Updated on 09/17/2011 8:51PM

Long journey yields a desert oasis

Email
Horsephotos
Alex Solis and two of his colleagues were back in the muddy mix Sunday afternoon after a brief fling with clear skies, warmth, and luxury.

ARCADIA, Calif.- It has been raining without relent in Southern California now for, oh, the past year or so, and residents have been driven to desperate measures.

Plastic sheeting is flying off the shelves. Sandbags have become fashion statements. Spoiled house pets are being catheterized by the hundreds - "Rover ain't going out there" - while relatives from the Northeast call to brag about their fluffy, manageable snowdrifts.

Overheard in Burbank:

"Honey, I'm hydroplaning to the store. Need anything?"

"Just the usual, dear - swim fins, a caulking gun, and fresh batteries for the industrial-strength dehumidifier."

The lucky ones get to flee, preferably to the Southern Hemisphere, where summer is in full bloom. Racetrackers, though, are stuck in the mud and the mire, galley slaves to the ongoing Santa Anita Park season and its constant demands of eight, nine, or 10 races every racing day.

"Here," Gary Stevens said before the seventh race on a messy Sunday, offering Ron McAnally his helmet and whip. "You go ride him."

The trainer balked, so Stevens took him off the hook and climbed aboard Rushin' to Altar for a six-furlong slog through high water. The horse stumbled and nearly fell just going to the gate, then swooped from a distant last to score. On such days, winning almost makes it all worthwhile.

Alex Solis and two of his colleagues - David Flores and Jose Valdivia - were back in the muddy mix Sunday afternoon after a brief fling with clear skies, warmth, and luxury. Of course, they had to travel half the globe to find it, somewhere in the sandy outskirts of the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh, where a horsey cabal of sheikhs and princes assembled an all-star lineup of international riding talent for the annual King's Cup.

Solis finished fourth in the 2 1/4-mile King's Cup (yes, the king was there, and Aaron Gryder was aboard the winner), then won the program's supporting feature for horses bred in Saudi Arabia. The purse money was insignificant, since Solis and his fellow internationalists (including Frankie Dettori and Mick Kinane) were paid appearance fees, but the competition was real.

"There were 23 horses going a mile and one-half on a big track, almost like Belmont," Solis said. "It was like riding in the Kentucky Derby, only with more room.

"Every prince has three or four horses in the race - one to be the rabbit, one to place in the middle early, and one to come from last," he went on. "Every 'team' has a plan. My plan was to stay in the middle. When I got to the three-eighths pole I got him out in the clear, and he stopped running. So I had to drop in again.

"Flores took the lead at the eighth pole when I got my horse out again and starting running," Solis continued. "It was me and David in the last sixteenth. I beat him a nose - and I was dying. My horse was a very heavy horse to ride, and I had to ride very hard. One good thing about the race . . . it put me in very good shape."

As for the cultural experience, Solis noted that he basically saw the part of Saudi Arabia represented by the drive from the airport to a new Four Seasons Hotel, the hotel shopping mall (with a special floor restricted to women), then later the royal stables and the Jockey Club racecourse itself.

"It's a beautiful track, and it has one of the best surfaces I've ever been on," Solis said. "All the big kahunas were there for the races. No ladies allowed."

For most of the world, horse racing performed for the pleasure of royalty is a quaint memory, the stuff of powdered wigs and snuffboxes. What Solis and his compatriots experienced - besides a warm and dry couple of days in an exotic Middle Eastern locale - is fairy-tale racing, about as far from the reality of the corporate American parimutuel product as Volkswagens are from Mercedes-Benzes.

It was the wee hours of Sunday morning when Solis stepped onto a jet in Riyadh, and still Sunday morning, with the time change, when he deplaned in Los Angeles, back in the rainy world of Southern California racing. Talk about culture shock.

"Five inches of mud," Solis said. "Visibility is very difficult. You have to wear four of five pair of goggles. As soon as you get in the gate they get foggy. The reins are slippery, and you have to be a lot more careful making your moves, depending on how your horse is handling it, or how they like getting hit in the face with all that soupy stuff.

"As much rain as we've had lately, a lot of horses have missed a lot of training," Solis pointed out. "They have to run anyway. So they struggle over the track, they're not feeling a hundred percent, and they get tireder than heck. Sometimes pulling up they can stumble and fall real easy."

Still, as a veteran of 23 years, Solis must have his professional secrets when it comes to coping with severe elements.