04/23/2010 11:00PM

Twilight time for two riders


Last chapters are tough to write. You can count the great movie endings on a couple of hands. Terry Malloy staggering, bloody, into a waterfront warehouse. A dead-eyed Michael Corleone alone in his Tahoe compound. "Shane! Shane!" "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."

So it is with professional athletes, and especially Thoroughbred jockeys. They have no Champions Tour, no Icecapades, no cushy coaching jobs waiting in the twilight. They are either old and working or old and not, without much in between.

If they are lucky, really lucky, they get to close the show on their own terms. That is what Alex Solis is shooting for, and that is what Richie Migliore is hoping against hope that he still might be able to do.

Solis turned 46 on March 25. He celebrated by riding one horse to a fourth-place finish in an optional claimer at Santa Anita Park, where he has won five titles and 1,826 races, those numbers including the Oak Tree meet. The only guys ahead of him in Santa Anita wins are all long gone, but their names ring true: Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay, Chris McCarron, and Eddie Delahoussaye.

Solis was having a lot of days like his birthday, and for too long, while making weight and keeping fit enough to drive nails with the palm of his hand. An adventurous soul, he decided to pack up and head for Kentucky, where he and his agent, Brian Beach, will compete at the Churchill Downs meet that began this weekend, then take it from there.

Solis is hardly a stranger in a strange land. He has finished second in three Kentucky Derbies, and in 2000 he landed his first Breeders' Cup victory at Churchill Downs in the Sprint aboard Kona Gold. Over the past 25 years, Solis has made any number of successful stakes raids east of the Mississippi.

"Walking around the barns here, I was a little surprised to realize just how many people I had ridden for in the past," Solis said earlier this week, after a morning at Churchill Downs. "At least, they remembered me and were glad to see me. So I guess I didn't burn any bridges."

In California, Solis spent his mornings running up and down a nearby mountainside. Asked if he could find a similar aerobic challenge in Kentucky, he replied, "Well, there are no mountains, but plenty of trails and some nice hills.

"It's hard to leave California," Solis added. "That's where I raised my family, and that's where all my friends are. But I feel like I've got some good years left, and there are still races I want to win and places I want to ride."

More power to him. A perennial Hall of Fame nominee, Solis entered the weekend with 4,770 winners, giving him more than decent shot to make it to the magic 5,000 mark before he retires. Only 24 jockeys have reached that plateau.

Migliore, an Eclipse Award winner and nine-time New York titlist, was heading that way as well, at least until he fell at Aqueduct in January and suffered what he thought was only a concussion. He went back to work a couple weeks later and was rolling along until the last weekend in March, when the pain that had never really gone away became borderline unbearable.

"I honestly thought I had a bulging disc that was pinching a nerve, and muscle spasming around it," Migliore said this week from his home in the Hudson Valley. "I figured I'd work with it, three, four days a week, I'd will it away and keep going."

Migliore turned 46 on March 14, and the litany of his riding injuries makes for squeamish reading. What sets him apart, in terms of serious damage and repair, were the three fused cervical vertebrae - C3, C4 and C5 - that resulted from a crash at Belmont Park in June 1988. That day has now returned to haunt him.

"When I fell in January, I broke off the bottom part of the fusion - there's also a crack down the middle - and I fractured C6, right underneath it," Migliore said. "So they have to go back in and refuse from C3 through C6."

Surgery will take place in a week or so. Migliore described the bone grafts he would have to endure, along with a recovery period of six to eight months. At least, he noted, he would not be required to wear the diabolical "halo" fixation device during recovery. This would qualify as a small but welcome favor. Beyond that, the prognosis for returning to the saddle is uncertain.

"Every time I think I might have ridden my last race I kind of get real choked up and emotional about it, so I can't even allow myself to go there," he said. "I've just got to look at what I'm dealing with at the moment, and keep going forward. I just want to get healthy. I want to be out of pain."

If he is faced with the unthinkable, Migliore truly went out in style. Before he was grounded, he rode four winners at Aqueduct on March 27, including the final race of the day aboard a filly named Lots of Stones.

"It was the day before Palm Sunday," Migliore said. "I was in so much pain my son Joey drove me to the track and stayed with me, then drove me home. Don't get me wrong. I was thrilled about winning four, but at that point I almost didn't care."

The rest of us can only try to appreciate the amount of pain it takes for someone like Migliore to not care about winning races. Lots of Stones was the 4,450th winner of his career.

"I thought that if I could get to 5,000 wins, I might have a shot at the Hall of Fame," Migliore said. "At least, that was the goal I'd set for myself."

There are hills, and then there are hills.