05/15/2006 12:00AM

Solis still has faith in Derek


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - If recent racing history has taught us anything at all, it's that Alex Solis is not shy about turning the tables on expectations and spoiling a perfectly good party.

This goes contrary to the nature of the man himself. Kind-hearted, affable, and always ready with a smile, Solis has arrived at his 42nd year possessed of an inner peace that belies his riotous profession. He jogs mountain trails and meditates, visits sick friends on his day off, and needs very little excuse to open a bottle of vintage wine for anything loosely defined as a special occasion.

Between the lines, however, the competitor within Solis boils white hot, spilling over onto a day like last Saturday, when he won all three of the graded stakes events presented at Hollywood Park. His victories aboard Siren Lure in the Los Angeles Handicap, Surf Cat in the Mervyn LeRoy, and Grey Swallow in the Jim Murray Memorial in no way made up for the disappointment on Brother Derek the week before in the Kentucky Derby. But they did serve to stoke the fire, summoning memories of those other afternoons when Solis stood on center stage, and no one should have been surprised.

On Sept. 28, 2003, reigning Horse of the Year Azeri entered the Lady's Secret Handicap at Santa Anita on a roll of 11 straight wins over the past year and a half. Solis stopped the streak aboard Got Koko.

Even more was at stake on Aug. 10, 1996, when reigning Horse of the Year Cigar descended upon Del Mar for the Pacific Classic, in search of his 17th consecutive victory. Then Solis beat the big horse with Dare and Go, and the record crowd fell into stunned silence.

"A strange sound," Solis recalls, "but very sweet."

On Saturday, Solis will try to stop another streak when he wipes the Derby slate clean and goes after undefeated Barbaro once again with Brother Derek. At 6 for 6, Barbaro is hardly in the Cigar-Azeri neighborhood yet. But his post-Derby press has put him on an imposing pedestal, and the Preakness, at least on paper, looks like his race to lose.

Though hardly the morbid type, Solis has not allowed himself to erase the grim memory of his most recent experience with Brother Derek. Instead of spending his hard-earned cash on such recent horror flicks as "Silent Hill" or "Saw II," the rider merely calls up the blimp shot of the 132nd Kentucky Derby. Cue screams.

"There it is, just like it happened," Solis said Monday as Preakness week commenced. "As much as I don't want to look at it, I have to. It's my homework to prepare for the next race. The only thing you can do with horrible things like that is learn what you can do better, or different in the future.

"You're always second-guessing yourself," Solis conceded. "Thinking back after the race, I could have sent him. But then he could have run off, and we would have been back to square one. I don't think you pick the Derby to change a horse's style. So we had a plan and we stuck to it. You saw what happened."

Sprung wide on the first turn, and even wider on the second, with a bumper-car ride down the backstretch in between, Brother Derek emerged from his Derby dead heat for fourth as a sadder but wiser colt.

"He was hanging his head, like he thought he should have done better," Solis said.

Unlike the Kentucky Derby - with his three second-place finishes and disappointments on the well-backed Snow Chief and Brother Derek - the Preakness provides Solis with positive swing thoughts. He has tried it only four times, winning with Snow Chief in 1986 and finishing third with Mane Minister in 1991 and with Captain Bodgit in 1997, his most recent try.

"After the Derby with Snow Chief, I felt the same way Mel did," said Solis, referring to trainer Mel Stute. "We were both aggravated that we knew we had the best 3-year-old in the country, but he just didn't like the track that day. And I knew it might happen, from his three-eighths breeze before the race. He worked very fast, but he struggled.

"I can't say the same about Brother Derek," Solis went on. "The Monday before the Derby, he worked on a track that was terrible. He skipped over it like nothing, as classy as he is."

It can be said, without much fear of argument, that the best horses handle any kind of track, and they make their own good luck. Bad trips, on the other hand, can be overly inflated, providing too much of an excuse. This happened in 1986 when Badger Land's tough Derby luck became the Preakness buzz and made him favored, as part of an entry, over Snow Chief. At the end of the Preakness, Snow Chief beat Badger Land by 10 1/2 lengths. Could Solis be deluding himself this time around with Brother Derek?

"I've lost no faith in him," the rider replied. "I think he's as good as any colt out there. And I know he's fit - he just ran a mile and a half in the Derby. Just like with Snow Chief, I'm excited about the Preakness. All he needs is a fair chance."