02/04/2005 12:00AM

Time for Solis to go back to work

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Now that Alex Solis has toured the length of the Western Hemisphere, scaled the mountains near his Glendora home a couple hundred times, and consumed enough fine wine to turn most people sideways, it's time to go back to work. The deadbeat.

Solis was scheduled to get off the dole on Saturday with two mounts at Santa Anita and then on Sunday with another three. Compared to his normal workload, this barely qualifies as Solis-level labor, but he's not complaining.

"I hope they just drag me around out there and I don't have to do anything," he admitted Friday morning, his final day as a civilian.

Six months is an eternity in the professional sports world. Injured athletes have been known to drop off the face of the earth in that amount of time. In horse racing, it amounts to "only" half a season, but that season moves so fast, with alliances shifting so quickly, that Solis initially will be faced with an uphill battle in spite of his Hall of Fame-quality credentials.

Solis reemerges about a month shy of his 41st birthday (March 25) with a healed T-5 vertebra still supported by titanium rods that helped stabilize the fracture during the recovery process. At the time of his injury, which occurred last July 23 at Del Mar, Solis had a comfortable lead atop the national standings.

"If he can just go back to where he was when he got hurt, and remember how he was doing then, he will be okay," said Laffit Pincay, friend and mentor, who has been close to Solis throughout the recuperation.

Pincay is still dealing with the lingering effects of his own injuries suffered on March 1, 2003, that fractured a vertebra in his neck and compressed another vertebra in his back. Restless in forced retirement, Pincay was at least enjoying the vicarious pleasure of watching Solis unfold a career year in 2004.

"If he didn't have that spill, I think he would have been fighting for the Eclipse Award last year," Pincay said. "He was riding better than I've ever seen him ride. He just needs to go back to that rhythm, and that confidence."

From time to time, over the past several months, Pincay would join Solis on power walks and extended hikes. They would trade off - one time taking Pincay's preferred route around the outside of the historic Rose Bowl in nearby Pasadena, the next time into the hills of the wilderness not far from the Solis homestead.

"Climbing those mountains was good for me, too," Pincay said. "It relieved stress, and it gave me something to do that was kind of a challenge. I'll tell you one thing - Alex is fit."

In the world of Solis and Pincay, all things flow from strength. During his record-setting, 9,530-win career, Pincay became known as a rider who could use his combination of balance, timing, and focused power to supply a horse with extra lift and thrust in those last, desperate stages of a race. Solis became the master's most accomplished student, and now he faces his greatest test.

"His legs will suffer a little bit," Pincay noted. "Especially if you have a horse that doesn't help you, that you have to make him run. That's very hard on your legs.

"And I'm sure he's gonna be nervous before his first race," Pincay added. "But he will be okay mentally to do the job, because he is fit. If you are not fit, you might be a little bit careful. But if you are fit, once the gate opens you forget about everything and concentrate on the race."

Solis is also grateful. Once his injuries were on the mend, he took advantage of his sudden free time to do some traveling - home to his native Panama, north to his beloved California wine country, and more recently on a trip to Argentina with trainer Peter Eurton.

"In racing we go at 100 miles-an-hour without taking a break," Solis said. "We never seem to stop to appreciate what we have. Two months after I got hurt, I realized how much I missed it. It really opened my eyes about what life means, and what I wanted it to be. Now I have a chance to go out and treasure every race I ride and every race I win, because now I know the meaning of not doing it."

As a straight-shooting sportsman with a dry, self-deprecating wit and a record blessedly free of public scandal, Solis contributes a stability to his workplace, and it's good to have him back. It is no secret that his spinal injury could have easily stopped his career cold at 4,152 winners, with mount earnings of more than $178 million. Solis also knows it could happen again.

"It was something I understood when I started riding 23 years ago, that I could get hurt any time," Solis said. "That's the trade-off for loving something so much. Some people are addicted to drugs. I'm addicted to riding horses."

"But hey," he added, "I did pass my drug test."