05/14/2008 11:00PM

From Panama to the Preakness

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Alex Solis was driving through the Panama countryside late Wednesday afternoon, heading for his father's farm in the rain forest, when his cell phone chirped and a caller from California asked about his chances in the Preakness Stakes.

Talk about a disconnect. In terms of what he will be facing in Baltimore, Solis might as well have been on the dark side of the moon.

"This is where I grew up, and a lot of times I miss it," said Solis, who was on hand to celebrate his mother's birthday Monday. "I left Panama for the United States when I was pretty little - just 16 years old - and sometimes I feel kind of bad because I haven't really spent a lot of time with my family here over the years."

Unlike the remote wilderness of most tropical environments, many of the Panamanian rain forests, with their dense undergrowth and thickly laced canopies, are easily accessible. A 10-minute drive from the bustling capital of Panama City is about all it takes to get to the closest rain forest - kind of like the short jaunt from the modern Baltimore Inner Harbor to the ancient grounds of Pimlico Racecourse, where time takes a holiday.

Solis will be there Saturday to ride the feisty little stretch-runner Yankee Bravo against Big Brown in the 133rd running of the Preakness Stakes. And while the race was not necessarily on his mind when the phone rang - tropical birds could be heard in the background - he was well aware that Yankee Bravo was traveling to Baltimore that day, and he was anxious to get word from trainer Paddy Gallagher that the trip went smoothly.

"I've been getting on him in almost all of his important works," said Solis, who last collaborated with Yankee Bravo for a fourth-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby. "The work he needed for the race, we got all that done before he left. And he's been training very well.

"Of course, Big Brown looked very impressive in the Derby, coming from post 20 like he did," Solis added. "So we have a very tough task. I was talking to a guy after the Derby who said it looked like Big Brown could win the Triple Crown if he can run a mile and a half. I said, 'What do you mean? He just did!'"

The roster of this year's Preakness jockeys is replete with past winners. Robby Albarado, who rides Racecar Rhapsody, won it with Curlin last year. Jeremy Rose, aboard Icabad Crane, won the dramatic 2005 Preakness in which Afleet Alex got off his knees. Kent Desormeaux, riding heavily favored Big Brown, will try to repeat his Derby-Preakness parlay of 1998 with Real Quiet. And Mike Smith, back aboard Gayego, won the Preakness in 1993 on Prairie Bayou.

Solis predates them all. In 1986, he made the Preakness look easy with a four-length score aboard the nifty black California colt Snow Chief, who had flopped as the Derby favorite two weeks earlier.

"I always knew he was better than his Derby," Solis said. "Unfortunately, he didn't handle the track, and I knew it right away. In the Preakness, he felt good from the start and got right into position. All we had to do was wait for Groovy to get tired."

The '86 Preakness was the first time Solis caught the national attention, and, at the age of 22, he cut a figure as nothing less than the heir apparent to fellow Panamanian Laffit Pincay. If Solis fell short of such lofty expectations, it was not for lack of trying. Now 44, he is closing in on 4,600 wins, and among them are three Breeders' Cup events, a Dubai World Cup, and enough headline accomplishments to land him among the three finalists for the Hall of Fame in 2007 and 2008.

But if there is a nagging doubt that keeps enough Hall of Fame voters from pulling the trigger on Solis - as opposed to such recent inductees Edgar Prado, Jose Santos, and Desormeaux - it is his low profile in Triple Crown events. Things might be different if Captain Bodgit had not run into a more determined Silver Charm in 1997 and lost by a head, or if Victory Gallop's powerful closing kick had not fallen a half-length short of Real Quiet in 1998.

"With Captain Bodgit, at the three-sixteenths I thought I had the race won," Solis said. "Later on, we found out how great a horse Silver Charm was, so it wasn't quite so disappointing that he beat us."

Silver Charm and Captain Bodgit went on to be part of the most exciting blanket finish in Preakness history. In that '97 running, they hit the wire as a team, with Silver Charm and Gary Stevens in the middle, winning by a head over Free House and Desormeaux on the inside, and Captain Bodgit another head back on the outside.

"Desormeaux said to me, if my horse hadn't come alongside Silver Charm the last sixteenth of a mile, he probably would have won," Solis recalled. "Silver Charm was one of those horses who would see another horse and start fighting. It was a great race."

Solis relegates his most recent Preakness ride to the category of best forgotten. In 2006, he was aboard Brother Derek when Barbaro broke down right in front of him, shortly after the start.

"When that happened, I had to shift to the outside, into the open," Solis said. "That's when he got a little rank. But it was such a sad day. Both physically and mentally, it is always very painful for me to see. You get very attached to them, because you know they are competing so hard for us. No horses, no Solis."

Solis has played a key role in the development of Yankee Bravo, an English import, and he is right to predict that the colt has a bright future. Still, he could not catch Pyro when third in the Louisiana Derby, and he flattened out in pursuit of Colonel John at Santa Anita. Of course, Yankee Bravo could have won both races and still be in deep water against Big Brown.

"It's hard to knock that horse," Solis concluded. "He's been incredible, and he makes no mistakes. But we've got to find a way. That's my job."