07/29/2004 11:00PM

Smith knows how it feels


DEL MAR, Calif. - Alex Solis adjusted the angle of his hospital bed, improving his line of sight, then shifted a couple of the several tubes attached to key parts of his body.

It was late on Thursday afternoon, six days after he had gone down at the top of the Del Mar stretch, and Solis had just finished his second full session of postoperative physical therapy. In his case this meant a couple of carefully monitored walks down a hospital hallway, accompanied by a physical therapist and trailed by his wife, Sheila, who was pushing a rolling stand from which plastic bags of intravenous fluids dangled.

For his exercise, Solis was wearing a rigid, chin-to-hip brace that protected the freshly repaired vertebra in his upper back. During the four-hour procedure, performed last Tuesday night, a rod and clamp were introduced to support and align the fracture while it healed. A day and a half later, Solis was walking the corridors, taking his first 200 steps on the road to full recovery. His reaction?

"I'm just so thankful I can walk at all," Solis said.

That would be called perspective, and Solis has enough to know that the prospect of being able to ride horses, play golf, and keep pace with his four kids more than makes up for any temporary inconveniences. Besides, he has plenty of Solis surrogates to call upon in a pinch.

For instance, on Tuesday, his oldest son, Alex Solis Jr., will deputize for dad as honorary host of the third annual Celebrity Golf Classic at Del Mar National Golf Club, a pet Solis project that benefits the California Equine Retirement Foundation.

On Sunday, Mike Smith will stand in for Solis aboard Pleasantly Perfect in the $250,000 San Diego Handicap, as the nation's top-rated older horse makes his first start since defeating Medaglia d'Oro in the Dubai World Cup on March 27.

If anyone can sympathize with Solis, it is Hall of Famer Smith. On Aug. 31, 1998, he fractured two vertebrae in a fall at Saratoga while at the top of the standings. Unlike Solis, however, Smith opted for a full body cast to stabilize the injuries during the healing process, rather than submit to surgery.

"I crushed my vertebrae in different places," Smith noted. "One was the T-12, about halfway down the back, and the other was down around the waist, where you bend. Inserting a rod wouldn't have let me bend much, and that's no good. Alex broke his between the shoulder blades, so there's a chance he'll be able to feel a lot of mobility.

"It's painful, and it takes time," Smith added. "But in a month he'll feel a whole lot better."

For Smith, the San Diego will be a reunion of sorts with a horse he began riding two years ago. It was Smith on board when the late-blooming Pleasantly Perfect won for the first time in February of 2002 at Santa Anita, and it was Smith in the saddle for back-to-back allowance wins that year at Hollywood Park and then Del Mar.

"When I rode him back then he was still young, big, and still growing into himself," Smith said. "He was lazy, running at different times in the race. You had to really work to get him to run at the right time."

Richard Mandella, Pleasantly Perfect's trainer, vividly recalls the sight of his big colt under Smith in a Del Mar allowance race - it was Aug. 4, 2002 - when he stopped running on the far turn, then somehow regrouped to win.

"It was like he was thinking, 'That's enough, I've had it,' " Mandella said. "Then he changed his mind and figured, 'Well, as long as I'm out here. . . .' "

Mandella attributes Pleasantly Perfect's ambivalent competitive attitude to the psychological remnants of the heart-sac infection that plagued his younger days. Even when he was well, the trainer said, he must have remembered how much it hurt.

"He's sure a different horse now," Smith said. "The last few times I've watched him run, he's become the kind of horse who takes you where you need to be."

Smith could have kept riding Pleasantly Perfect in the summer of 2002, but he was committed to Came Home for the Pacific Classic. Came Home won the race, while Pleasantly Perfect, under Alex Solis, finished a respectable fourth in his stakes debut. Obviously, Smith picked the right horse.

"That day," Smith said with a resigned laugh. "But look what Pleasantly Perfect has gone on to do - the Breeders' Cup Classic, the Dubai World Cup. He's turned into a great horse. I've got no regrets, though. I'm just glad to get him back, even for one race."

That's right. Once again Smith is otherwise committed. Pleasantly Perfect's next scheduled start will be in the Pacific Classic, in which Smith will be aboard the Hollywood Gold Cup winner, Total Impact. Jerry Bailey will be the Solis-sub for that one.

As for the San Diego, Solis will have very few words of advice for Smith. Pleasantly Perfect has become a pretty sweet ride.

"I will tell him all he has to do is hang on," Solis said. "All the horse needs right now is a good passenger."