04/22/2007 11:00PM

Hollywood stardom beckons


ARCADIA, Calif. - For a teasing moment last Sunday afternoon, as the stubborn Sweet Return led the field into the stretch of the San Juan Capistrano Invitational, there appeared to be a glimmer of a chance that the nightmare Santa Anita meeting experienced by Alex Solis might be softened with a fairy-tale ending.

Then reality smacked them down, in the form of Victor Espinoza and On the Acorn, who swooped to the lead on the far outside while Solis and Sweet Return were still flanked on the right by the tenacious Embossed and Larry Melancon. It is of some small consolation that once he caught sight of the leader, Sweet Return went after On the Acorn like a lion on the scent. But it was too late. They were second, and second to a competitor like Alex Solis lives right next door to nowhere.

It was too late anyway to save the meet for Solis. Even with 2 wins from 4 mounts on Sunday, his totals for the 85-day season languished below the final top 10, with 24 winners from 190 mounts.

Still, it's hard to feel sorry for a guy with nearly 4,500 winners and mount earnings of more than $200 million, not to mention a nice car, a beautiful family, and a cellphone ringtone that plays the theme music to "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan."

"I've seen it about 10 times," Solis confessed, carefully drawing the "Borat" DVD case from a knapsack. "It puts a lot of smiles on my face. High five!"

This is also the same Alex Solis who is on the ballot for the Hall of Fame. It is the same Solis who has three Santa Anita championships to his credit, who entered the 2007 meet as the leader among active riders in terms of Santa Anita stakes wins (134), and who emerged from the meet as the leading active rider in total winners there (1,249), trailing only the Hall of Famers Laffit Pincay, Bill Shoemaker, Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye, and Gary Stevens.

Solis was able to add only three minor stakes wins to his Santa Anita accomplishments during the season. One of them, however, came in the Grade 3 Santa Paula Stakes with the exciting Magnificience, a filly on which great dreams could be built. But even that thrill of anticipation turned to ash when she went to the sidelines with an injury.

As a result, it is hardly surprising that Solis is looking forward to the Hollywood Park meeting, which begins a 63-day run on Wednesday. The nature of the racing beast allows for such fresh starts, meet to meet, with everyone's score cranking back to zero. If nothing else, Solis can tap into the momentum of his final week at Santa Anita, during which he averaged a winner a day and began to lure critics back into his corner.

Still, there needs to be an explanation for the uncharacteristic numbers posted by Solis at Santa Anita. His only comparable season came in 2005, when he was returning from a severe back injury and sensibly limiting his action. One look at the 43-year-old Solis these days and there is no question he is at the peak of personal fitness, with no physical reason on Earth that would keep him from racking up the winners.

"Maybe I was hurt, but mentally," Solis said at the end of Sunday's program as he straddled a stool at his Santa Anita cubicle.

"I was riding only two or three horses a day, which is nice sometimes for a little break, but it kept going, week after week, and I was getting frustrated. It really opened my eyes. I love riding horses, and I love winning races. And I'm not really happy when I don't.

"But there are a lot of hungry kids here now, and they're good riders," Solis went on, ticking off such names as Mike and Tyler Baze, Joe Talamo, Saul Arias, and Martin Garcia. "They come out every morning and work hard. It was clear I had to work even harder to build up my business, so I decided to quit being frustrated and make something happen."

Solis will miss the first three days of the Hollywood meet while visiting his ailing mother in Panama. When he returns, though, he will be a man on a mission.

"About a month ago I said I wanted to be leading rider at Hollywood Park," Solis said. "It might sound crazy, because I don't really have the business some of the other guys do. That means I have to build it up as I go along, and prepare myself like I did before, only better."

It hardly sounds crazy that Solis is ready to do what it takes to lead a major meet. After all, he has 20 titles to his credit, dating back to the mid-1980s, when he led three top Florida meets and then headed for California. Nine of his California titles have come at Hollywood Park.

"I remember when I first came here, a little kid just 22 years old," Solis said. "I was so excited to be next to Shoemaker, Laffit, McCarron, Delahoussaye, Fernando Toro. That's the feeling I still want, and I'm willing to work for it."

High five.