You're Alex Solis and you ride horses for a living and life in the beginning is pretty simple. You go to the racetrack and you and your agent wait till Willie Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay, Gary Stevens and Chris McCarron, or, maybe, Eddie Delahoussaye, decide which horses they want to ride that day--and you get to get on what's left.
The good news is, you learn your trade that way. You get on shadow-jumpers, biters, quitters, bleeders, horses that won't be rated, horses that won't be hurried, horses that duck in, duck out, spit the bit--the riff-raff of the track.
You have to put up with it--like the driver at Indy who has to wait till the Unsers, Andrettis, Fittipaldis and Rahals decide which cars they want before he gets in something on the 10th row.
The reality is, you probably don't learn much about riding on Man O'War or Secretariat or Cigar. All you have to do there is not fall off. But you sure do learn about the art of race riding trying to coax an honest effort out of a faint-hearted filly or a light-hearted equine gigolo who'd rather do anything than run a race and lets you know it.
Some guys roll out of bed with the ability to ride race horses--Shoemaker, for example. Others just overwhelm their steeds with a will of their own, bully them over the line--an Eddie Arcaro, for example. Horses ran kindly for Shoemaker. They ran for Arcaro because they were scared not to.
There are as many styles as there are riders. They called Georgie Woolf the Iceman because he just sat there patiently waiting for the field to back up to him. Willie Hartack rode as if a swarm of bees were after him.
Solis is a cross between them. He goes to the whip, he says, "only when I have to--I don't like to." He can sit chilly when he feels his horse has plenty left.
He became a rider for the usual reason: He stopped growing at 5 feet 4. Playing center for the Lakers was not an option.
Growing up in Panama, there weren't too many options. So, Solis showed up around the barns, mucked stalls, walked hots, filled buckets. When he finally got to work horses, he thought he'd died and gone to heaven. He felt like a cavalry general.
He never lost that feeling. Some guys treat their rides as just another day at the drill press, just a complicated teamster. Solis feels privileged.
He worshiped Pincay from afar. Pincay was Panama's most famous horseman; Solis hoped to follow in his hoofprints.
He came to California at 20 via Florida, where he rode some horses that were better suited to pulling a plow. They were just faster than the lead ponies. They took in the scenery. "I rode to win but I also rode to learn," Solis says about being stuck with these loafers. He developed the "clock in his head" every jockey needs, the ability to judge pace.
His idol, Pincay, was generous with his time, shared his knowledge with his fellow Panamanian. But Solis remained largely unnoticed, mainly because, unlike Pincay, he was on 20-1 and 30-1 shots.
The annals of sport are shot through with the stories of the "naturals" of a game who squander their talents through a lack of discipline, or appreciation. The modern name for them is under-achievers.
Solis was an over-achiever. God didn't make him a great race rider, he did. And, pretty soon, the tracks--and the bettors--began to notice that, when he should win, he did. "He don't hurt a horse none," grinned his trainer, Mel Stute, when he put him on Snow Chief in the Triple Crown races of 1986. Snow Chief faded in the Derby but won the Preakness for Solis' only Triple Crown victory. Conscientious, dependable, he became the Cal Ripken of racing.
Solis now goes to the track and he gets first pick. He has led every meeting he has ridden in this year. He lost the Santa Anita riding title by one victory to Corey Nakatani, but he has won the others and leads at Hollywood Park, where he will ride in five of the six stakes that comprise the track's sixth annual $2.15-million Turf Festival this weekend.
But, perhaps, the best indication that Solis is the most complete rider on the track today came in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar this fall when he beat Cigar and broke that horse's record winning streak.
Solis rode a 39-1 shot, Dare And Go, that day, but he has ridden many of those. Cigar's connections decided to overlook Solis and Dare And Go and decided to worry about a speed horse called Siphon who they feared would steal the race.
Siphon tried. And Cigar's worried rider, Jerry Bailey, stayed right with him.
The trouble was, Siphon (and Cigar) ripped six furlongs in 1:09 and change, turned the mile in 1:33 and change.