07/19/2005 11:00PM

A year later, a new determination

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"If you have been a jockey your whole life, you've always been riding with some kind of pain." - Alex Solis

DEL MAR, Calif. - As Friday nights go, July 23, 2004, was pretty much a dark hole in the otherwise rewarding life of Alex Solis. While the rest of the racing crowd partied at Del Mar, Solis was occupied at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, broken up, scared, and chock-full of painkillers after a crash at the head of the stretch in the third race of the day.

There were fractured vertebrae and cracked ribs and hurt feelings all around. The damage, thank goodness, caused no paralysis. But delicate surgery was required, then a restrictive back brace, followed by a challenging rehabilitation.

All jockeys deserve the game's undivided attention when they go down, but when a rock like Solis hits the water, huge waves tend to wash up on distant shores. When he was injured, such Solis mounts as Pleasantly Perfect, Megahertz, and Pico Central became fair game. In an instant, his status as the nation's leading rider was frozen in time, a fixed target for the competition to pass without a second glance.

There was, in this case, a happy ending. Solis returned to competition last Feb. 5, which represented a bit more than the six months he predicted the injury would cost. After a conservative start, Solis has been climbing back to his familiar place in the firmament of North America's leading riders, with $4.5 million in earnings this year and exciting mounts on the horizon. Now, if he can just get through that first time past the three-eighths pole, and the anniversary of the July 23 incident a year ago Saturday.

"To be honest, it's hard not to really think about what happened last year," Solis said Wednesday morning, as he prepared for his four mounts on the opening-day card. "If I didn't do that I wouldn't be human. I would be lying to myself.

"It will be just like at Santa Anita last February when I came back to ride my first race. The same thoughts, the same fears. You're afraid of the unknown. But just like then, I'm very sure when I ride my first race those thoughts about falling, and where I fell, will be out of my head. When you jump in, and you're trying to win, those thoughts are gone."

Of course, there are reminders. Solis has the tempered body of a veteran athlete and the discipline to match. But at the age of 41, a severe back injury will never be completely forgotten.

"I still get some muscle spasms," Solis said. "But if you have been a jockey your whole life, you've always been riding with some kind of pain. It's nothing too awful."

Solis uses therapeutic massage and acupuncture as part of his regular physical therapy, while jogging on the track on racing days remains his method of choice for sweating out those last couple of pounds he needs to make the weight. At Del Mar, with its six-day racing week and warmer weather, Solis will cut down to about three jogs a week and mix in long, meditative walks on the beach near the summer condominium he rents with his family.

"It's in the same complex we were in last year, but a different condo," he noted. "The one we were in last year is being rented this year by the ambulance crew from the track. This year, I only want to know them as neighbors and friends."

During his beach walks, he can think about where Megahertz will run next (she was nominated to Saturday's John C. Mabee at Del Mar), or when Pico Central will get back in the game (hopefully in the major sprints of the Del Mar meet), or of the limitless future that is promised by Surf Cat, who won the Swaps Stakes so impressively with Solis at Hollywood Park and is a viable candidate for the Pacific Classic.

The Solis on display at the recently concluded Hollywood meet was a sight to behold. Riding with a heady combination of style and strength, he put on a display that sometimes took the breath away. Solis and his agent, Scotty McClellan, finished the Hollywood season with a giddy flourish, closing fast to be second in the standings to Garrett Gomez, 62-55, and topping the money-won chart with $2,787,518 earned by his mounts.

Through it all, Solis maintained a fresh, almost serene outlook on his profession, a product of those six months he spent recuperating from the crash at Del Mar. Even though his prognosis was encouraging, there were no guarantees, and missing half a year makes for a long climb back - even for a rider with Hall of Fame credentials. Solis emerged from the ordeal with a renewed appreciation of both the miracles of orthopedic medicine and the privilege of being a Thoroughbred jockey.

"Every day now, I ride with such gratitude," Solis said. "Every winner is special. I try to appreciate every little thing about what happens with the horse and with the race. I never want to take anything for granted, because I know how it feels when you think you might lose it all."