03/04/2011 5:05PM

Solis enjoys late-career revival returning to Florida


The news that Michael Martinez was getting married on Friday to Charlotte Garcia, the mother of their five-month-old daughter, was greeted by his uncle, Alex Solis, with a mixture of joy and sadness.

Joy at the prospect of the union, entered into even amidst the most difficult of circumstances. And sadness over the ongoing reality that Martinez, just 24, remains paralyzed from the waist down as a result of an accident last September at Golden Gate Fields, nine days before his daughter was born.

As Martinez’s only blood relative in the States, Solis was quick to be at his nephew’s side at the time of the accident. Since then, Solis has done what he can, from long distance, to advise with insurance issues and questions of ongoing treatment and care.

“He’s doing okay,” Solis said. “There have been a lot of people who have been very generous in helping him. And he’s very lucky he lives in a state with very good catastrophic insurance.”

While Martinez and Garcia were taking their vows Friday in San Pablo, just across the bay from San Francisco, Solis was hard at work at Gulfstream Park, continuing the resurrection of his Hall of Fame-worthy career. Solis has been the latest in a conga line of West Coast riders who have migrated eastward in search of larger field-size and fresh opportunities. After some slow going through 2010, Solis has proven this winter at Gulfstream that you can go home again, or at least you can win races there.

Two months into the meet, Solis finds himself tied for fifth in the standings with Rajiv Maragh – at 28 wins through Thursday – behind only John Velazquez, Paco Lopez, Javier Castellano, and Jose Lezcano.

For Solis, who turns 47 this month, this is familiar territory. He was pretty much fresh off the boat from Panama when he made his first American splash in south Florida and led the 1983 and 1984 standings at Gulfstream Park before migrating on to California. Let the record show he did just fine out West as well – winning 18 meet titles and earning a reputation as a power package rivaled only by his hero, Laffit Pincay.

The list of top horses entrusted to Solis is long and entertaining, led by champions Kona Gold, Snow Chief, Pleasant Tap, Ryafan, and Criminal Type. As the 1990s dawned, Solis began finding himself atop horses who could win the best races anywhere, adding to his portfolio the Dubai World Cup, Dubai Golden Shaheen, Met Mile, Super Derby, Haskell Invitational, Jim Dandy, Donn, Acorn, Arkansas Derby, and three Breeders’ Cup events.

Such achievements were cold comfort, however, when Solis found himself marginalized in recent years among a California colony awash in a youth movement led by Joel Rosario, Rafael Bejarano, Joe Talamo, and Tyler Baze. His situation was further exacerbated by shrinking field sizes and a lack of business from traditional clients, and so, feeling all dressed up with no place to go, Solis bit the bullet and headed east.

At first Solis was represented by the respected agent Brian Beach, a familiar name on both coasts. But Beach had commitments back home in California, so Solis hired Mike Kelly – of the widespread and well-connected racetrack clan – to take his book. So far so good.

“Sure, it’s a lot of fun to be back in Florida and see a lot of old faces,” Solis said. “But what’s really fun is riding five, six, seven horses a day, and not sitting in the room just to ride one or two horses, which was happening in California.”

Since so many old Florida memories lingered, Solis had to get used to the new look of Gulfstream Park.

“Life changes, the racetrack changes, and you have to change with it,” he said. “I miss the old jockeys’ room here and the old racetrack, but this is 2011, and they are doing things here to try and bring people back to the track. Sometimes we make it too hard to change things.”

At this point, there is not much left that would discourage Solis about anything. What happened to Michael Martinez was brought home hard to the Florida family of riders with the severe injury to Eibar Coa, who remains hospitalized after his Feb. 18 accident.

“It’s an addiction, winning races, and it’s no different than when you started to when you are my age,” Solis said. “You’ve got to be very clear to yourself why you’re doing this. You have to love it. There’s no way to replace the feeling, and you don’t want it to end.

“But it doesn’t have to.” he added. “I’m lucky that I feel I have a lot to offer. I have the experience. I feel strong, I stay in shape, and it’s a lot of fun in this room, because there’s a lot of young riders who make me feel young.

“There’s so many styles, guys coming from so many places, it’s fun to get to know them and know how to ride against them,” Solis said. “With 10 or 12 horses in almost every race, it gives a lot of guys the chance to see what they can do – concentrate, evaluate pace, stay out of trouble.”

And the things they must be learning from a guy like Solis.

“Me? No,“ he protested. “I tell them I do the same thing every race. When they put me in the gate I close my eyes. When I get to the quarter pole I open them and I hope I’m in a good position. You want to study me? Go ahead.”

Believe that and Solis can tell you another one. What’s important is the package – the years of experience wrapped in a physique that belies its age.

“People have been trying to find the Fountain of Youth in Florida for many, many years,” Solis said. “You can tell them I found it.”