- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2006

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Throughout a 25-year riding career that began when he was a teenager in Panama, Alex Solis has taken several falls and sustained myriad injuries. It’s the life of a jockey — fall off the horse, heal up, get back in the irons.

Each time, Solis would recover and return to the track, never looking back.

“I wouldn’t watch any of the replays,” he said.

But that changed on July 23, 2004, when Golden KK tumbled while rounding the final turn at Del Mar in California, throwing Solis into the dirt. Solis’ T4 vertebra and three ribs were shattered. The injury was so serious and the circumstances of the accident so unclear, Solis — once out of the hospital and fitted in a back brace — cued up the tape.

“At the beginning, I didn’t want to see it because I had fallen many times, and I treated this one just like any other,” he said. “But this one, I was curious. I watched it, and it was aggravating because I felt it could have been prevented. But when I watched it, I thought about how it could have been worse.”

Instead of letting the back injury heal with rest, Solis opted for a risky surgery that, if successful, would expedite his return. Nine months later, Solis returned to the track.

Sixteen days before Solis’ spill, trainer Dan Hendricks, who often used Solis to ride his horses, was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident.

This week, both are at Churchill Downs with Kentucky Derby morning-line favorite Brother Derek. It marks Solis’ 15th Derby and Hendricks’ first.

Hendricks scoots around the barn area in a specially designed wheelchair that features two big rubber wheels sandwiched by four smaller wheels that help him plow through dirt surfaces.

Solis is able to walk and ride again, but two titanium rods and eight screws remain in his back.

“This horse is a blessing for all of us,” Solis said.

Said Hendricks: “It’s been a team effort. Alex, my assistants, the owner. Every one of these horses that are in the race, there is a trainer, jockey and owner plus another 100 people working behind us.”

Brother Derek, 6-for-8 lifetime, including 3-for-3 this year, will start from the 18th post position.

It’s pretty clear that Solis is treating this Derby experience different than his first in 1983 or his fifth in 1992 or his last trip here in 2004.

Normally on a Derby Week, Solis’ schedule is like most jockeys: A quick trip to Kentucky a week before the race to work the horse, go home to ride and return to Louisville a day before the race.

But there was Solis yesterday morning in Barn 42, feeding Brother Derek carrots and scratching the top of the colt’s forehead.

“Most of the time, we’re just riding, but I want to be here because I like spending time with him and I want to appreciate the meaning of being here at the Derby,” he said. “I want to be here because I know how fortunate I am. I want to enjoy the whole week.”

Brother Derek is also enjoying the attention. He quickly stuck his head out of the stall for an NBC camera crew when prompted by Solis.

“He knows he’s special,” Solis laughed. “He saw the camera coming, and that’s very rare for a horse to act like he does. But if you hang around him enough, he’ll recognize you and see you coming and then act like he was waiting for you. He’s the same way in the races. He know he’s good, and he’s always ready to roll.”

Solis has been aboard Brother Derek for all eight of his races.

Among the 20 horses, he is arguably the most battle-hardened, competing in six consecutive graded stakes races, which attract the best fields. His only hiccup in the last year was a fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

In Brother Derek’s last race, he led the whole way in the Santa Anita Derby.

“It’s amazing how confident he’s gotten and how comfortable he runs,” Solis said. “He’s always had the high cruising speed and done everything so easy. And he’s kept improving.”

Solis has been aboard two post-time favorites in the Derby: Snow Chief finished 11th in 1986 and Captain Bodgit was second in 1997. Solis has two other runner-up finishes, with Victory Gallop (1998) and Aptitude (2000). His biggest career wins have come with Pleasantly Perfect, whom Solis rode to the Breeders Cup Classic win in 2003 and Dubai World Cup victory in 2004.

But then the injury came, followed by a lengthy rehabilitation. Doctors told Solis that the location of the back fracture — the T4 is located in the middle of the back — allowed for a return because the rods and screws could be inserted.

“I was good enough to ride, and I thought I was 100 percent, but after I started riding, I knew I wasn’t,” Solis said. “It took some time for my rhythm to come back, and you need that as a rider, and I had muscle spasms in my back, but the doctors told me that would happen.”

About the time Solis started riding again, Hendricks spotted Brother Derek at a sale and owner Cecil Peacock approved the $275,000 purchase price. Soon after, Francisco Alvarado, Hendricks’ assistant trainer and Solis’ friend for 25 years, told Solis about the young colt.

“He called me and said, ‘I’ve got a horse for you in our barn that might be pretty incredible,’ ” said Solis, who has more than 4,000 wins and $190 million in purse earnings during a career that began in 1981 and this summer could be rewarded with a Hall of Fame spot. “He said the horse could really run and how impressive he was.”

Brother Derek and Solis have done little wrong on the Derby Trail. But the biggest step remains.

“It would be a dream come true to win,” Solis said. “And even if it doesn’t happen, it’s still very exciting to be competing here again.”

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