11/04/2004 1:00AM

Injury offers Solis perspective

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The Breeders' Cup telecast can be difficult viewing, and not just for those harboring an irrational fear of John McCririck's muttonchop sideburns.

Through the years, any number of first-string players have been left chafing on the sidelines while everyone else had all the fun. Riders like Gary Stevens and Chris McCarron, injured on the brink of Breeders' Cups past, compensated by becoming part of the telecast itself. Their comments were valuable and entertaining, but it was clear they longed to be wearing silks and white pants instead of their NBC blazers.

Alex Solis, now three months into his recuperation from extensive surgery to repair a fractured vertabra, was not the least bit tempted to go the TV route for the Breeders' Cup. He was asked, by the Magna racing network HRTV, but he politely declined. The last thing he wanted to do was have a front row seat and a microphone while horses like Pleasantly Perfect, Megahertz, and Our New Recruit went postward without him.

Besides, he had class.

While such colleagues as John Velazquez, Corey Nakatani, Ramon Dominguez, and Frankie Dettori were hitting the high notes at Lone Star Park, Solis was deep into the meditative currents of his day-long tai gong session near his home in Glendora.

As Solis described it, the concept of tai gong can trace its roots to the intensely focused disciplines of tai chi and qi gong, with the growing Falun Gong movement of China also in its immediate family.

"It's more for mental relaxation, getting in touch with myself," Solis said. "I had a class all day Saturday, so I didn't get to see the Breeders' Cup until later that night."

Any thoughts on the races?

"They were boring!" Solis replied. "I wasn't there."

He said he was just kidding, but it was kidding on the square. For nearly 23 solid years, until he went down at Del Mar on July 23, Solis had competed without a significant interruption in what should someday be recognized as a Hall of Fame career.

Solis reached a personal peak at the 2003 Breeders' Cup, winning the Classic on Pleasantly Perfect and sharing dead-heat honors aboard Johar in the Turf, then carried that momentum into a brilliant 2004 campaign. At the time of his injury, Solis was leading all riders with $11.5 million in mount earnings. So strong was his pace that today, three months later, he still ranks seventh in the standings.

Solis had been counting on making a defense of the Classic title with Pleasantly Perfect, but there was never a chance he could return in time. Jerry Bailey stepped in to take the mount.

"I saw him bobble a little bit leaving the gate," Solis noted. "That made it tough for Bailey right away to get position. Then it looked to me that right about the eighth pole he got to pulling a little bit. That's when you have a choice of two things - either let him go and gamble that he doesn't run off or take him back."

Bailey chose a third path, hoping for a place to drop into midpack and save ground. It didn't happen. Pleasantly Perfect was wide for most of the 1 1/4 miles, finished a distant third to Ghostzapper, and emerged from the race with an injured ankle. For Solis, it was a sad way to watch his favorite horse finish a brilliant career.

"Unfortunately, he had the trip that he did," Solis said. "It was nobody's fault."

Now that the Breeders' Cup is history, Solis can clear his mind completely of opportunities lost. His time was already filled with recuperative activity, from long, solitary hikes in the foothills near his home ("Snakes and coyotes keep me company.") to deep tissue massage, designed to break down scar tissue resulting from the surgical wounds.

Solis's doctors have given him the green light to get back on the golf course ("No 350-yard drives, though. Just my usual 300."), and just last week he commenced a weight-training program. For public consumption, he is telling people that early 2005 is a reasonable target for his return. But his inner voice hums along at a slightly different tune.

"My main concern is my health," Solis said. "That is number one. Then I'll worry about my career. As much as I'm dying to get on horses right now, I have to do what's right by my body."

And his soul. To that end, Solis experienced his most effective rehabilitation during a trip to his native Panama, where he spent two weeks at his mother's home in Panama City.

"I guess she was expecting the worst," Solis said. "When I got to the house, she started crying. She hugged me, then she started checking me out, just like I was a new baby, making sure I still had all my fingers and toes.

"In the past, I would go there once a year for maybe four days and fly around like a bumblebee. This time, my mother and I got to do all the things we haven't been able to do for 23 years, since I left Panama.

"You know, when I got hurt, I would wonder why it happened," Solis added. "Getting to spend that two weeks with my mother cleared up some of the mystery."