07/26/2004 12:00AM

Solis's spirit intact after spill


DEL MAR, Calif. - At around one o'clock on Sunday afternoon, Alex Solis received a telephone call in his La Jolla hospital bed from Jose Miguel Aleman, the minister of foreign affairs of the Republic of Panama, informing him that the best wishes of his countrymen were with him and that there would be two special masses celebrated in Panama City the following day in honor of the injured rider.

For Solis, this was a pleasant change. Most of his time - since falling hard from the maiden claimer Golden K K on Friday afternoon - had been spent in painful accommodation of his fractured vertebra, his several broken ribs, and his punctured lung, or in consultation with a team of doctors over how to proceed with repairs.

Then there were the itchy side effects of the morphine, the sand still clinging to his scalp from the Del Mar main track, and the dreadful prospect of spending the foreseeable future trying to sleep on his back.

"I never sleep on my back," Solis said. "I can't do it. When I sleep on my back, I have terrible nightmares."

They can hardly be worse than Friday's tumble-down disaster. Meteors land with less force. With three-sixteenths of a mile to run, Solis and his mount found themselves on the inside of a shrinking hole where the inner rail becomes enigmatic for riders unaccustomed to the sight.

"The turns here are not as sharp as those at Santa Anita," noted steward Tom Ward. "You're almost halfway to the eighth pole before you've straightened away."

An imprecise rider will tend to treat that last bit of curve as if it were part of a straightaway and end up biting off an important piece of the track. Solis found himself inside two colleagues with precious few miles logged at Del Mar - Javier Santiago on Vegas Folly and Omar Figueroa on Playgirl - and, what's worse, he saw it coming.

"It was a combination of things," Solis said. "My filly was trying to get out a little, and they came in just enough to make it tight." Before Solis could make a clean exit, Golden K K clipped Vegas Folly's heels, and that was that. "The guys with experience know about the rail there," he added, "but they keep leaving."

Under the circumstances, Solis can be forgiven for missing the mutual security of riding with Hall of Famers like Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye, Laffit Pincay, and Gary Stevens on a regular basis. For the record, no suspensions were issued in relation to the Solis accident. And while there should be no learning curve for any jockey in competition at the level of Del Mar, reality requires a seat in every saddle, no matter what kind of race is being run. That means, with the Southern California jockey colony in transition, there will be a certain amount of on-the-job training.

A whole bunch of significant seats open up with Solis on the shelf, most notably the one attached to Pleasantly Perfect, holder of major titles in the Breeders' Cup Classic and the Dubai World Cup. Even the most optimistic prognosis will keep Solis sidelined at least three months.

"I haven't been out as long as three months since 1986," Solis said, referring to a Hollywood fall that broke a thumb and a leg, and cost him the mount on 4-year-old Snow Chief.

"When you are used to going steady, using your body from six in the morning to six at night, it's hard just to lay quiet, even when you know you've got no choice," he added. "I'll have to let my brain take over, just try to kick back, bother my kids, the wife."

At this point, Solis decided to wisecrack through the pain as Sheila, the wife in question, was trying to feed her husband a forkful of hospital mashed potatoes and turkey.

"Wait a second," complained the patient. "I like to chew my food before I swallow. Can you believe she used to be a nurse?"

Sheila Solis sighed and rolled her eyes. The fear of Friday had been replaced by the prospect of a long, hard haul through surgery, recovery, rehab, and then the inevitable comeback.

In the meantime, Solis was being entertained by a steady supply of friends, some bearing gifts, all of them trying hard to cheer things up.

"Could I have temporary custody of your wine collection?" wondered Mike Bello, the owner of a Solis ride named Megahertz.

"Look, somebody brought me a bunch of movies to watch," Solis said, nodding toward a bag of DVD's. "But why did they bring me comedies? Don't they know it hurts to laugh?"

So it will be with Solis, light of spirit, quick to forgive, always the class of the field. He will deal with this dip in fortunes as he has handled his career - with an equanimity that belies the volatile nature of the game he plays. This was an accident that didn't have to happen, but it did, and it shot down the leading rider in the country.

Just then a nurse arrived, hauling equipment and asking how Solis was feeling.

"Just dandy," he replied.

"We're going to check your heart anyway," she said, "just as a precaution."

To no one's surprise, the heart of Alex Solis checked out just fine.