A typical game day for Alex Solis looks something like this: Rise before sunup, head straight for the Santa Anita backstretch. Work a few horses. Take a little rest. Throw on some sweats and headphones, jog a couple miles around the track.
Move to the jocks' room, study the day's races, sharpen up on the mechanical horse. Shower (plus massage, time permitting). Study some more. Suit up. Ride hard. Go home to a loving family.
For Solis, it is a routine of depth and dedication, one that has seen him win nearly 3,500 races and a host of riding titles. It is one that has taken him to victory in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) and the Breeders' Cup and will, somewhere down the road, assuredly lead him right into the Hall of Fame.
Solis rides with limitless strength and cerebral calm, pouring as much energy into a sprint for $12,500 claimers as he does for a million-dollar main event. But every so often, the 37-year-old shows up to work with a bit more spring to his step. His blood rushes a little bit quicker. His trademark grin gets just a little wider.
The change is easy to understand. These are the days Alex Solis gets to ride Kona Gold.
They've been inseparable since the summer of '98, when Solis hopped aboard for the first time and Kona Gold nearly lapped a defenseless field of maidens. The charge of riding the planet's most dependable sprinter, however, also comes with a heap of pressure. It helps that the son of Java Gold is as laid-back as a housecat.
"But as soon as you get in the gate, you can feel him right away," Solis explained, describing the metamorphosis. "You have to be on him. It's like he gets so strong and he's so concentrated. And when you come out of the gate, he's like a bulldog outta there, ready to fight."
Still, the 7-year-old gelding had plenty to contend with when the $200,900 Potrero Grande Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. II) got underway on April 1.
"He wasn't as sharp as he always is, and I take the blame for that because I worked him a little too slow," Solis admitted later, alluding to a pair of easy breezes leading up to the Potrero Grande. "I babied him too much."
A 126-pound assignment also spelled a significant advantage for the challengers Explicit (116), Romanzo (115), and Hollycombe (114). It didn't matter. With Hollycombe in chase, Explicit ripped through the first quarter in :21.37. Kona Gold, meanwhile, relaxed in third till Solis began to rev the engines. The trio finally lined up together at the head of the stretch.
There, Kona Gold dropped his head, bared his teeth, and switched leads. To his inside, Explicit and Hollycombe wouldn't budge. They traded blows all the way to the wire, where the champ prevailed by a desperate neck. Hollycombe and Explicit finished in a dead heat.
The streak has now reached six. Kona Gold clocked the 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:15.03, just a tad slower than it took him to bury three others in last year's installment. But it did come at a price. Trainer Bruce Headley, who co-owns the gelding with Irwin and Andrew Molasky and G. Michael Singh, acknowledged that Kona Gold emptied the tank in this one. To stay on track for a title defense in the Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I), Headley now plans to forgo a run in the Churchill Downs Handicap (gr. II) on Kentucky Derby Day and instead keep Kona Gold quiet over the summer.
This will force his legion of fans -- including Solis -- to wait for Del Mar to roll around. It will be worth the wait. Good horses come and go, captivating for an instant and then fading like a sunset. Kona Gold, blessed with innate desire, resilience, and adept handling, stops you in your tracks.
"He's a horse that is extremely honest," Headley said. "And he loves to run."
Take note now. Let's enjoy him while he lasts.