About 11 months ago, I walked with Alex Solis after he won the Forego to close out the meet. It was one of two wins at the meet for the veteran.
He stopped and talked to me for 20 minutes, never angling to walk away or hurry to the jocks’ room. We stood among the crowd, talking about horses, life, as Saratoga wound to a close. It was an ugly meet for Solis. Being mired in public failure can be brutal.
Polished and professional, he was trying to restart a career that needed a keg of dynamite. He was stale. I liked him, he somehow psyched me up, talking about faith, patience, desire, sacrifice, he told me he was going to make it here. I didn’t think he had a chance. I hoped he did, but couldn’t see it. In the East Coast steel cage of jockeys, the Californian was a long way down the list.
Then he met Mike Kelly. The veteran horseman/agent took his book Oct. 1.
Kelly calls himself a jocks’ agent, but he’s all horsemen. He dresses up, carries himself with class, never gets excited, never gets down. He helped build Javier Castellano’s business, then lost him to Matt Muzikar, but kept his head high. Castellano went up, Kelly briefly had Eibar Coa but basically took a seat on the bench.
Until Solis called.
Kelly is steady, like Solis. Patriarchal, a little like Solis.
The other morning on the backstretch, I read an email from an advertiser complaining about their design and threatening to pull their contract. I had that moment of frustration, tossed my Blackberry into my backpack, walked in a circle, muttering and stammering.
Kelly saw me, waited and approached with caution.
“Hey, Sean, what’s going on? I never see you like this. Don’t let them get to you, Sean. You’re doing the right thing.”
Not sure if he told Solis the same thing back when they went to dinner in September, but a year later, Solis and Kelly have clawed their way back to the top of the jockey’s table, securing quality mounts from quality trainers. They started to pick up business at Belmont in the fall, carried it over to Gulfstream and suddenly became popular again. They wedged their foot into tackrooms; Jonathan Sheppard, Shug McGaughey, Lisa Lewis, John Kimmel . . . Kelly’s clientele.
“I have faith. Mike Kelly made the difference, he comes from a line of horsemen that has been here forever, he has a lot of faith in me, everything clicked, each meet has been better,” Solis said. “As soon as I got Mike Kelly, we got into one barn, another barn, then we went south and hit it off, gathered connections, rode a few for Jonathan Sheppard, Shug, Lisa Lewis and Mr. (William) Schettine, John Kimmel, a lot of people, we had a great winter and then came back to Belmont, got more clients, more clients and now we’re here. The pinnacle of horse racing.”
This spring, Solis won the Suburban on Flat Out. He won the Virginia Derby on Air Support. He won a stakes on Friend Or Foe. This meet, he’s won the Honorable Miss with Tar Heel Mom and yesterday’s Waya with Emerald Beech.
Solis has officially been reclaimed.
The 47-year-old veteran skimmed the rail the entire way of the Signature Stallion Waya Stakes Wednesday, keeping his line in the water for a mile and a half to win the $75,000 stakes by a neck. It was the ride of the meet.
Kelly watched from a TV inside the clubhouse.
“You’ll get your money’s worth,” he said, only when prodded.
“It’s a blessing. At this stage of my life, my career, I remember when I came here 30 years ago with a dream, riding with the riders I’ve ridden with my entire career, the things I’d done, now I’m 47, riding with these great riders. I feel blessed, to be in this position, to be around great horsemen, everywhere,” Solis said. “I’ve been around the business for a long time, you have to be patient, very flexible, you can’t let it get to you. The most important thing is you have to faith that it will happen. I’ve been in that position before, you get in slumps and think they’re never going to change, then it goes the other way and you ride a pony and it wins.”
Solis has proven that he’s still viable in a young man’s game. Sure, his patience was tested, his resolve stretched, especially on all those morning runs, when he pulls on a rubber suit and runs two or three miles, a single figure plodding around a racetrack to lose two or three pounds, enough to do 117.
“The only frustrating part has been losing weight. I have to run everyday, I don’t like the hotbox, I prefer running. It’s a struggle, but that’s the trade to do something I love,” Solis said. “I’m 5-5, it’s difficult. I told my agent, I can do 116, but it’s pushing myself, I’ll do 117, it keeps me strong. One pound is a half a cup of water, that’s everything. I don’t drink water, if you’re 5-5 and you love this, you get it done. But, yeah, it’s a lot easier when you’re in the winner’s circle.”