10/20/2003 11:00PM

Solis emerges from master's shadow


ARCADIA, Calif. - It has been nearly eight months now since Alex Solis watched Laffit Pincay, his mentor and friend, plunge to the ground where the dirt and the grass meet on the Santa Anita hillside turf course. Solis had a good view, almost too good, from atop a horse just behind and to the inside of Pincay and his final mount.

Solis was dumbstruck, heartbroken, and sick to death. Then, an hour later, he picked up the mount on Pincay's horse, Redattore, and won the $400,000 Kilroe Mile. This is the life they lead.

It took awhile for Solis to get used to life in the California jocks' room without Pincay. Imagine the Orioles' locker room without Cal Ripken, or the Yankees' clubhouse after Lou Gehrig said good-bye. Solis relied on the inspiration of Pincay to soldier through rough patches. On the very toughest days, when nothing worked and the horses were slow and the weather was rotten, Solis could always look over at Pincay, doing a crossword puzzle between races, serene as a fifth-level yogi. The amazing thing was, Pincay was having the same kind of day.

"It's tough not to see him here," Solis said last weekend. "But we go out to dinner a lot and talk. He's always watching me ride, and he'll let me know if I'm doing something wrong, helping me all the time. I guess, really, it's been kind of an advantage for me. Now he's not concentrating so much on trying to beat me and help me at the same time."

Solis is 17 years younger than Pincay but cut from the same powerful Panamanian cloth. They were schooled in the same disciplines of riding, students of a philosophy that requires both substance and style. "If I look good out there," Pincay would always say, "you know I am riding good."

Now the master has stepped aside and the student is on his own. Never mind that the student was already a superstar. At the age of 39, Alex Solis is approaching his 17th Breeders' Cup experience at the top of his game, fueled by an ideal blend of personal security and professional hunger.

It could be a memorable day. From his first mount in the Breeders' Cup Distaff on Got Koko to his Classic ride aboard Pleasantly Perfect, Solis and his agent, Scotty McClellan, have positioned themselves well in nearly every race on the card.

Solis carried for years the burden of being the best jock not to have won a Breeders' Cup race. Phil Mickelson knows how he feels. Solis took care of that detail at Churchill Downs in 2000, when Kona Gold set a Breeders' Cup Sprint record of 1:07.77.

His lack of a Breeders' Cup victory bothered other people more than it did Solis. He will be content to tally things up when he steps away from the job and then decide if he should waste his time with regrets.

"I have made a blueprint of my life," he said. "Sure, I want to win all the biggest stakes I can. But to do that I need to be consistent. I go along living and learning, teaching myself how to make my life go like that" - he ran his hand along a level line - "instead of like a roller coaster.

"I'm so blessed, for all the things I have in my life, my wife, my family. I have a little picture of Jesus in my car" - that would be his black Porsche with the license plate "KONA107" and a set of golf clubs in the back - "and every day I thank Him for the life I have."

That life is built around his wife, Sheila, the daughter of trainer Bert Sonnier, and their four children: Alex Jr., Austin, Tiffany, and Andrew Solis.

"I tell my kids to make sure that one day you find out what you want to do in life, something you look forward to every day that you can get up and do it. Don't take the easy road, just having an average life. Try to improve, be the best that you can, because later on you don't want to look back and be sad, and think, 'I should have tried harder.' "

Solis will never face such an accusation. No one works harder at conditioning, and no one is a more serious student of the game. He has to be, though, to survive.

Solis is part of a jockeys' room that already includes such proven commodities as Gary Stevens, Kent Desormeaux, Pat Valenzuela, Julie Krone, David Flores, Mike Smith, Corey Nakatani, and Victor Espinoza - all of them hardened like tempered steel. Then the Breeders' Cup arrives, and this volatile mix is further juiced by Jerry Bailey, Frankie Dettori, Edgar Prado, John Velazquez, Pat Day, Mick Kinane, and Jose Santos.

"So many egos, so many great horses, there will so much energy in one little place," Solis said. "You really feel it. You get bigger and stronger. I love it."

And at the end of the day, win or lose, he will go home to his family, uncork a fine vintage wine, and count his blessings. Still, he must have a special bottle in mind if Got Koko comes through, or Johar wins the Turf, or Captain Squire pulls an upset in the Sprint.

"If I'm lucky enough to win with one of my horses, I will be so happy it won't matter," Solis said. "They all will probably taste the same."