08/06/2014 12:09PM

Hovdey: Alex Solis's name added to Panama pride

Barbara D. Livingston
Alex Solis, the newest jockey member of the Hall of Fame, has ridden a staggering number of prominent stakes winners, including Snow Chief and Pleasantly Perfect.

Alex Solis, raised on a farm outside Panama City, was asked earlier this week if he knew how many of his fellow countrymen had preceded him into North America’s Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs. He answered in a heartbeat.

Laffit Pincay, Braulio Baeza, Manuel Ycaza, Jorge Velasquez, Jacinto Vasquez,” Solis said, as if reciting his boyhood catechism. “That’s not bad for a little country with only three million people.”

No, not bad at all. And now there are six, a grand number mined from a culture rich in Thoroughbred tradition, where hopeful young riders must pass through a rigorous training school to be accredited in their craft. Panama was to jockeys what Ireland was to poets.

Solis was 11 when Pincay, his idol, became the first jockey from a Latin American nation elected to the Hall in 1975.

“I wasn’t thinking about being a jockey then,” Solis said. “I was just a little kid working in the fields out in the country.”

But then, six years later Solis was a jockey, riding his first winner on Nov. 7, 1981, at Presidente Remon in Panama City. The Hall of Fame was nothing more than a distant star, and yet from the moment Solis won the Gulfstream Park title in his first full year in the U.S., the destination seemed inevitable. Alex Solis was in for the long haul at a high level, with fireworks along the way.

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There was the day Solis beat the unbeatable Cigar in the 1996 Pacific Classic. The crowd was stunned, but he was not surprised, because he knew his colt, Dare and Go, had it in him to run a cracking good race no matter who was in the way.

Solis rode Dare and Go with the same kind of confidence with which he approached the 1986 Preakness aboard Snow Chief, winning with an abandon that erased the disappointment of their failure as favorites in the Kentucky Derby two weeks before.

Then there was the Breeders’ Cup of 2003, when Solis powered Johar to a dead-heat in the Turf with the formidable High Chaparral and then came back half an hour later to win the Classic on Pleasantly Perfect. No rider before or since has won both races on the same day.

And just because it happened half a world away, fans of Solis never will forget that night in Dubai, in March of 2004, when won the Golden Shaheen at 6 furlongs and the World Cup at 1 1/4 miles.

Those more deeply familiar with the Solis canon will pick and choose among the 11 stakes he won aboard the champion sprinter Kona Gold. More often than not they will settle upon their victory in the 2001 Bing Crosby at Del Mar, a textbook collaboration of horse and rider in a moment of high drama.

They can take a broad view of his work in major stakes events with an array of talented fillies, including Megahertz, Ryafan, Urbane, Magical Fantasy, Squeak, House of Fortune, and Affluent. Or they can zero in on a collection of broad-shouldered colts who carried very big days, among them Victory Gallop, Dixie Union, Pico Central, Bertrando, Sea Cadet, Pleasant Tap, Surf Cat, and Beat Hollow.

Solis rang up most of his nearly 5,000 winners in Southern California, where he won 20 riding titles between 1991 and 2002. Impressive as such stats can be, it has been his ability to win big on the road that has made Solis a Hall of Fame name by winning races like the Donn, the Manhattan, the Metropolitan, the Jim Dandy, the Arkansas Derby, the Queen Elizabeth II, the Super Derby, the Florida Derby, and the Haskell.

Solis fractured a vertabra at Del Mar in July of 2004 and underwent a delicate operation to be able to walk, let along ride, ever again. A month later he was at the track, wearing a formidable back brace and a brave smile, to watch Jerry Bailey ride Pleasantly Perfect to victory in the Pacific Classic. Solis returned to competition seven months later and added nearly 300 winners to his total over the following two seasons.

By then it was clear that a call from the Hall of Fame would be only a matter of time. The fact that he had to wait until he turned 50, when his business has flagged and stakes mounts are few and far between, does not bother him at all.

“To be honest, when I started riding I never visualized what it would be like as I got nearer to the end,” Solis said. “I’m very blessed to be in the position I’m in at this time in my life. As I’ve gotten older, I appreciate more and more the horses who have been in my life, who got me here.”

And the people, too. Solis will be joined at the Hall of Fame ceremonies by a host of friends and colleagues, by his family from California, his mother and sister from Panama, and by his cousin Michael Martinez, a former jockey of great promise who was paralyzed from the waist down in an accident at Golden Gate Fields in 2010. The sentiment usually goes without saying, but Solis will say it anyway. When he declares just how lucky he has been, while looking down from the stage at his cousin, believe him.