Hopes and dreams carried Hall of Fame jockey Alex Solis far.
He had grown up poor on a farm in San Carlos, Panama and was determined to change that for himself and his family when he left his homeland for South Florida in 1982. He can still remember the tears his mother, Isabelle, shed the day he left.
He was 18 years old. He spoke no English. He had saved $700 as the leading apprentice rider in Panama to help him make his fresh start. He was told to meet a man at Miami International Airport whose full name he still does not know. But that stranger assisted him in getting established at what was then Calder Race Course.
Solis laughs now at how naïve he was then. He also knows he did what he had to do.
“I loved the sport and my dream was to be somebody in life,” he said. “I wanted to be famous. I wanted to win races. I wanted to accomplish things.”
Riding came more easily to him than the English language, which he learned in part by watching television and listening to music. He rode so impressively at Calder that he quickly earned the nickname “El Maestrito,” or “The Maestro.”
He refined his riding skills in South Florida for three years before joining the jockey colony in Southern California. In many ways, it would be a life-altering move.
Solis came to national prominence when he rode Snow Chief to victory in the 1986 Preakness. It was one of eight graded stakes he swept with that grand partner from 1985-87, five of them Grade 1s.
Kona Gold and Pleasantly Perfect would be prominent among other big horses entrusted to him. Tough-as-nails Kona Gold provided his first Breeders’ Cup triumph, in the 2000 Sprint.
“He was just a warrior,” Solis said. “He showed up every race.”
Solis teamed with Pleasantly Perfect to capture the Breeders’ Cup Classic as the culmination of a huge year that left him ranked third nationally with $16,309,490 in earnings in 2003. Solis also took the Turf that year when Johar finished in a dead heat for first, and he won the Bill Shoemaker Award as the top rider at the Breeders’ Cup. Pleasantly Perfect would go on to bring home the $6 million Dubai World Cup for Solis in 2004.
“He was a big horse with big talent,” Solis said. “He made my job easy. He was a laid-back horse. You could do anything with him.”
Solis prided himself on his versatility.
“I think I could adjust to any pace,” he said. “I could be in front or come from off the pace, turf or dirt.”
Solis treasured his time in the jocks’ room with Laffit Pincay Jr.
“I learned a lot of good habits from him, how to take care of your body and be a student of the game,” he said.
Solis was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2014. He announced his retirement on Nov. 26, 2017. He finished with 5,035 victories and more than $238 million in earnings.
He is not finished with racing, though. After retiring Solis spent time as an assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella. He has since ridden top Mandella horses like Omaha Beach in their morning workouts.
“It’s a different world and every day there is different stuff to learn,” he said. “It’s very important for me to be ready because I’m responsible for the horses. I want to make sure I know what I am doing.”
For someone who had pushed so hard for so long to “be somebody,” he felt a terrible void once he rode for the last time.
“The life of retirement was not easy for me,” he said. “I needed a purpose in life, something to do next.”
- Received George Wolff Memorial Jockey Award in 1997 for demonstrating high standards in personal and professional conduct
- Among riders featured on “Jockeys,” an Animal Planet documentary series
- Rode Mandurah to world record for one mile on the turf, clocking 1:31.23 at New Jersey’s Monmouth Park in 2010
- Enjoys hiking in San Gabriel Mountains, which overlook Santa Anita
- Son, Alex II, works as a bloodstock agent
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2018. It has been updated.