12/30/2002 1:00AM

Solis stares down another spill


ARCADIA, Calif. - The sight of her father laid out on a board and wearing a neck brace while awaiting his turn in the emergency room of Arcadia Methodist Hospital was a little too much for 16-year-old Tiffany Solis to bear. So she cried.

The shock was real, but the tears soon dried. Her dad was going to be okay. It could have been much worse. And once again the racing world dodged a bullet.

It was bad enough that the Argentine horse Most Likely had to give his life last Saturday at Santa Anita when he fractured a foreleg in the final furlong of a one-mile race on the grass. There was no way to save him with such an injury.

When Most Likely gave way, he sent Alex Solis plunging head first to earth, which also happens to be the last thing Solis remembers about the incident.

He does not remember the momentum that carried Most Likely over the top of him, grinding the rider into the ground.

He does not remember patrol judge Dennis Flowers practically leaping from his tower to reach Solis to try to help him breathe.

He does not remember Bruce Headley, Most Likely's trainer, sprinting across the main track in anguish at the sight of his fallen friend.

Nor does Solis recall walking to the ambulance under his own steam, or being examined in the track first aid room, or seeing any of the many friends who descended upon Arcadia Methodist, anxious for news. Except for one.

"The only thing I remember is holding little Alex in first aid," Solis said. "Nothing else."

Alex Solis Jr. is a whiz of an 18-year-old high school senior with a future as a veterinarian, a trainer, or just about anything he sets his mind to do in the racing business. He is anything but "little." But there he was at Santa Anita on Saturday, his mother at home and his father sprawled on the turf course in the scariest possible way. Suddenly, as he reached for his mobile phone, he felt very small and very helpless.

"What do I do?" he asked his mother, Sheila Solis, who was watching the races at home.

"Go to first aid," she said. "I'm on my way. Stay with your dad."

Twenty-four hours later, after a night in the hospital, dad was back home and watching with his son the videotape replay of Most Likely's last race. For more pleasant viewing, they turned to the La Brea Stakes, which Solis won aboard Got Koko for Headley less than half an hour before Most Likely stepped onto the track.

Twice blessed in strange ways, Solis was feeling like a guy who had walked away from an airplane crash, only this time the plane was made of flesh and blood.

"The poor guy," Solis said of Most Likely. "They are athletes, just like us, and sooner or later you're going to get hurt. It happens to all of us - football players, baseball players. Unfortunately, that's the ugly part of the business. The part that stinks."

After 21 years of competition, Solis has enjoyed a career remarkably free from major injuries. While this would be the time to knock on any available piece of wood, it should be noted that it has not been merely luck keeping Solis in the saddle all these years. There is no jockey who works harder on maintaining a high level of fitness and muscle tone. And it is muscle that helps protect breakable bone.

The noggin is another issue, though. All bets are off when a rider falls head first. The larger, more cushioned European-style helmets can help (Solis is one of a handful of Californians who use them), but there is no way to predict potential damage.

"You fall that hard you expect to have a headache," Solis said Monday morning. "Now I've had one for two days, so I'm seeing my doctor this afternoon. I'm going to have him check my head, to make sure something is still in there. Hopefully, my brain."

Go ahead, laugh along. Jockeys are no different than any other brand of highly skilled daredevil, whistling past graveyards and dancing in the dark.

They've all studied their fears, then tucked them away.

"In the back of your mind, you know what can happen," Solis said. "But you concentrate on the good things, the things that you love.

"If you're scared, as soon as you take a little tumble you're going to be out of the game real quick," he went on. "A lot of guys, when they decide to retire, they don't want to deal with that fear anymore. They don't want to deal with the responsibility of knowing that something could happen."

Solis was hoping to be back in action to join his old pal Kona Gold on New Year's Day for the El Conejo Handicap. They've been together for 25 straight races, including five Breeders' Cups and a national championship.

Headley trains him, too.

"People ask me if I'd ever train horses," Solis said. "I say, 'Are you crazy? Get up early every day and put up with all those things?' Then they say, 'But you risk your life every day!' ''

So how does he answer that one?

"That's different," Solis replied.