03/01/2013 4:38PM

Jay Hovdey: Solis, on mend, hoping Hall of Fame finally beckons

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Barbara D. Livingston
Alex Solis has won 4,938 races, three Breeders’ Cup events, the 1986 Preakness with champion Snow Chief, and the 2004 Dubai World Cup with Pleasantly Perfect.

When a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s there to hear it, well, that’s just tough luck for the tree. But when a marquee athlete disappears from the playing field for an extended period of time with nary a headline explaining why, that’s journalistic malpractice.

Which is an overly elaborate way of apologizing for just now finding out that Alex Solis, one of the sport’s finest practitioners, underwent serious shoulder surgery last November in California and is just now getting back up to physical speed in Florida.

This is the same Alex Solis who has won 4,938 races, three Breeders’ Cup events, the 1986 Preakness with champion Snow Chief, and the 2004 Dubai World Cup with Pleasantly Perfect. He is also on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, along with four other jockeys in what could be a vintage year for riders at the Saratoga ceremony come this August. According to the rules, as many as four of the five could receive enough votes for Hall of Fame induction.

(Retired trainer Gary Jones and the horses Ashado, Housebuster, Invasor, and Lure were nominated as well.)

Each of the five nominated riders has a loyal and vocal fan base. Craig Perret’s work with horses like Unbridled, Bet Twice, Safely Kept, and Housebuster gives depth to his 4,415 victories and Louisiana roots. For Garrett Gomez it would seem only a matter of time before he is in the Hall, if four national championships and 13 Breeders’ Cup wins mean anything. Calvin Borel may have been a well-kept Midwestern secret for the first 24 years of his career, but three Kentucky Derby wins in a four-year span plus a memorable partnership with Rachel Alexandra took care of that. And there is no telling what kind of numbers the talented, tormented Chris Antley would have posted on top of his 3,480 wins and two Kentucky Derbies had he lived past the age of 34.

Solis, who turns 49 later this month, has been a little hard to pin down lately. Since migrating from his longtime California base in the spring of 2011 he has taken his business to New York, New Jersey, Kentucky, Florida, and Canada, where he hopes to ride again this year.

“Sometimes change is a good thing,” Solis said this week from his current digs in Hallandale, Fla., not far from Gulfstream Park. “I’ve enjoyed everywhere I’ve competed, and Canada offers a good opportunity. The money is good, and I like Toronto very much. I was even lucky enough to win their Belmont Stakes last year.”

That would be the Breeders’ Stakes aboard the filly Irish Mission at Woodbine last August, in what is traditionally the third jewel in Canada’s Triple Crown for 3-year-olds (they also teamed for second in the historic Queen’s Plate). The Breeders’ was the highlight of an otherwise quiet year during which Solis added only about $3 million to the $230 million earned by his more than 33,000 mounts. Only eight riders in the history of the sport top that total, and all of them are in the Hall of Fame.

The 2012 season came to an effective end for Solis in late summer when he damaged his left shoulder in the starting gate at Saratoga. He rode hurt for a couple of months, warned by doctors that ligament surgery would be necessary sooner or later, before finally going under the knife.

“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, and had a nine-hour surgery to put in two titanium rods and eight screws, it didn’t hurt as bad as this shoulder.”

There will be a brief pause for those experiencing sympathy pains. Solis continued.

“This has not only been the most painful, but it has been the slowest recovery,” he went on. “You don’t get as much circulation through there, which means it takes longer to heal. The first month you have to keep it immobilized, so when I got the sling off I couldn’t even move my arm. It’s like you’re starting from zero.”

As soon as he could, Solis went back to his beloved roadwork and began lifting weights. Recent checkups put him at 90 percent recovered, which is good enough for him to predict that he will be back on horses in about a month.

“I’ve had to be really patient,” he said. “To be honest it’s been very frustrating, being down like this for three months. But if you push it too much in the beginning it won’t heal right, and you end up having to redo it.

“So I tried taking guitar lessons, just to have something to do. That only lasted a few days. I love music, but I guess I’m not meant to be a musician.”

While on the mend Solis has been enjoying the sight of such contemporaries as Gary Stevens and Mike Smith competing at the top of the game. He started to call them “the old guys,” then checked himself, switching to “the more experienced riders.” Smith, who is in the wine business with Solis, is the youngest of the bunch at 47.

“Yeah, but you never know with him,” Solis said. “He’s probably older than both of us. I don’t even think he knows.”

It would seem destined that at some point Solis will join them in the Hall of Fame. Between 1992 and 2002, when Solis was winning his 18 Southern California riding titles, he was beating not only Stevens and Smith, but also Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye, Pat Valenzuela, Corey Nakatani, and Laffit Pincay. When informed he was back on the ballot, he reacted with typical Solis tongue-in-cheek.

“Again?” he said. “They can’t find no one else to nominate? Maybe if I jump off my horse one time at the eighth pole and carry him across the wire. Would that help?”

Probably not. His record is pretty intimidating already.

“Then I guess I’ll keep doing what I love to do, which is ride racehorses.” Solis said. “And just think – I get paid to do it.”