The Derby Favorite : Jockey Alex Solis Is Cool Customer in the Hot Seat Aboard Snow Chief
Less than four years ago, Alex Solis left Panama for Florida with $700 in his pocket and little more than a dream to become a great jockey.
“I didn’t know anybody in this country. I didn’t speak a word of English,” he said.
On May 3, he will ride Snow Chief, the early favorite, in the Kentucky Derby.
True, Snow Chief has more name recognition than Solis, but trainer Mel Stute wouldn’t dream of swapping the 22-year-old rider for a “name” like Laffit Pincay, Angel Cordero or Chris McCarron.
“Alex rides him with so much confidence it scares me to death,” Stute said after Snow Chief won the $500,000 Santa Anita Derby by six lengths April 6. “He knows what he’s got, I do believe.”
Indeed, he does.
“I’ve got the best horse,” he said. “I know when I ask him, he’s going to pick it up and go. I’m very sure.
“He’s a champion, the best horse I’ve ever ridden, by far.”
Snow Chief has seven wins, two seconds and one third under Solis. Overall, the horse has won nine of his 13 lifetime starts and has career earnings of $1,719,040.
Solis became Snow Chief’s regular rider last September, starting with the Del Mar Futurity, after Rafael Meza, who had previously ridden the 3-year-old, committed himself to Bolger Magic for the race.
Snow Chief finished third in the futurity, but Solis immediately saw the horse’s potential.
At Solis’ suggestion, Snow Chief was fitted with blinkers and then handily won the Hollywood Park Futurity last December. He has worn them since, and has won four in a row, which gives Solis some security.
“I knew there was a possibility I’d be taken off early on.” But after the Hollywood Park win, he said, “I felt comfortable I had the mount.”
Solis grew up on a farm in San Carlos, a town of roughly 500 about 2 1/2 hours from Panama City. When he was 14, Solis moved to Panama City and started going to races with his father.
“I always loved horses,” he said. “I got real excited, it impressed me a lot. I thought it was something great.”
When he was 15, Solis attended jockey school for two years. He became the leading apprentice jockey in 1982, then left for the United States midway through the year.
Solis said several people at Calder Race Track in Miami were helpful to him when he arrived. Success soon followed.
“The first horse I rode finished third,” he said. “The next horse I rode won. Five days later, that horse ran again and we won again. The next week, a Monday, I rode three horses and they all won. The first paid $36, the second paid $96 and the third paid $103.”
Solis was off and running, quickly earning a reputation and a nickname, “El Maestrito.” The Maestro.
The following May, he went to Churchill Downs to ride longshot Current Hope in the Derby, but the horse finished out of the money.
This time, he hopes it will be different.
“I feel very confident. I’m very excited,” said Solis, No. 5 on the money-leader list. “All over the world, everybody will be watching the Kentucky Derby. That’s the biggest race to win.”
Since that first Derby, Solis has married, moved to California and markedly improved his English by watching television and listening to music.
“Early on, Alex would say he understood English when he didn’t really. He got instructions from trainers and he’d do the opposite,” his agent, Vince DeGregory, said.