Alexis Solis is an 18-year-old apprentice jockey with inordinate talent whose name is virtually unknown outside of South Florida, where through last weekend he was the leading rider at Gulfstream Park. Solis, who arrived in the U.S. in September and speaks no English, may turn out to be the finest Panamanian export since the hat. According to that eminent jockeys' agent Lenny Goodman, who has shepherded the careers of Manuel Ycaza, Braulio Baeza and Steve Cauthen, "Solis is on a par right now with any top jockey I've ever seen." Goodman, mind you, does not handle Solis' book.
In the first major 3-year-old race of 1983, the $65,550 Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream two weeks ago, a bulky field of 13 was curving into the stretch, into the final quarter mile of the seven-furlong race. Solis was riding a 9-1 shot, Current Hope, and was gaining on the leaders when another jockey brought his horse alongside Current Hope, in the process accidentally knocking the whip from Solis' right hand. "Current Hope," Solis said later through an interpreter, "loves to feel the whip." Without it, Solis began slapping the colt with his hands. Then, inside the 70-yard pole, he ripped the orange "silk" cap from his protective helmet, hit Current Hope two or three times with it and beat favorite Highland Park by the most desperate of noses.
Was Solis' brilliant move inside the Rules of Racing? Nobody knows, perhaps because only one person has been found who ever heard of it being done before: Solis himself, who said he'd seen it done in Panama by a rider named Dilio Long. The stewards allowed the finish of the race to stand, but the next day told Solis, "Don't try that one again."
Solis' ride was a perfect way to start the parade toward the 1983 Kentucky Derby on May 7. This 3-year-old year is going to be unlike any in recent times: confusing, charming, bizarre and desperate. The first commandment of racing holds that by mid-February there must be a Derby favorite. Forget it. For all anybody knows, this year's Kentucky Derby winner may at this moment be tied to a hitching post outside a saloon somewhere in the great Southwest.
The day after the Hutcheson, Roger Laurin, the trainer of Current Hope, was filling out nomination blanks to the Derby. Naturally, he entered Current Hope, but he added two other horses. "There's a long, long way between now and Kentucky," Laurin said. "If anybody has even a maiden that looks like it has any ability at all, they might just as well nominate and see what happens."
That sentiment is shared by West Coast horsemen. On Feb. 12, before the running at Santa Anita of the seven-furlong, $81,950 San Vicente Stakes, the first big test for 3-year-olds on the Coast, Jimmy Kilroe, senior vice-president of racing at that track and the West's most knowledgeable judge of horseflesh, was asked what he thought about the current 3-year-olds. Kilroe pondered, then smiled in resignation. "Don't know," he answered, "haven't seen any yet." Bobby Frankel, five times the leading Santa Anita trainer, was asked the same question. "This year's 3-year-olds?" he said. "The one thing you can say about them is that they all look exactly alike."
Until the morning of Jan. 30, there had been a solid favorite for the spring classics—Roving Boy. In 1982 he had earned a world record for 2-year-olds, $800,425, moving from stakes win to stakes win like a squirrel springing from limb to limb. When he returned from a workout on the Santa Anita track to his barn four weeks ago, however, his trainer, Joe Manzi, noticed the colt was limping. X rays that afternoon detected a cannon-bone fracture in Roving Boy's left front leg. Three pins were inserted to stabilize the injury, but it will be at least eight months before the colt can return to competition.
More than anyone, Manzi, 47, mirrors this year's Derby fortunes. Make that misfortunes. Not only did he have Roving Boy in his barn, but he had another good 3-year-old, Pillager. That colt won his first start last August at Del Mar in a $50,000 claiming race. In late December, in his second start, Pillager won the Los Feliz Stakes at Santa Anita and then he finished first in the San Miguel a few weeks later at the same track. With a record of three for three, including two stakes wins, Pillager looked like a major runner, but he, too, suffered a fractured cannon bone and will not be entered in the spring's big races.
Manzi's sad tale, however, wasn't over. There was yet a third promising 3-year-old in his barn, named Knightly Rapport. Cost: $5,500. Owners: Manzi and two friends. "I bought the horse as a yearling at Keeneland in the fall of 1981," Manzi says. "It was a morning sale and nobody was there. I liked Knightly Rapport because I had trained his sire, Inverness Drive. When I saw how low the bidding was that day, I knew I could get the horse for a dirt-cheap price. That sale was so bad that somebody told me Kentucky breeders still refer to it as 'Dark Monday.' "
Knightly Rapport finished second to a colt named Naevus in his first race; in his second he was beaten by Shecky Blue. But starting in late November, Knightly Rapport took off. He won two races in a row, was shipped to Bay Meadows for the Atherton Stakes and won again easily. Six days after having lost Roving Boy, Manzi sent Knightly Rapport back to Bay Meadows for the El Camino Real Derby, the richest race run thus far for 3-year-olds. The $5,500 Black Monday bargain brought home $137,025.
But Manzi's string of injuries persisted. Last Wednesday, Knightly Rapport also suffered a cannon-bone injury. He, too, is now out of the Derby. "I've been wiped out," Manzi said. "I have nothing left for the classics." Yet Manzi's record with Roving Boy, Pillager and Knightly Rapport should be noted. From Aug. 11 through Feb. 5, those three horses ran 14 times and won 12 races and $1,019,550. Manzi's three colts started in eight stakes during that span and won them all. "Well," he said, "at least I'll have some 4-year-olds next year who weren't burnt out at age 3." Manzi deserved a far, far better fate.
And whatever happened to Naevus and Shecky Blue? They both showed up in the San Vicente. Naevus, who entered the race undefeated in two starts and was heavily favored, finished a troubled fourth behind 11-1 shot Shecky Blue. Thus the first major warmup races on the East and the West coasts produced a 9-1 winner and an 11-1 winner, respectively. Usually early-season races are won by favorites, but this isn't a usual season.
Walk through any major backstretch these days and trainers by the dozen will lead you to good-looking, well-bred colts. "This one bucked his shins as a 2-year-old," they invariably say. Or, "I lost a lot of time with him because of bad weather. He may not get to the Derby, but you'll hear a lot about him later on."
The story is quite different when it comes to the 1983 fillies. This year's crop of 3-year-olds abounds with excellent runners. Princess Rooney, Ski Goggle, Fifth Question and Crystal Rail, for instance, have started a total of 16 times without a loss and have a staggering combined victory margin of 109 lengths. That's an average of seven lengths per win. Whether any of these fast fillies will run against colts in the Derby is, of course, a matter of speculation.
The day of the San Vicente also produced another possible 3-year-old colt for Louisville. Silent Fox, owned by Texan E.C. Johnston Jr., made his first start in a maiden race at Santa Anita. The colt is the great Affirmed's little brother. Laz Barrera trains him, and the resemblance between the two horses is striking. "This colt has ability," Barrera said as he was saddling Silent Fox. "It would be nice if he won today because I think anybody might be able to win this year's Derby the way it looks now."
Silent Fox broke slowly and gradually worked his way along the rail before getting to the lead. But as jockey Laffit Pincay Jr.—the man who never lost in his 10 rides on Affirmed—moved through the stretch, Pat Valenzuela, who was whipping Dance Star furiously, suddenly whipped Pincay's right hand. Unlike Solis, Laffit hung on to his bat and won the race by 1¼ lengths over Dance Star in a most impressive maiden voyage.
Frankel was musing the other day about the Kentucky Derby. He has a colt named Northrexford Drive, winner of the $113,500 California Breeders' Stakes on Jan. 9, that he believes will get him to his first Run for the Roses. "If you were a betting man you'd bet that there will be 20 horses in this year's Derby—all that the law allows," said Frankel. "My horse has won $74,000 and that should be enough to get him in, but he'll probably have three races before going to Kentucky. I could ship him to run for big pots, but when he gets on a van he's going only one way: to the Derby. It is the race. I think my horse is as good as Gato del Sol was at the same stage last year. I'm excited about this year's Derby. Hell, I wish they'd run it next week."
It would be a mighty funny race if they did. Nobody would have the slightest idea of whom to bet on.