up in those San Gabriel Mountains, like I’m a teenager again. That’s the only way to succeed."

The homestretch

• Most impressive Kentucky Derby prep winner last Saturday: Friesan Fire over a sloppy (sealed) track in the Louisiana Derby.

• Most workmanlike performance: Pioneerof the Nile vanquishing five tomato cans in the San Felipe Stakes. Most disappointing performance: previously unbeaten Derby favorite Old Fashioned fading in the stretch to finish second behind 56-1 shot Win Willy in the Rebel Stakes.

• The most appealing upcoming prep: Pioneerof the Nile vs. The Pamplemousse in the April 4 Santa Anita Derby.