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By Jay Hovdey
Videography by Molly McGill
Main photo by Barbara D. Livingston
Alex Solis stopped at a wide spot on the Mount Wilson Trail and pointed to a fluttering American flag planted on the crest of a distant ridge.
“You see the man with the dog up there,” he said.
The man, dog, and flag were no more than flyspecks against a cloudless sky.
“To get there you follow this trail down and then around and up the other side,” Solis said. “From here you can see Santa Anita, and even Catalina on a clear day. Up there everything gets smaller and smaller.”
While Solis gets fitter and fitter, power-hiking up the mountain, pushing his 52-year-old body in a calculated attempt to stay competitive in a game where experience is valued, but youth is served.
“At my age, my mind is still the same as it was – still very hungry, very competitive,” Solis said. “The big issue is my body. There comes that time when it starts to decline. It’s not that Nature is mad at me. I have to keep that in mind. It’s life, and it’s going to happen to everybody.”
When it happens to a Hall of Fame jockey past 50, people start to talk. Their age is noted with regularity. They are scrutinized for the effects of the pitiless rules dictated by the aging process. Almost on a daily basis, they are forced to deal as best they can with what author Robert Penn Warren called “the awful responsibility of time.”
And yet, in the modern world of health and fitness, many of them thrive. The Southern California jockeys’ room in particular is home not only to Solis, but also to fellow Hall of Famers Mike Smith, who turns 51 in August, and Gary Stevens, who is 53. How they maintain their foothold on the game is a tribute to both a disciplined workout routine and an emotional honesty that knows they are cheating the clock.
There have been any number of Hall of Fame level jockeys who competed well past the watershed 50, including Northern California’s Russell Baze, still sailing along with more than 12,000 wins. Baze turns 58 in August, and not even the fractured collarbone he suffered in mid-April will keep him out of action for long.
Johnny Longden, whose reported birthdate tended to vary, went out with a roar winning the 1966 San Juan Capistrano at what everyone agreed was at least 59. Bill Shoemaker, a foal of 1931, won the last of his four Kentucky Derbies at 54, then rode for almost four years after that. In 2008, Earlie Fires and his 6,470 winners finally retired at the age of 61.
“I remember telling Bill Shoemaker and Eddie Delahoussaye – I was about 25 years old – that I was going to retire when I was thirty,” said Gary Stevens. “Here I am 53 and thinking of that old saying, ‘If I would have known I’d be around this long, I would have taken better care of myself.’”
With their longevity comes great statistical weight. Among them, through May 25 of this year, Stevens, Smith, and Solis have won 15,415 races from 95,029 mounts that have amassed $759,387,334 in purses. They have won 35 Breeders’ Cup events, a pair of Dubai World Cups, and 14 Triple Crown races, and they have ridden a veritable cavalry of great horses, including Silver Charm, Zenyatta, Snow Chief, Point Given, Serena’s Song, Kona Gold, Pleasantly Perfect, Azeri, Holy Bull, Royal Delta, Gentlemen, Sky Beauty, and Winning Colors.
At this point, Stevens and Smith are in the envious position of riding a choice handful of horses who compete primarily in major stakes events or preparatory races for those major events. Solis, on the other hand, is afforded relatively few opportunities by comparison, where once he was the work horse of the Southern California circuit, winning 18 meet championships between 1992 and 2002.
“The most important thing in my life right now is that even if I only ride one horse a day to go out there and do everything with the same pride I did before, the same love,” Solis said. “And I still get the same satisfaction.”
As the 2016 season unfolded, Smith was rolling along with the undefeated champion filly Songbird, winner of the Santa Anita Oaks, while Stevens was most closely associated with the champion mare Beholder..
“It was hard work to get to where I’m at right now, riding quality horses over quantity,” Smith said. “They might not call me on the weekdays, but they call me on the weekends, and as long as they do I’ll keep doing this.”
“This” is what this story is about.
Stevens: The long encore
When he was six, Gary Stevens was diagnosed with a degenerative disease of the hip joint, known as Legg-Calve-Parthes. He was fitted with a brace on his right leg that took pressure off the hip and wore an elevated shoe on his left foot for balance, then was told he’d need to wear the gear for two to three years while healthy hip bone grew.
Stevens was out of the brace in 18 months and immediately dedicated himself to rehabilitating his withered right leg. By the time he was in high school he was a champion wrestler and budding prodigy as a rider. After turning pro he quickly outgrew his native Idaho and shifted his focus to Seattle, where he set a Longacres meet record of 168 victories in 1983, then improved that mark with 232 winers in 1984. The sky, as far as his career was concerned, was the limit.
In the fall of 1986, Stevens suffered his first serious knee injury when a horse he was working one morning at Santa Anita bolted into the rail. He also dislocated a shoulder, but it was the torque to his left knee that set the rider on a seemingly endles pathway of pain and high-risk compensations. Twice in later years the knee sent him into retirement and twice he came back, only to quit for good in 2005 with three Kentucky Derbies among his nearly 5,000 North American winners and a plaque in the Hall of Fame.
Seven years later, at age 49, Stevens felt healed, or at least healthy enough to work himself fit and attempt a comeback – a comeback that ended up exceeding his wildest imagination. In March of 2013 he turned 50 and celebrated with friends and family at the Derby Restaurant near Santa Anita. In May he won the Preakness Stakes, his ninth Triple Crown event and first since 2001. Six months later he wrapped up the year winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
But then, like midnight striking at Cinderella’s ball, the physical bill came due.
“Before, when I would get my knee injected, it would be good at first for eight or nine months, then six months, then three months,” Stevens said. “But it got to the point where it only lasted four days. At that point the injections were causing more damage.”
Stevens sumbitted to total knee joint replacement surgery in July of 2014, rolling the dice on ever riding again, but figuring nothing could hurt worse than the chronic pain that had returned with a vengeance.
“It’s been a great run, a great career, and if I don’t make it back, I can live with that,” Stevens said in a TVG interview at the time.
He returned by the autumn, in time to make a token but highly emotional appearance aboard a longshot in a Breeders’ Cup event. Then, with his new knee providing inspiration, Stevens unfurled a 2015 campaign highlighted by a close second in the Kentucky Derby aboard Firing Line, a victory in the Pacific Classic with Beholder, and 19 other graded stakes wins.
“The knee replacement was a life changer for me,” Stevens said. “It’s not fun going to bed at night knowing you’re going to hurt the next day, if it’s going to be a good day, a bad day. It got to the point where there weren’t too many good days, just a matter of what the pain level would be.
“And it’s not just the pain,” he added. “For the first time in a long time my left leg is straight. I was riding real uneven to take as much weight off the inside leg as possible, but now I was able to drop my right iron so I’m hardly acey-deucy anymore, and a lot more comfortable.”
Stevens was never a gym rat. His shoulder damage (a screw in one and rotator cuff staples in both) precluded a lot of heavy lifting, and his knees kept the treadmill to a slower pace. During the first part of his most recent comeback he got into a habit of neighborhood power walks, sometimes even straying part way up the Mount Wilson Trail, or pounding the hilly streets of Del Mar during the summer meet.
“I hadn’t been able to run for about 25 years because of my knee issues,” Stevens said. “It hurt. They would just blow up and get aggravated. It was either ride horses in the afternoon or run and not ride. But I knew for years and years that Laffit Pincay, all he did was walk. So I was okay with that.”
Hall of Famer Pincay rode until he was 56, quitting only because of fractured vertabrae in his neck.
“In fact, I hadn’t even attempted to run until about six months ago,” Stevens said. “I felt so good I figured, what the heck. So I just took off running one day. My knee had no reaction at all. The muscles in my calf and thigh started building up more than they’d even been in the past.”
Stevens is not what you’d call religious about his routine, although he is superstitious enough to exit the jocks’ room through the same door every time he runs, his ear bud music of choice is always outlaw country, and he probably hits many of the same footprints in the Santa Anita parking lot as he strides along the high hedges flanking the seven-furlong chute.
“When I came out of retirement I got caught up in doing too much,” Stevens said. “I was lacking in energy because of my workout routine. Now, if I feel myself getting a little run down I’ll give myself a break, maybe a month, like freshening a racehorse.
“I don’t even know if it’s so much for my cardio and the phsyical part of it as it is more for my mental state,” he added. “I think a lot when I’m running. It seems to take the edge off a little bit and clear my head.”
His target is the starting gate parked in the far corner of the back lot, near the top of the hillside turf course. Stevens touches the gate – “For luck,” he says – then retraces his run back to the room, where jockeys half his age gaze upon him in wonder.
“All of the young riders here work out, really get after it, and they’re very fit,” Stevens said. “It’s kind of cool to see. I don’t know if they’re doing it so they can compete with us old geezers or what. All I know is when I show up, I can’t look like I haven’t ridden for five or six days.”
Smith: The gym rat
Mike Smith was 33 and close wrapping up his fourth Saratoga riding title when he took the worst of a chain reaction tangle and went down on the first turn of the turf course on Aug. 31, 1998. He fractured two vertebrae in his lower back, and counted himself lucky it was nothing worse.
“It was just one of those things,” Smith told the New York Daily News. “Someone trying to get to the first turn quicker than everyone else. I’m not exactly sure what happened. The next thing I know I’m going through the hedge. But it’s part of the game and I’m not going to hold a grudge against anyone.”
It took Smith five months to return to riding, five months during which he learned that the gym was his friend.
“I really got into it in early 1997, the year before I broke my back,” Smith said. “I was probably in the best shape of my life when I did get hurt, which also helped me not get hurt any worse than I was. At least that’s what the doctors said.”
The Mike Smith of his early 30s, when he won back-to-back national titles and two Eclipse Awards, is a different physical creature in his 50s.
“I’m certainly heavier now than I was once, because muscle weighs more than fat,” he said. “But I had that serious injury where if I didn’t put that muscle on my back wouldn’t have been able to take riding. I crushed T-12 and L-3, but I didn’t have surgery. Instead, my doctor said I had to put on six or seven pounds of muscle.”
This was not good news.
“My god, I thought, I’m going to be out of a job either way, “ Smith said. “If I have the operation and put rods in there I wouldn’t be able to bend over to ride. If I put on that much weight that would be the end, too.”
The challenge had only one answer. He had to remove as much fat as possible and replace it with muscle, which he did with relentless commitment to his fitness routine.
“But then I found that I was doing too much,” Smith said. “Going out to ride, I was exhausted. ‘I’m training so hard, why am I so tired?’ I was kind of tearing myself down, wearing myself out, hurting myself more in the gym than I was actually helping myself.”
Enter Tony Vong, Smith’s personal trainer. A graduate of Cal State-Los Angeles with degrees in kinesiology and exercise science, Vong has worked with Smith for eight years.
“At school we studied the athlete in every kind of sport, even jockeys,” Vong said. “We measured just how much every muscle group was used in the various sports.”
And what did he learn about jockeys?
“They use everything,” Vong replied.
As a result, the trainer devised a workout routine for Smith that was never the same two days running. On this particular day, after a three-mile bike ride from his Sierra Madre townhouse to the Matador Performance Center in Pasadena, Smith was working on shoulders and legs, in addition to his regular cardio program.
“On a day that I’m not riding I’ll do about an hour and a half of cardio and use different machines: treadmill, stationary bike, elliptical, rowing machine,” Smith said. “I usually do 30 minutes on each machine before I start working out with Tony.”
Talk show host Jack Paar once asked Oscar Levant, concert pianist and world-class hypochondriac, what he did for exercise.
“I stumble, and then I fall into a coma,” was Levant’s deadpan reply.
It sounds easier than what Vong puts Smith through.
“Legs and shoulders are always a killer,” Smith said. “That’s why I definitely don’t do those on a day I ride, to save my legs. If I really need to get a lot of weight off, the cardio will get to me sometimes, because I have to do a lot to get it done. I’m not one who likes to sit in the hot box or the sauna and pull weight. It might wear me out a little bit, but I still feel better if I do it naturally, by training.”
After an hour’s worth of self-inflicted torture on everything from the most modern FreeMotion dual cable cross apparatus to tossing an old school medicine ball, Smith gets back on his bike and pedals home.
“I probably feel better now than in my 20s,” Smith said. “And I feel stronger on a horse. I can sit and be as locked in as I can be and probably push twice as hard as the guy next to me, using my body, using my legs even more than I could when I was younger. I know when I have to guide one somewhere or take a hold of one it comes a whole lot easier. I don’t need my whole body to do it. I just use my hands and arms.
“And because our game is a game of inches, all those little things can mean a lot,” Smith added. “Any little advantage you’ve got can make a big difference.”
Solis: The road warrior
Alex Solis was less from a year removed from his greatest day as a jockey when, on a July afternoon in 2004, he was the victim of a careless move by a young rider and went down on the final turn of the Del Mar main track, fracturing two vertebrae and three ribs. He was 40.
The previous November, Solis had won the Breeders’ Cup Classic and finished in a dead-heat for first in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita Park. No other rider ever had won both races on the same day, and none has since.
Solis kept up the pace through the first half of the 2004 season, racking up victories in such major events as the Met Mile, the Fantasy, the San Antonio, the Carter, the Santa Barbara, and, most importantly, the Dubai World Cup aboard Pleasantly Perfect.
Then came the crash at Del Mar, and his world turned upside down. Nine hours of surgery were required to stabilize his spine with two titanium rods and eight screws. His first, tentative steps in the hospital corridor were a minor miracle, because no one ever said he was a sure thing to walk again. Solis was faced with a long road back and no guarantees.
For years Solis had controlled his weight and maintained his strength through disciplined exercise and diet. He also was an inveterate reader – or in his case listener during roadwork – of audiobooks that leaned toward inspirational life lessons. His recovery tapped into each of those resources.
“There’s the trauma you get in your head, and your heart,” Solis said. “It’s major. One of the first things I had to deal with was make myself understand that I can overcome that trauma. Knowing the things I’d learned about myself helped overcome that fear.
“Then the second step was training,” he said. “I had to make my body so strong that if I fell again I could handle it. They both were very difficult. Then maybe the hardest thing of all was losing the weight at the end. I think I went up to 130 pounds.”
During a comeback fraught with uncertainty, Solis took his show on the road to New York, Kentucky, Florida, and Canada. If nothing else, he was able to enjoy new places to exercise.
“There’s a place in Saratoga called Battlefields,” Solis said. “I would run for a while then stop for apples right off the tree. Run a little ways more, and there were pears, delicious, and at the end of the trail were raspberries right off the bush. I would gain two pounds exercising and couldn’t figure out why.”
In August of 2012, while riding at Saratoga, Solis injured his shoulder in the starting gate. Typical of most riders who keep going as long as they can still walk and count to three, Solis played hurt for a couple of months before submitting to repair.
“That was my first shoulder surgery, and I don’t recommend it to anyone,” Solis said. “I’ve broken ribs, legs, you name it. When I broke my back, it didn’t hurt as bad as this shoulder.”
The back and shoulder injuries, both occurring in his 40s, could have ended most careers. But even when he turned 50 in 2014– the same year he fulfilled his dream of entering the Hall of Fame – Solis was not ready for the end. He found inspiration to keep riding on his beloved Mount Wilson Trail.
“You go from 800 to a thousand feet, then go another half a mile and you’re at 1,500 feet,” he said. “I try to walk as fast as I can. Two or three miles up, that’s a lot of cardio. Then walking down there’s a lot of strength you’re asking your legs, because you’re putting on the breaks. So you’re working your whole body.
“I tried the gym many times, but I’m more of a nature person, being out in the open,” said Solis, who was born in rural Panama. “Up in those mountains, it’s just so nice to see people hiking and enjoying it. There’s such a good aura. But I do carry my stick for the snakes, just in case.”
“Yes,” he said. “Many times. If it’s a garden snake they get scared and go away. Rattlesnakes, though, they like to fight.”
Mind, body, and heart
In the career of any great athlete the days grow short, and night eventually falls. Each of the 50-plus Hall of Famers is in their own shade of twilight.
“I have to be a lot smarter in how I treat my body, but more important is my mind,” Solis said. “You succeed in this game to a certain level, and then you start declining because your body can’t handle it, and then you start losing mounts. That’s another battle that’s hard to fight. Harder than the physical training.”
For now, Smith has found a balance of mind and body that keeps the competitive fires burning and his business hot.
“I’ve been working out so long it’s become a way of life,” he said. “I actually don’t feel good if I don’t do it, and not only for the physical but the mental part of it. A lot of times with big races coming up, sometimes you think about them too much, or things that have already happened that you really can’t change. Do an hour and a half of cardio, your body is drained, but your mind’s fresh.”
For his part, Stevens is deeply aware he already has been given more chances than most.
“I’ve been very fortunate, with the science of joint replacement, with better diet and vitamin supplement programs, smart exercise,” he said. “But when people ask me when I’m going to retire, in my mind I am retired. I just get to ride some really fast racehorses.
“I’m to the age now that I have five great kids, one of them still growing up, and four grandchildren,” Stevens said. “It’s a dangerous game I’m in, and I know that. I don’t know when it’s time to say ‘no more,’ and I don’t look forward to that day. I just want to enjoy every day that I have right now.”