Kent Desormeaux paid the ultimate compliment – we think – to colleague, longtime rival and fellow Hall of Famer Alex Solis when he likened him to a “roach on a piece of soap” when the 53-year-old hung up his tack Sunday to end a career that spanned five decades.
We’ve written about Solis a few times over the years, during sojourns to Saratoga from his longtime Southern California base or during the latter years of his career when he was a regular in the Saratoga jock’s room. We dug into the archives of The Saratoga Special after learning of Solis’ retirement and we found two pieces that stand out.
The most recent of the pair appeared in the Aug. 8, 2014 edition of The Special, our Hall of Fame Preview issue that also contained profiles of champions Curlin and Ashado. Sean Clancy wrote the profile of Solis, calling the veteran “steady, professional, courteous and precise.”
Later in the profile, which is below, Solis was asked for a highlight and followed with a classic response that sums up the man with 5,035 wins and more respect from his peers that can’t be measured. Check it out:
Veteran jockey Solis enters Hall while nearing 5,000-win plateau
By Sean Clancy
Clerk of scales Tim Kelly leaned into the loudspeaker on his desk and made the call for the 10th race Thursday evening.
“All out for the 10th. Riders, all out. Last call.”
Alex Solis tightened his black glove around his right wrist, securing it in place while a light drizzle began to fall. Riding his only race of the day – a New York-bred maiden turf sprint – Solis, pristine as ever in Fox Ridge Farm’s purple and white silks, followed Larry Mejias, Javier Castellano and Luis Saez out of the jocks’ room and past fans heading for the exits.
Solis, still fidgeting with his glove, turned left and stepped onto the stone dust chute leading to the paddock.
Hall of Famer Angel Cordero yelled, “Alex. Alex.”
Solis looked over.
Cordero flipped his right hand, giving Solis a thumb’s up.
“Thanks Angel. Thanks.”
Solis’ 33,591st ride would be the last one as a jockey. Today, Solis becomes a Hall of Fame jockey. Thirty-four years since arriving in Florida, with 23 wins to his credit in Panama, Solis reaches the pinnacle of Thoroughbred racing.
On the cusp of winning 5,000 races (he’s nine short), Solis plies his trade the same way he’s always done it – day-to-day, steady, professional, courteous and precise. The 50-year-old doesn’t have the same business he used to but that doesn’t change his approach. Solis wakes up every morning, three to four pounds too heavy. The weight comes off every day, through a routine of breezing horses in the morning, jogging around the racetrack in a weighted vest and layers of rubber, then stretching like a yoga instructor.
“I enjoy what I do every day, my mind is always focused, riding my races and concentrating on that. That’s the reason I do this, I never really thought about whether I should be in the Hall of Fame or not, my biggest priority is to do my daily job,” Solis said. “It worked for me for 34 years, why change it? The closer we get and now I’m looking back, people keep saying that’s a big accomplishment. I’m flattered looking at the people who are in the Hall of Fame. I’m flattered to be a part of the unique family.” Solis began rattling of his unique family – jockeys who are in the Hall of Fame and jockeys who will never make the Hall of Fame. All family. All important.
“I rode with some of the greatest riders,” Solis said, always choosing his words precisely. “Angel Cordero, Jorge Velasquez, Jacinto Vasquez, Jerry Bailey, Shoemaker, Laffit, Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye, Pat Valenzuela, Gary Stevens, Corey Nakatani, Kent Desormeaux, Darrel McHarghue, Fernando Toro one of my greatest friends...all of them. Great people, they have done a lot for me.”
And the horses, ah, the horses. Solis guided Pleasantly Perfect to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2003 and the Dubai World Cup in 2004. He steered Johar to a dead heat win in the Breeders’ Cup Turf in 2003. He nestled behind Kona Gold’s mane when the sprinter won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in 2000. He guided Snow Chief to win the Preakness in 1986. Solis won 18 riding titles in California, including six in a row in 1996-97.
Asked for a highlight, Solis follows with a question.
“In racing or in life?”
He provided both.
“Definitely coming to this country, I’m very grateful to be able to accomplish so many great things, my kids when they were born that is very special, Snow Chief is always a special place in my heart. So many other horses, Pleasantly Perfect, Kona Gold, Megahertz, Dixie Union, there are so many horses that made this possible,” Solis said. “Riding for wonderful trainers, I’m very grateful for them to give me those opportunities and trust me. The owners, they’re so important, they’re the ones who put up all the money. All the jockeys I rode with, they helped me become what I’ve become.”
Like all jockeys, Solis has dealt with injuries and deprivation. Solis fractured a vertebra and had two titanium rods and eight screws inserted after a fall at Del Mar in 2004.
Snapped a wrist. Broke a leg. Punctured lung. Ribs, of course.
A consummate professional, Solis loses weight every day. At the end of the morning after training hours when the trainers are going home and the tractors are renovating the track, Solis puts on a weight vest and layers of sweat pants and jackets. Look up, you’ll see the lonely man putting one foot in front of the other, one mile after another mile, only looking one step at a time.
Solis’ four children – Alex, Tiffany, Andrew, Austin – arrived in Saratoga to celebrate their father’s greatest day. They started adding up the days and the pounds Wednesday night, three or four pounds, every day, for 34 years…
“We were doing the math, we came up with something 73,438 pounds I’ve lost in my career,” Solis said. “I hadn’t really thought about it at all, then the last few days, I started thinking about all the miles, all the horses…you think about where you started, it’s special. You have to live in the now, you can plan for the future and you can look at the past, but it’s the now.”
After graduating jockey school at 17, Solis won his first race Nov. 7, 1981 at Hipodromo Presidente Remon in Panama and always had his sights on America. He arrived in 1982 and dominated the Florida circuit, winning titles at Gulfstream, Hialeah and Calder. Three years after arriving, Solis ventured to California and struck it big. In 2010, Solis changed coasts and restarted his career, picking up key wins aboard Flat Out, Here Comes Ben and others.
“Thirty-four years ago, when I left Panama I had $700 in my pocket and big dreams of being somebody,” Solis said. “It feels like a blink in the eye. I always preach to my kids, find something to do in life that you’re going to love and you’re going to get up every day and be excited to do it. I always live my life to that. Now, I think about it and it’s like, it did work. After all, it did work.”
Read it in print: The Professional
The second piece we picked appeared in the Aug. 11, 2011 edition of The Special and then Nov. 3, 2011 on this website, then simply the ST Publishing site, the day before the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Churchill Downs.
Solis rode five horses over the two-day World Championships, the best finish a fifth on Flat Out in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. He also rode Compliance Officer (Mile), Shkspeare Shaliya (Juvenile Turf), Somali Lemonade (Juvenile Fillies Turf) and Tar Heel Mom (Filly and Mare Sprint) on the weekend.
Sean’s piece came after Solis still showed the competitive fire that made him one of the best, coming up the rail to win Saratoga’s $75,000 Waya Stakes aboard Emerald Beech. Titled “Rider Up,” the piece focuses on Solis and agent Mike Kelly, their working relationship and attempt to claw their “way back to the top of the jockey’s table.”
Read it in print: Rider Up