05/03/2006 11:00PM

Still searching for elusive jewel

With Solis aboard for trainer Dan Hendricks, Brother Derek takes the Santa Anita Derby.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - They are kindred spirits, jockey Alex Solis and trainer Dan Hendricks, possessed of quick wit, thoroughly dedicated to their crafts, friends for more than 20 years, and now united in a quest to win the Kentucky Derby on Saturday with the probable favorite, Brother Derek.

Their paths were nearly intertwined in a far more tragic way. In July 2004, Hendricks was paralyzed from the armpits down when he landed awkwardly in an off-road motorcycle accident. Two weeks later, Solis was slammed to the ground in a race at Del Mar, when his horse clipped heels after a careless jockey cut him off at the top of the stretch, resulting in a fractured back - his T-4 vertebrae, to be precise - and three broken ribs. He needed a nine-hour surgery, including the insertion of two titanium rods, to repair the damage

Initially after the accident, Solis was in a hospital across the road from where Hendricks was being treated for his injuries. Solis, now 42, was able to walk away. He had to wear a back brace that left him looking like a robot for several weeks and was unable to compete for seven months. But the accident left him with a renewed appreciation for his occupation.

And, truth to be told, there's one piece of unfinished business for Solis in a career that has him on the precipice of the Hall of Fame.

The Derby has been to Solis what the Super Bowl was to John Elway, what the Masters was to Phil Mickelson. Elway and Mickelson had the reputation of being among the greats, but not until they won their sport's biggest event were their careers viewed as complete. Like them, Solis's talent is undeniable, but he has yet to win the Derby. Solis has ridden in the Derby 14 times and has finished second three times. No jockey has ridden in the Derby more without winning.

"It would be a dream come true," Solis said this week at Churchill Downs. "Every jockey's dream since he starts riding is to be in the Kentucky Derby and, of course, ride the winner."

He is taking the time to stop and smell the run for the roses. Solis arrived here on Monday with plans to soak up the atmosphere and embrace what nearly was taken away from him in an instant on July 23, 2004.

"I've been very, very fortunate to come to the Derby many times," Solis said. "After you have an accident, it really opens your eyes that I should enjoy races. A lot of races that we win, you go back and ride another and never really enjoy it."

Solis's record in the Derby mirrors his previous quest for an elusive Breeders' Cup victory. When he entered the starting gate for the Breeders' Cup Sprint in 2000, Solis had ridden more Breeders' Cup races without a victory - 31 - than any jockey. When Kona Gold got home first, Solis practically collapsed in the saddle after raising his whip when he crossed under the wire. Perhaps it is an omen that Kona Gold won that race at Churchill Downs.

"It was a big relief," Solis said. "I felt like 1,000 pounds came off my shoulder."

He said the perseverance he brought to the Breeders' Cup has now been applied to the Derby. "It gives you that inner strength to go out and keep working until it happens and you break through," he said.

Since then, Solis has won major races like the Dubai World Cup with Pleasantly Perfect, and Breeders' Cup races with Johar and Pleasantly Perfect. He has won 4,376 races, 20 individual meet riding titles in California and Florida, and is one of three finalists among jockeys on this year's Hall of Fame ballot. Results will be announced May 30.

A little more than 20 years ago, it was Laffit Pincay Jr. who had label of best jockey never to win the big one. But in 1984, Pincay finally won the Derby in his 11th try, with Swale. Like Pincay - the sport's career leader in victories - Solis is from Panama. Solis first rode in this country in Florida, then in 1985 moved to California, where he has been based ever since. He set up his locker next to Pincay's, and soaked in the lessons from watching an all-star cast that also included greats like Eddie Delahoussaye, Chris McCarron, and Bill Shoemaker.

"Laffit was always my mentor," Solis said. "That's one of the reasons I moved from Florida to California in the 80's, because I wanted to polish myself and I wanted to ride against the better jockeys. Laffit was there. I'm very grateful to him and Chris McCarron, Delahoussaye, Fernando Toro, Bill Shoemaker. Laffit was the guy that I always wanted to be like."

Those are not empty words. Like Pincay, Solis is, as Hendricks said, "The most professional jockey in the game, the hardest working.

"He's got a work ethic like most trainers," Hendricks said. "He's dedicated. He looked up to Laffit. He couldn't have picked a better person to emulate."

Solis keeps his weight consistent by jogging on the racetrack each day after working horses in the morning and before the races in the afternoon. He does not get involved in card games or table tennis matches in the jockeys' room, preferring to read the past performances of upcoming races. At night, he studies replays and often works out on a spring-loaded hobby horse, which Solis built himself.

There is consistency and stability in his personal life, too. Solis has been married to the former Sheila Sonnier, the daughter of Midwestern trainer Bert Sonnier, for 22 years, and they have four children.

Within a year of arriving in California, Solis landed on the favorite for the Derby. Snow Chief, a California-bred colt who had won the Santa Anita Derby - just like Brother Derek - went off at 2-1, but never fired and finished 11th. Two weeks later, Snow Chief gave Solis his only victory in a Triple Crown race, in the Preakness.

That was his second mount in the Derby but his first great disappointment. Since then, Solis has finished second with Captain Bodgit in 1997, Victory Gallop in 1998, and Aptitude in 2000.

Solis has engineered plenty of upsets, most notably aboard Dare and Go when he stopped Cigar's 16-race winning streak and aboard Got Koko when she ended Azeri's win streak at 11.

After those kind of wins, Solis likes to celebrate with a bottle of wine. He is a dedicated oenophile, with a personal collection of 3,000 bottles.

"Blame it on Fernando Toro," Solis said of the retired jockey who is the godfather of Solis's daughter, Tiffany. "I never drank. When I went to California, Fernando and I became really good friends. Every time I was at his house and had dinner he offered me some wine. I started liking it, and he kind of got me hooked on it."

What will he drink if he wins?

"I guess we're going to open the whole cellar," he said, laughing.