08/17/2004 11:00PM

Solis left with mixed emotions


DEL MAR, Calif. - Alex Solis was last seen at Del Mar on the afternoon of July 23, being loaded into the back door of an ambulance and heading off down Interstate 5 to the emergency room of Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla. As exits go it was a definite bummer, especially for a headliner like Solis.

Now, after three hours of delicate surgery to repair a fractured vertebra, 11 days in the hospital, and nearly a month of lying low, Solis is ready to visit the racetrack again. That will be him in the crowded paddock on Sunday afternoon as the players assemble for the $1 million Pacific Classic, the jewel of the summer season, and he should be easy to spot. Solis will be the one wearing the heavy metal back brace and the brave, bittersweet smile.

By the end of the afternoon, if the race goes as Solis hopes it will, the jockey will be displaced atop the national money standings by perennial leader Jerry Bailey. Solis was on a pace to displace Bailey this season, a truly rare occurrence, and even after three weeks on the sidelines he was still ahead by more than $400,000 - $11,554,851 to $11,127,618 - through Aug. 16.

Bailey will be subbing for Solis aboard Pleasantly Perfect in the Classic and gunning for the $600,000 first prize. No one will be rooting harder, or with more thoroughly mixed emotions, than Solis. The scene will be reminiscent of the 2003 running of the race, when Gary Stevens, still in pain from the damage of his Arlington Million accident with Storming Home, was front-row center for Candy Ride's victory in the Classic under Julie Krone.

Stevens, however, did not have the history with Candy Ride that Solis can boast with Pleasantly Perfect. The two have been a team for two years, taking down the world's two richest main track races, the Breeders' Cup Classic and the Dubai World Cup.

Little wonder then, that Solis dipped into a funk last weekend as the Pacific Classic approached. His back hurt. He hated taking pain pills. His summer was ruined. And his big horse was going into battle without him.

"There were a few days that I felt sad and a little sorry for myself," Solis conceded earlier this week. "But I bounced back and just looked at the bright side of the situation."

Among the blessings he counts is total mobility. Anything was possible when he fractured his T5, located between his shoulder blades.

"I get to walk . . . every day," Solis said. "I've got probably three more weeks to wear my brace, so I'm happy about that. I went to the doctor last Friday, and he was very pleased. He said that if everything stays on the rails, it looks like December or January I could be back. But I'm not going to worry about it. I'm going to do what is right for my body."

In the meantime, Solis can focus on the fond memories that sometimes make the injuries worthwhile. One of them occurred in the 1996 Pacific Classic, when the rider teamed with Dare and Go to end Cigar's 16-race winning streak in front of a shell-shocked Del Mar crowd of 44,181.

"Coming back after the race, I could hear only two things," Solis recalled. "A lot of silence and a lot of booing. I was a little disappointed. It was horse racing, and, like any sport, when you are champion everyone it trying to beat you. That day we beat him. People didn't appreciate the hard work we put in to make that happen, just like any other sport."

Solis was flat on his back, still recovering from surgery, when Pleasantly Perfect was upset under Mike Smith in the San Diego Handicap on Aug. 1. The sight of his horse being locked in a three-way pace battle down the backstretch then caught by the closer Choctaw Nation brought back very specific memories.

"It was same situation as the Pacific Classic with Cigar, Siphon, and Dramatic Gold," Solis said. "They went hard from the five-eighths pole and killed each other. I was very fortunate to be in the place that I was with Dare and Go."

In the San Diego, Pleasantly Perfect was making his first start since winning the Dubai World Cup last March 27.

"He was fresh, and because he was fresh he got caught in a bad position," Solis said. "I know they weren't going that fast, but when good horses look each other in the eye, they are going fast because they are fighting. They want to beat each other, and they use more energy, no matter how hard the riders try to make them slow down."

Solis got a feel for Pleasantly Perfect's comeback condition on the morning of his accident.

"I worked him a mile, and he had a little bit of a hard time going around those turns, because he's such a big horse," the rider said. "But he's been on this track now a month, so I'm sure he's a lot more adjusted to it.

"And I'm sure they're going to see the real Pleasantly Perfect on Sunday. I want to go to the paddock and just be with him. It will be my only day to come out, because I want to see the best horse in the world run."