Jockey Alex Solis clinches 5,000 wins and keeps riding full-out

The Hall of Fame jockey who has 5K wins but still a certain goal unmet in Kentucky: Alex Solis

All too many people spend their New Year's Day with a headache and a hangover. Alex Solis spent his collecting a horse racing milestone.

Not many people outside of racing aficionados paid much attention to Solis' return to the elite Southern California jockey colony. He returned quietly, in September, after four years in the East.

His headquarters had been New York, but he also used that as a jumping-off place for rides in Florida, Kentucky and, especially, the prestigious summer meeting at Saratoga.

"I always wanted to do that, to ride back East on a regular basis," Solis says. "I have no regrets. It was the right time for me."

It was also smart.

After years of being a near-miss in the voting for a spot in racing's Hall of Fame, he made it last year. The power of the Eastern media in sports voting should never be underestimated. That Solis was a Hall of Fame-caliber jockey for perhaps the last seven or eight years was enhanced when he got exposure in the East. Voters not only got to see him ride daily, up close and personal, but also see what a class act he is.

And so, in August, in the hallowed thoroughbred setting of Saratoga, N.Y., Solis made his acceptance speech, surrounded by family and friends.

"It was tough, very emotional," he says. "Bob Baffert kept telling me, 'You'll cry. You are going to cry.' "

Then it was time to come home, to ride the tracks that he had ridden for so long, with so much success. Especially Santa Anita.

Solis has won the Preakness, in 1986 aboard Snow Chief. He has won the Breeders' Cup Classic and the Dubai World Cup, both aboard Pleasantly Perfect. He has won two other Breeders' Cup races.

He also has a hole he wants to fill. He has finished second in the Kentucky Derby three times but never won it.

"That's something I'd like to take care of," he says.

To those who think it might be too late, who see Solis riding a lot of 10-1 and 12-1 horses these days in his return to Santa Anita, he can offer the ultimate jockey resume, that of a rider who has won 5,000 races in North America. Only 28 others have done that.

It happened Jan. 1 at Santa Anita. He was on a filly named Lutine Belle, going a mile on the grass in the Blue Norther Stakes. He obviously knew about the milestone and had been chasing it for long enough to have it become a distraction.

"It took me awhile," he says. "It gets in your mind. You try to get it done and you put too much pressure on yourself.

"But I wasn't thinking about 5,000 when I stayed near the lead that day. I was just thinking about winning the race. Then, suddenly, I was a sixteenth from home with a length lead and it occurred to me that I was about to win my 5,000th."

The moment was duly noted on the public-address system, and Santa Anita had a nice sign of congratulations waiting for him in the winners' circle. Also there were sons Alex Jr. and Andrew. Alex Jr. is a bloodstock agent, and victory No. 5,000 was made even sweeter because he had acquired the horse for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.

And, as it turned out, for his father's 5,000th riding victory.

Fans who had kept the faith on Solis and bet Lutine Belle that day had extra reason to be happy. She paid $41.80, $18.40 and $7.80.

Solis is clearly in the twilight of a career of bright lights and high achievement. He left Panama City as a teenager with $700 in his pocket, not a word of English in his vocabulary and with a promise to his mother that he would become famous and buy her a house.

He turned 50 in March, and even though he shares a jockey room with other riding senior citizens and fellow Hall of Fame members Gary Stevens, 51, and Mike Smith, 49, he shuns talk of retirement.

"What we do is an addiction that is hard to describe, hard to replace," Solis says. "There is nothing quite like it when you win a race and stand up in the saddle past the finish line."

He says his role models as a young rider in Southern California, the Laffit Pincays, Chris McCarrons and Bill Shoemakers, always told him the same thing: Ride as long as you can.

So he will, through this winter-spring season of jockeys jockeying for positions on Kentucky Derby horses, and through his 51st birthday March 25.

To stay in shape, he will run up Mt. Washington, some days on the five-mile loop and sometimes even as much as eight or nine miles. Often alongside him will be Smith and fast-rising young jockey Drayden Van Dyke.

He will be closely involved in 29-year-old Alex Jr.'s bloodstock career, likely riding more of his horses. He will watch from afar as youngest son Austin, 21, heads off to ride a regular schedule in Australia.

Now, with No. 5,000 in his rearview mirror, he can relax while looking for new additions to his personal Wikipedia.

Maybe something like: Kentucky Derby winner.

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