03/31/2009 11:00PM

Solis conquers a jockey's worst fear


ARCADIA, Calif. - The Alex Solis of a year ago was not a pretty sight. There were rumblings of domestic strife, uncharacteristic public outbursts, dramatic departures from his typically positive personality.

On the racetrack, Solis was still winning races, but something was amiss. Once known for his heroic moves and flawless, powerful form, Solis had become tentative, careful . . . what's the word?

"I was afraid," he said.

Thank you for that. The air is now clear. Let the record show that Alex Solis - a certain Hall of Famer with more than 4,500 victories, three Breeders' Cups, and a well-earned reputation as a driven perfectionist in the saddle - had been going to work painfully aware of the fact that at some point during the day there was a chance that he would be frightened for his very life. And, as any professional jockey will tell you, riding scared is a recipe for career disaster, or worse.

Heck of it was, the fear wasn't there all the time, and when it didn't raise its head the old, smooth Solis would shine. Then, unannounced, the toxic residue of his 2004 accident at Del Mar would bubble to the surface, and the Solis of the past, of nearly 20 solid years at the top of the sport, would disappear, leaving behind a rattled, defensive shell.

Today, Solis is relieved to be able to say, "I don't know who that guy was," and be able to back it up with not only his performance on the racetrack but with a peace of mind that has given the 45-year-old athlete a new lease on a very exciting life.

On Saturday at Santa Anita, things could get even more exciting if Solis and The Pamplemousse come through as the favorites in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby. The big gray colt would be heading to the Kentucky Derby after that, with Solis along for the ride. But first he has got to get past Pioneerof the Nile, Chocolate Candy, Mr. Hot Stuff, and the other six 3-year-olds entered against him in the nine-furlong event.

Compared to the hole Solis has crawled out of, winning the local derby should be a cinch. And to appreciate the damage, consider the heights from which he fell, on that July afternoon at Del Mar, when Javier Santiago put him in tight on the turn for home and Solis was dropped, fracturing three ribs and two vertebrae.

The previous autumn, Solis won the Bill Shoemaker Award at the Breeders' Cup by taking the Classic with Pleasantly Perfect and riding Johar to a dead heat with defending champ High Chaparral in the Turf. In March 2004, Solis once again stood at the pinnacle of the sport after winning the Dubai World Cup with Pleasantly Perfect.

Solis underwent surgery to insert titanium rods to support the vertebrae between his shoulder blades. The physical damage took several months to heal, and his return to riding the following spring was understandably slow. But by the winter of 2006, Solis was riding high again with Santa Anita Derby winner Brother Derek.

Brother Derek and Solis had a nightmare of a Triple Crown, first with a troubled trip in the Kentucky Derby and then a horror of a Preakness, when it appeared that he got briefly tangled with Derby winner Barbaro right after the break. A few steps later, Barbaro shattered a hind leg.

That experience was only a drop in the bucket, though. Solis was already fighting a losing battle with the lingering effects of his 2004 injuries.

"The thing was, I felt all right when I first came back," Solis said Wednesday morning, as entries were drawn for the Santa Anita Derby. "But when I got back to Del Mar where it happened, that first day it hit me.

"I was a big mess, mentally and physically," Solis said. "You can be riding so good, and then the demons would start to terrorize you. People start to get negative about you."

There is no simple cure for trauma induced fear. For the past several years, the media has been replete with tales of soldiers coming home from Iraq with deep psychological wounds. Athletes severely injured while participating in bloodsports can sympathize with the difficult process.

"I'd been riding since I was 16," Solis said. "I knew I was risking getting hurt, or even killed. But I was willing to trade that for winning races and doing the thing I loved, being in that winner's circle, draped with blankets of flowers. So why should I stop pursuing my dreams now, when if I do, I'm gonna hate myself 25 years from now. It was important to have that very clear in my head.

"When I was finally really, really sincere with myself, and honest with my soul and my mind, it was like a thousand-pound weight was lifted off my shoulders," Solis said. "But I couldn't do it alone."

Solis gives credit for his resurrection to friends and colleagues like Fernando Toro and Chris McCarron, along with a collection of self-help disciplines, psychological therapy, and most importantly, his family.

"To be honest, I am very proud of myself, to come back and do what I'm doing, and getting another chance," Solis said. "It's not like I was in rehab for drugs, or something like that. What happened to me was something I didn't ask for. And if it helps someone else for me to talk about it, that's good."