09/05/2006 11:00PM

Labor Day tale of two riders


DEL MAR, Calif. - It was the best of Labor Days, it was the worst of Labor Days - depending on if you answer to the name of Victor Espinoza or Alex Solis.

Seven winners vs. bruised ribs. A champagne toast as opposed to extra-strength Tylenol. Sometimes it really pays to get out of bed. Other times, well . . .

Together with fellow veteran Corey Nakatani, Espinoza and Solis have had most of the fun at Del Mar this summer, topping the list of money winners and accounting for most of the major stakes. Add the names of such reliable citizens as Jon Court, Jose Valdivia, Tyler Baze, and David Flores, and this bodes well for the stability of the Southern California jockey colony as it braces for the possible return of Patrick Valenzuela from self-exile, while dealing with the growing impact of apprentice Martin Garcia, who finished second to Espinoza in the Del Mar standings and first by far in careless-riding suspensions (25 days, negotiated down to 22).

While Espinoza remains the hot product, making headlines under the guidance of agent Tony Matos, it is Solis who commands respect as the leader in the clubhouse. Labor Day was no way to treat a leader.

Things began to go wrong for the Solis holiday weekend early on Saturday when Brother Derek fired a blank in the El Cajon Stakes. But the jockey was not discouraged, and the colt will be back to fight again in the Goodwood Handicap during the Oak Tree meet.

On Sunday it turned physical, when the maiden filly Katalsta threw a hissy fit and tried to flip in the starting gate before the running of the third race. Solis grabbed the gate frame for support as the filly thrashed, and everything would have been okay if Katalsta hadn't tossed her head and flung the assistant starter onto Solis's outstretched left arm. His first thought was "Ow." His second: "No golf for a while."

Solis plowed ahead, though, and went on to win two on the Sunday card, sore elbow and all. Along the way there was a rumpus in the fourth race, when Solis and favored Aravalli were disqualified from third to fourth for leaning in and bothering Golden Silk. Solis contended his filly was running green, and the stewards agreed, declining to add insult to injury.

Then came Labor Day, soon to be rechristened V.E. Day on local calendars. Espinoza established a Del Mar record by winning seven of the 10 races. In recent history, this compares only to the "Magnificent Seven" thrown down by Frankie Dettori on Sept. 28, 1996, when he galvanized the British sporting scene by winning all seven races on the Ascot program. Espinoza, in minor contrast, needed the first eight on the card to win his seven. Three of them were stakes.

By the time Espinoza won his seventh - the Del Mar Debutante with Point Ashley - the rest of the room had been pretty much reduced to spectators. Solis captured the prevailing mood.

"It was amazing," Solis said. "Very exciting. You love to see a jockey get on a roll like that, and there is no feeling like it, when everything is clicking."

Solis can be forgiven, however, if his thoughts turned to self-preservation at the start of Monday's ninth race, an allowance event for 3-year-olds. His mount, second choice Winning Tactics, went to his nose at the break and spiked Solis to the ground.

"You know the craziest thing of all?" Solis recalled. "One horse [Espinoza's] broke through the gate, and there were two or three acting up. Mine was the only one really behaving, and he was the only one who stumbled and fell."

Solis was rushed to what may someday become known as the Alex Solis Emergency Room of Scripps Memorial Hospital in nearby La Jolla. On his last visit, two years ago, he was there for a severely fractured vertebra and broken ribs, injuries that required extensive surgery and six months of rehabilitation.

"The same guy who X-rayed me back then did the X-rays this time, too," Solis said. "I told him that I'd like to say, 'Nice to see you again.' But I really couldn't."

This time, Solis got a reprieve.

"Just bruised ribs. That's all I have," he said. "They were more worried that I was passing a little blood. After I went down, the horse kicked me with his back legs and got me right in the stomach and the kidneys. The guys on the gate crew told me it sounded very ugly. I didn't hear it, but I sure felt it, and it knocked the wind out of me. I had to just lay down and be patient until I could start breathing again."

Solis was heading for a vacation anyway, first to Napa Valley and then on to his native Panama, which means his wounds will have time to heal before the Oak Tree meet opens on Sept. 27. Success is the point, but survival is the key. So when a rider gets banged up, thrown, and kicked in the gut, all they ask is to be able to walk away and try again.

"I was very fortunate, very lucky," Solis said, and it almost sounded as if he had just won seven.