Alex Solis sat on the beach for months in Florida. 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 4:15 a.m. — at least an hour before his jockey wake-up calls — Solis is happy with the work.
“It’s been a blessing,” Solis said early Thursday 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.
“He’s willing to bring you along in the process and not just give you the results of a decision,” said Gary Mandella, who manages the barn with his dad. “There are about 25 decisions a day you have to make, and he’s willing to give you information about the whole thing. The people who work for him aren’t just robotic.”
Of Solis, Gary Mandella said, “Alex is great. He’s here for all the right reasons. What holds some jockeys back is the grind and the time you have to put in. But Alex is here and focused.”
It is fairly rare for jockeys to find a second career as trainers, though there are some notable riders who have.
John 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 eight pounds since he stopped riding, chuckled when he admitted he had no idea about much goes into preparing the horses, and he’s got a lot of responsibility. On Thursday 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 and Solis combined for some big days when the jockey was riding. Solis was aboard two of Mandella’s four winners in the 2003 Breeders’ Cup. And Del Mar fans will recall the pair halting Cigar’s 16-race winning streak with Dare and Go in the 1996 Pacific Classic.
“That was special — I remember jogging back and being happy, and everybody was booing,” Solis said with a grin.
Despite that relationship, Mandella admitted he didn’t truly know Solis until he began working alongside him.
“The more you’re around him, you realize how sensitive he is to people and horses,” the trainer said.
That was clearly evident in a comment Solis made about when he might strike out on his own as a trainer: “If I’m going to have these animals’ lives in my hands, I better know what I’m doing.”
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.
“It would not have surprised me if he had worked only a couple of months,” Mandella said. “He’s been a very successful jockey. I don’t think he has to do this. I think the jury is still out on whether he’ll decide if he wants to give up his life to do this. So far, he’s done well.”
When Solis, who came to America in 1982 with $700 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.”
Three-year-old colt Aggressivity stumbled at the start of the fourth race for maidens Thursday and threw rider Joe Talamo. The jockey eventually got up under his own power and was driven away in the passenger seat of an ambulance. The rider-less horse ran the 1-mile race distance before he was brought under control by outriders. Track officials reported Talamo was sent home for the rest of the day.
In the seventh race, 4-year-old colt Tule Fog dipped his head just before the gate opened, causing rider Santiago Gonzalez to be unseated and left clinging to the side of the starting gate. Tule Fog ran the 5-furlong distance and was first to the wire, but was not an official finisher without a jockey.
According to Del Mar stewards, Tule Fog was considered an official starter because the gate functioned properly and he received a “fair” start.