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Back on the horse
By Tod Leonard September 07, 2018
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Alex Solis sat on the beach for months in Florida, USA. He fished to his heart’s content. He ate until his belly was beyond full — something he didn’t dare do in his Hall-of-Fame career as a jockey.

It all seemed the perfect way to retire for the 54-year-old Panama native who got so much from horse racing (5,035 victories) while it exacted its own toll (a broken back and hip replacement among myriad ailments).

Ultimately, though, there were only so many dinners to plan and rounds of golf to play. “I’m always used to doing something,” Solis said. “I have to have a purpose in life. Going down to the beach every day, eating and drinking and fishing — basically, doing nothing — that’s not me.”

Solis yearned to be back at the track, and more critically, to rekindle the love for horses that was instilled in him while growing up on a farm. “I had a horse before I had a bicycle,” he said.

Solis thought he’d set himself up for a future in the game when he joined the California Horse Racing Board in 2015 while he was actively riding. He went to school to become a steward. But there was something missing in those posts: the thrill of competition and the day-to-day connection with the animals. If Solis wasn’t going to ride anymore, there seemed only one answer: training.

Not more than a month after Solis officially announced his retirement at Del Mar last November, he began working in the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella. Quietly, earnestly, Solis has become an integral part of the operation and now serves as a second assistant with Mandella’s right-hand man of more than 35 years, Angel Vega.

Other than the distasteful shock of his alarm going off at 4:15am — at least an hour before his jockey wake-up calls — Solis is happy with the work. “It’s been a blessing,” Solis said one early morning at Del Mar as he juggled his various duties among the 40 horses and 38 workers in the Mandella barn. “Working for Richard, he does things the way I want to do. My whole life, I’ve believed in training the way he does it. It’s fun, and he’s a great teacher. He makes you understand it. He explains it very easy.”

Mentoring is nothing new to Mandella, who has contributed to the start of numerous trainers’ careers, including Richard Baltas, Dan Hendricks, Mike Machowsky, Jedd Josephson and Beau Greely.

It is fairly rare for jockeys to find a second career as trainers, though there are some notable riders who have. Johnny Longden is the only person to both ride and train Kentucky Derby winners, and Bill Shoemaker turned to conditioning after his career.

Among the current trainers who came from riding are renowned Frenchman Freddy Head and Americans Peter Eurton and Wesley Ward — the latter of whom won an Eclipse Award as top apprentice jockey before weight issues derailed his riding career.

Solis, who has gained all of 8lb (3.6kg) since he stopped riding, chuckled when he admitted he had no idea about how much goes into preparing the horses, and he’s got a lot of responsibility. That morning, he donned a helmet and flak jacket to gallop three horses on the track, and then headed for the grandstand with stopwatch and binoculars to monitor other works.

Before any training takes place, Solis and others check on how the horses slept, and if they have any overnight injury or illness. Late morning is reserved for monitoring what and how much they eat, depending on their racing status.

“It’s definitely a different world,” Solis said. “When you’re a jockey, you come to the barn 15 minutes before (the workout). You get instructions, come back, do your report, and go on to your next worker. Here, I’m riding horses to the paddock, galloping them, walking them afterward. I spend a lot more time with them and get to know their personalities.” He does believe a jockey’s knowledge can contribute to better training. “Being on top of them, you can feel the engine,” he said.

Mandella, who at 67 has been training for 44 years, is brutally honest with Solis about the life he’s looking at leading. Fourteen-hour workdays are standard practice, and the days off are few.

“When he leaves me,” Mandella said, “he can erase the rest of his life. This will be it. I’ve always told my assistants that you can find somewhere to make as much money and have a simple life. This business, once you start training, you better devote yourself completely to it, or you won’t be a success.”

When Solis, who came to America in 1982 with $700 (Dhs2,571) in his wallet and no English in his vocabulary, considers the hardships, he remembers being in jockey school in Panama at the age of 14. Ahead of him, he couldn’t see 5,000 wins, a Triple Crown victory in the 1986 Preakness aboard Snow Chief, and a Hall of Fame career.

With Mandella’s tutoring, the training road is better defined, and Solis’ vision is clearer. “It’s exciting, you know, to think of having my own barn,” he said. “Hopefully, we get some good horses and conquer some other worlds. You never know.”


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