04/17/2002 11:00PM

Always a good year for roses

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ARCADIA, Calif. - At 10:30 on a normal working day, you will find Alex Solis taking a lap around the racetrack, wrapped in sweat pants and plastic, his head swaddled in a thick towel and a Walkman plugged into his ears, playing a power tape.

His routine never varies. His dedication is legendary. And the results are up there on the screen. By the close of business on Sunday night, Solis will have won his third Santa Anita jockey championship, a stat that places the 38-year-old Panamanian in rarified air.

Since Santa Anita opened its doors in December of 1934, inviting the world's best riders to come spend the winter in Southern California, there have been only six riders who have won as many as three titles since Jimmy King led that inaugural meet.

Bill Shoemaker maintained a ridiculous monopoly for 17 straight years, from the winter of 1950-51 through the spring of 1967. Three years later, Laffit Pincay Jr. won his first of six straight Santa Anita titles, but he wasn't through. He has won eight more, spread over the last 25 years.

Johnny Longden won four titles. So has Gary Stevens. Chris McCarron and Kent Desormeaux have each won three. And now Solis.

"I've been very happy with my riding," Solis said Thursday morning. "I see it improving every year, more and more. I begin to understand the business better and better, and that makes it more fun. I can see why Laffit is still riding so great, and with such ease. All that experience and all that time makes a big difference.

"But the same mentality that gets you to one level is not the same that will get you to a better one," Solis added. "You can never slack. You've got to work really hard to peak every day, not just wait for one day to ride great. The last two years, guys like Desormeaux, Laffit, McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye, they have all been riding great. That intensifies your own riding."

For a change, Solis was taking it easy. He was speaking from the comfort of his car, on the way to the airport with his wife, Sheila. They were escaping on a three-day getaway, made possible through a ruling by the Santa Anita board of stewards over a mild infraction last weekend. Bear in mind, these are unpaid holidays. But Solis did not fight the rap. He figured he owed himself some comp time.

Napa Valley is his destination of choice. They know him there. He is a frequent visitor, descending upon California's wine country with the studied enthusiasm of a true connoisseur. His collection at home in suburban L.A. is some 1,500 bottles strong, and we're not talking about cases of Ralphs special screw-top Vin de Table at $10.99 a gallon.

So, while some jocks are on a first-name basis with the local club pro, or maybe the ma"tre d' at a Beverly Hills four-star joint, Solis pals around with people who make some of California's best wine. The David Arthur Vineyard is a particular favorite.

"When you win a big race, you look for a nice bottle of wine to celebrate," Solis said. "And if you have a horrible day, you look for a great bottle of wine to pick you up."

Obviously, Solis has acquired a refined palate when it comes to the grape. He has not been quite so lucky, however, in terms of Kentucky Derby mounts. Granted, it's not the same thing as pulling a cork and letting the bottle breathe. Landing a contender in the Kentucky Derby is hardly an exact science.

On Wednesday, Solis was in Kentucky to ride Royal Gem for Bobby Frankel in the Forerunner Stakes. A big race might have put the colt in the Derby mix, but he finished third. On Thursday morning, Solis nailed down the mount on Ocean Sound, third-place finisher in the Blue Grass. Then he left for Napa.

Solis has yet to win a Derby, but he has certainly had a pretty good sniff. In the 10 Derby runnings between 1991 and 2000, Solis rode horses who finished second three times and third once. In 1998 he lost the race by a half-length aboard Victory Gallop (Real Quiet won), and in 1997 he fell a head short of catching Silver Charm with Captain Bodgit.

While Ocean Sound has yet to prove himself in such a category, Solis views his chances philosophically.

"You never know in that kind of race," he said. "I've ridden some horses in the past who were 100-1 and ran good. Especially because that track is so funny, you never know if a horse is going to love it or hate it."

Solis has won a Preakness and a Breeders' Cup race and possesses Hall of Fame credentials in terms of career quantity and quality. Still, a few more headlines would not hurt his cause, and a Derby victory someday would ice the cake. Solis even has a special bottle of wine ready for the occasion.

"I can't tell you what it is, though," he said. "If I do, I might make a lot of people mad in Napa Valley."

Now that would be serious.