Ever since Alex Solis began riding at Santa Anita Park in the mid-1980s, he's hiked in the San Gabriel Mountains that tower over the Arcadia, Calif., racetrack.
Part exercise and part meditation, he's gone to the mountains several times in his life to grapple with a difficult decision.
After hip surgery in August and his official retirement from riding in November, another trip to the mountains came with a target. What to do now?
The 53-year-old entertained a number of ways to move on from riding. He's already on the California Horse Racing Board, and considered a path to become a CHRB steward, but he kept coming back to the horses. Those positions would still involve dealing with horses from a distance, but they wouldn't be hands-on, like his experience with Thoroughbreds for nearly four decades.
"There's only so much vacation you can take," Solis said. "It gets boring, especially when, for 37 years, I was riding horses every day. So I go into the mountains hiking and I'm thinking of things to do. There are a lot of options, but it always come back to doing something I have passion and love for. And I have love for the horses and the competition."
With that rationale the tough decision became easier, even if it was by process of elimination. To be involved up close with the horses and to retain a competitive aspect, he'd have to become a trainer. But that is not an undertaking he takes lightly. He knew enough to know he didn't know enough.
"If I'm going to take responsibility of an animal, I want to make sure I'm ready," Solis said.
So the 2014 Hall of Fame inductee sought a mentor, and it didn't take long for him to find one. There is a trainer on the Santa Anita backside who not only has history of fantastic success in partnership with Solis, but also has a track record of guiding his assistants into training careers on their own.
He also happens to be a Hall of Famer himself. But would he be up for taking on a 53-year-old apprentice?
"Why don't you hang around for awhile, and I'll show you how you need to change your mind," Richard Mandella said.
Mandella has a funny way of expressing admiration and praise. He can be tough, but also can have a soft touch. He jumps back and forth from a dry humor to earnest wisdom, often in the same sentence, but the warmth behind his voice never leaves.
"I saw him out here with a sign that said, 'Will work for food,'" Mandella joked about Solis.
"He's been in the middle of this for what? 50 years?" the horseman said, as he snapped a playful look at Solis and let out a slight chuckle. "He probably didn't examine it like he is now, but now that it's happening, he's putting it together pretty fast. It's not like he hasn't seen it."
The trainer-jockey duo teamed up for plenty of victories over the years, including a magical 2003 Breeders' Cup for Mandella, when he won four races during the World Championships and two were ridden by Solis—Johar in the John Deere Breeders' Cup Turf (G1T) and Pleasantly Perfect in the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1). Solis also rode Pleasantly Perfect to a 2004 Emirates Airline Dubai World Cup (G1) score and piloted grade 1 winners Redattore (BRZ), Dixie Union, Malek (CHI), and Dare and Go for Mandella, but the main focus of his tutelage now has been to look at the horses through a different lens.
"It's not what it looks like from a distance," Mandella said of training. "He'd walk in, we'd put him on a horse, he'd work him, and he'd go.
"He's smart and realizes he has to experience this a little bit, to realize what the difference is. The jockey comes, gets a leg up, and in five or 10 minutes, goes onto the next. In the afternoon they put you on a horse and it's start, stop, start, stop. Training never stops. Even when you're going home, you're still dealing with it. It takes a certain person to adjust from the immediacy of riding to the long, extended day of a trainer.
"You have to be willing to sacrifice your life to do the job. But he has it in him. And I've tried to sour him."
When the compliments come from Mandella, the emotion is visible in Solis' face. Being Mandella's "shadow" for a handful of weeks, Solis knows the praise isn't handed out without merit. Although Mandella acknowledges that the "real work" hasn't yet started for Solis, the rider has already had a front-row seat to the uneasy nature of the training game.
On any morning a horse can come up lame, cast, or have any other number of issues when he arrives at 5 a.m., and they have in his short time as Mandella's shadow.
"You get to the barn in the morning and this horse has this, this horse has that," Solis said. "Everything can sour, right away."
"He's finding out, every morning you get there, that you wonder what is wrong—no, how much is wrong," Mandella added. "You know something is wrong. You're not sure everything is right."
Solis admits that the early mornings have been the hardest part of his transition. Sure, he would still have to get up early to work horses at 6:30 a.m. throughout his riding career, but that's a significant hour and a half.
"Now I gotta get up at 4:30. That means less wine," Solis said with a laugh.
But the early mornings have also transported him back to his earliest riding days in his native Panama.
"In Panama, when you go to jockey school, you are assigned to a trainer and you go work with that trainer," Solis said. "You are the assistant for the groom, and you learn to take care of the horse—clean the stalls—and that's how you start. Every jockey—myself, Laffit Pincay, everybody—you have to take care of the horse, rub the horse, all this work before you can ever get on the horse six months later. To me, it's like starting all over again."
Like his first training as a teenager in Panama, Solis is doing his best to take in as much as he can from Mandella, because there is so much to absorb.
"You really have to pay attention," Solis said. "This guy, his mind has so much going on. Now I understand why he succeeds. Every day you spend with him, you learn something different, and you learn that every horse is different."
Solis' biggest takeaway, beyond any sort of training tactics, is the importance of care and the connection a horseman needs to properly foster a Thoroughbred.
"Every day, you see the horses, and they're family to you," Solis said. "Before I always felt connected to the horses I rode, but not in this way. Going in the stalls, feeling their legs, feeding them—you really get to know their personalities and understand them."
For Mandella, caring for a racehorse can be learned, but only to a certain extent. What makes a good horseman great is time, experience, intuition, and maybe a little bit of mysticism.
"It's going from feeling it (on the horse) to feeling it in their eyes," Mandella said. "You can't talk to them, so you have to have some sort of communication. To be a trainer, you have to have some sense of that."
Solis says he is committed to starting a training career, but he does not have a timetable for when he might start. Watching and learning is one thing, but doing is another.
Mandella doesn't call Solis his assistant, but also said he wouldn't be opposed to the idea. His track record of developing his assistants into successful trainers is a point of pride.
"It's been pretty much what I've done my whole life. I've had young guys with me, always, and they go on—Dan Hendricks, Mike Machowsky, (Richard) Baltas," Mandella said. "Then they go out and beat me, with no shame—with a smile on their face. I'm very proud of those guys."
And then comes the trademark Mandella prod.
"He ain't working yet, but he's got it in him," the horseman said. "But he better move along fast, because I can't afford him."