11/26/2007 1:00AM

Plenty to celebrate in Daytona's win

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Charles Pravata/Horsephotos
Daytona, with jockey Mike Smith up, wins Sunday's Grade 1, $500,000 Hollywood Derby.
INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There are so many reasons to savor Sunday's 66th running of the Hollywood Derby. Where to begin?

The race itself was a nail-biter, as Daytona, winner of the Oak Tree Derby, tiptoed along that dangerous border between speed and class, getting the first half of his first trip over 10 furlongs in an encouraging 48.14 seconds, with Mike Smith praying hard they'd leave him alone.

They did, but that did not stop either Del Mar Derby winner Medici Code or Hawthorne Derby winner Bold Hawk from emerging to give chase as time ran out. They fell short, but give them credit. Daytona may turn out to be the most exciting young development of the fall, and harder to catch as time goes on.

His victory also put Dan Hendricks firmly back on center stage with his first major player since the heady days of Brother Derek, winner of the 2006 Santa Anita Derby. The independent Hendricks, who trains from a wheelchair, is not the kind of guy who hustles either sympathy or horses, which gets him the right kind of admiration when he wins.

"I never like losing, but this is one time I don't really mind," said Darrell Vienna, trainer of Medici Code, on his way to congratulate Hendricks.

Vienna's point was appreciated - the game is tough enough on two strong legs - and so was the sight of the two smart geldings, Daytona and Medici Code, lapped on each other at the end of a Grade 1 race at 1 1/4 miles of firm turf. They get to be racehorses for as long as the flesh is willing, and the pleasure will be ours.

And what about the men on board? Apparently, experience helps when faced with a 10-furlong thought problem like the Hollywood Derby. Smith is 42, but tries hard not to act his age. Martin Pedroza is also 42, and once again he gave Medici Code a textbook, threaded needle of a ride.

Then there is Jean-Luc Samyn, who turned 51 on Nov. 6. Steering the massive Bold Hawk, Samyn was at a disadvantage against his more light-footed rivals. At one point, approaching the far turn on the backstraight, Medici Code shot past Bold Hawk with a vengeance. Samyn had seen it coming, but Bold Hawk could not match the acceleration of the smaller animal. At that same instant, longshot Augment was backing up, and with Pedroza riding tight, Samyn had to wait a few strides before tipping right and following Medici Code in pursuit of Daytona.

Smith's work aboard the winner was reminscent of past front-running gems with such champions as Holy Bull, Azeri, Inside Information, and Lure. In fact, Smith summoned the name of two-time Breeders' Cup Mile winner Lure in describing Daytona's ability to open an advantage on the turns.

"It's almost like they're left-handed or something," Smith said. "One side's always stronger than the other, right? Just like Lure, when this guy drops to his left lead, he can open up like now, and whoosh."

Smith was sitting at his cubicle in the room, chewing over the race with his neighbor, Alex Solis, and being careful not to rub it in, since Daytona had been a Solis horse until the Oak Tree Derby on Oct. 13. When Hendricks mulled the option of an allowance race, Solis committed to another horse for the Oak Tree event. In the end, Hendricks went with the Oak Tree Derby and wound up using Smith, leaving Solis to watch them win by 4 1/2 lengths. Now, after back-to-back local derby wins, Smith was asked if he had at least a small gratuity for Solis.

"I gave him a big hug," Smith replied. "And now I can afford to pay for my grapes."

Solis and Smith, believe it or not, have become winemaking partners. Their first issue, bred and bottled in Northern California, will be a 2006 syrah released in 2008. Solis carries a sketch of their label - crossed riding crops over a racing saddle - with the names of Smith and Solis in the lower corners. The wine will be called Jinetes, which is Spanish for - what else? - jockey.

"The first vintage will be named for the great old riders, like Shoemaker, Arcaro, and Laffit," Solis said. "Place your orders now, before it's too late."

Solis seemed to be coping well. It helped that his other wine venture partner, Tom Lenner, owns a quarter-share of the Hollywood Derby winner, along with Jess Ravich, Jeff Davenport, and Thomas Murray. Ravich also raced 1997 Hollywood Derby winner Subordination, in partnership with Seth Klarman.

The Daytona deal was put together by Alex Solis Jr., the rider's 23-year-old son, who was in the winner's circle basking in the glow of his first Grade 1 credit when he got a text message of congratulations from dad. The younger Solis graduated with a degree in business last spring, and he is now deep into post-graduate studies, while at the same time searching for prospects like Daytona, who was purchased from Godolphin. After interviews, the younger Solis excused himself from any post-race celebrations, explaining with a straight face that he had homework.

"I can cry," said Solis the elder, who might have been part of his son's shining hour. "But at the same time I'm very happy, and very proud."