By Dave Joseph
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL - Alex Solis casts his mind back nearly 30 years.
Past six riding titles at Santa Anita Park, three Breeders’ Cup championships, victories in the Preakness and Dubai World Cup, past more than 4,000 trips to the winner’s circle…back, back, back and Solis lands at Gulfstream Park.
“When was it…1982, ’83?” Solis asks. “I was 17 years old and didn’t speak much English. But I have such great memories of that time. South Florida was the first place I came to when I left Panama to come to the United States. I had so many dreams back then…dreams that came true.”
Solis spent only two years in South Florida before moving his tack to California in 1985, but he became a local legend by winning the riding titles at Gulfstream, Hialeah Park and Calder.
“I met such great people in those two years in Miami,” Solis recalls. “People like Victor Sanchez, my first agent, and trainer Jimmy Bracken. And there were a lot of great riders in the jock’s room. Angel (Cordero) would come down along with Jorge (Velasquez). It was great to ride and compete against those guys.”
Nearly 30 years after leaving South Florida to become one of the country’s biggest stars, Solis is returning to South Florida to ride the 2011 Gulfstream meet, which begins Jan. 5. And Solis couldn’t be happier.
“I’m very excited to be back at Gulfstream,” the 46-year-old Solis said. “I really feel like a kid in a candy store again. After being around so long and doing the things I’ve done and now to return to Gulfstream…I feel rejuvenated again.”
Solis spent nearly 25 years riding in California before making the decision early in 2010 to head east in hopes of better business. Solis admits at times it’s been like starting over.
“I was very fortunate to race in California, where I could spend my time with my (four) children while they were growing up,” Solis said. “My priority was to see my kids and give them a (stable environment). It worked out great.
“But I always wanted to go back east. Everyone wants to ride more horses, and I knew to ride more I had to go to another place where I had more chances. Unfortunately, in California, the fields are so small you have a hard time riding.”
Solis, who spent the fall in New York with agent Mike Kelly, is also hoping to get a good 3-year-old this winter at Gulfstream. Solis has never won the Kentucky Derby, although he finished second three out of four years with Captain Bodgit (1997), Victory Gallop (1998) and Aptitude (2000).
“One of my goals is to win the Kentucky Derby, and it hasn’t happened yet,” he said. “But I hope the connections I’ve made in New York will help me when I get to Gulfstream.”
Despite being at an age when most athletes have retired, Solis is still healthy and fit. In California, Solis was known for keeping in shape with rigorous mountain hikes. Since coming east, Solis has worked out while strapping himself with 20 pound bags.
“I’ve worked hard to stay in shape,” Solis said. “My whole life I’ve been exercise orientated, so I feel like I’m in top shape.”