For seventeen years, those who’ve swung by the Richard Mandella stable in Southern California have done so expecting the presence of a Hall of Famer. But right now, Mandella’s barn can boast a two-for-the-price-of-one deal when it comes to one of racing’s most auspicious accolades.
“Anything that needs to be done, I do it,” said Hall of Fame jockey Alex Solis, about his latest role as Mandella’s assistant. From exercising the horses, riding work, feeding them, shadowing his boss as he watches the horses train or goes around checking legs, “I’m just trying to understand everything that’s going on in the barn,” Solis added.
The two men were far from strangers when the former jockey knocked on Mandella’s door, resume in hand. During Solis’s riding career, which spanned more than 5000 victories, some of his biggest wins came on Mandella trained horses–think Johar in the 2003 Breeders’ Cup Turf, or Pleasantly Perfect in the 2004 Dubai World Cup.
And now, with a handful of months as assistant under his belt already, Solis sat down to talk about what he’s learning from his mentor. He also looked back on his riding career–he retired from the saddle officially last year–and forward towards plans to eventually take out his own training license. The following conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
TDN: What kind of teacher is Mandella?
AS: He’s a great teacher. Very patient. He always explains, “This is why we’re doing things this way.” Or, “You don’t do things this way because this is the consequence.” How long has he been training–50 years? [Mandella started out as a private trainer in 1974] I’m getting the crash course.
TDN: If you could boil down the most valuable lessons you’ve learned so far, what would they be?
AS: I don’t know if I want to share that info–I’m putting in all this work, and people will know my secrets! Seriously, one of the things I’ve really learned from Richard is you never stop paying attention to the horses. He can look a horse in the eye, and he can tell you things–if it’s not eating right. He can see if something’s bothering them. All those little details.
It’s amazing how much he has on his mind at one time. Every little aspect, he sees it. That’s one of the things I’ve come to understand, and why I keep my hand in everything that goes on in the barn. It’s cool–I never paid much attention to this side of things.
TDN: As a jockey, did you not appreciate all that went into getting a horse to the races?
AS: As a jockey, you love the horses and you know the risks. But now, doing this kind of work, you really get to know the horses a lot more, and the people, too. It’s long hours that we all put in together to even make the race. I understand that now. I enjoyed being a horseman, but now, this is more complex. To really understand it, you really have to live it.
TDN: Would it have been useful to have done something similar when you were a jockey?
AS: Yes. In Panama, you have this kind of program [at what is now called the Laffit Pincay Jr. Jockey School at Preisdente Remon Racetrack]. It’s intense–you have it for two years when you go to jockey school. But of course, you don’t carry on with it. I wish I’d known as a jockey what I know now. Galloping horses, being around the barn, doing more stuff, I feel like I’m a way better horseman now.
And the bottom line is, I have more love for the sport than I ever have. It’s the soul of the horse, the soul of the people, as to why it works. If we didn’t have these people making the sacrifices that we do, there wouldn’t be this sport.
TDN: So, you think a similar kind of apprenticeship program would be useful for young jocks coming through?
AS: It should be brought back. If you remember, a long time ago, most of the riders used to learn at a barn or at a farm. They were great horsemen. Why? They knew how to work. Just look at Drayden Van Dyke [2014 winner of the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Apprentice Jockey]. He learned how to do everything in the barn of Tom Proctor the old-fashioned way.
TDN: Has this experience helped inform your work as a commissioner for the California Horse Racing Board?
AS: I understand that we’re just trying to keep horses safe. Like, some people see a lip-chain over the lip of a horse and they think that you’re hurting them. But actually, you’re trying to stop that horse from hurting himself. Same thing with medication–if you’re doing it right, give them enough time, then you’re helping them.
One of the guys who’s really helped me with this is Jeff Blea [a Santa Anita-based practicing veterinarian]. Jeff’s very patient-I’m always asking questions, and he always answers. When Jeff and Richard talk about what we can do to help this horse, I’m always listening.
TDN: Is it hard to switch from jockey brain to trainer brain?
AS: The hustling–that’s the thing [as a jockey]. The hustle. When you get to the backside, you’re so focused on which horse you want to ask the guy to put you on. But one of the things I’ve learned from [Richard], he doesn’t use jockeys very often [in the morning]. He trusts the people he hires–the people working there have been with him for a long time. He’s got a good eye for them, too. He knows what he wants, and right away, he can see someone galloping his horses, and he’ll say, “Yeah, I can use them in the program or not.”
And it’s easy to get into his program because it’s very simple. You get to know [the horses], do what he asks you to, and then spend time with the horse, walk them around. It makes sense to me because these horses are in a stall all day long.
TDN: When are you looking to take out your own license?
AS: I don’t want to rush anything. I’m having a lot of fun just being around the barn and the people. I’ve a few people telling me, “Just tell me when you’re ready.”
TDN: Potential owners? Am I allowed to ask who?
AS: I can’t say anything right now.
At the same time, it’s a hard job–you’re under so much stress every day because of the hours, seven days a week. And any little thing could happen.
I had a horse a couple weeks ago, we went in the paddock a few days before he was supposed to run. Really quiet. Another horse spooks in the paddock, rears up and runs back into my horse. Now, my horse runs into the rail and needs some stitches. This horse was so ready to race, he’s looking for action and he’s out. All that work.
It’s hard to explain it to people–you have to live it. So many little things. The bottom line is, you need to have a unique kind of person to do this. The trainer doesn’t get a vacation–and you need time away for yourself.
TDN: That was a big component of your riding career, working out how to maintain your mental equilibrium.
AS: I think it’s very important to give yourself a little break–it’s easy to get caught up in the rat race. I’ll have to make sure I don’t get caught up.
TDN: How does Mandella cope with it?
AS: That’s what he said to me, “Even when I’m home, I’m thinking about what I’m going to do with this horse or that horse. It never ends.” Again, it takes a really unique kind of person to do this kind of work. You have to really love it and understand it.
TDN: How will you manage?
AS: I’m preparing myself for it. You only live once, and you’ve got to do something you really love. When I set out as a jockey, I never thought I would win 5000 races. Now, I have goals I’m putting on myself. I want to train winners. I want to win races. Why not a Kentucky Derby? Why not be the first Hall of Fame jockey to make it into the training Hall of Fame?
Even if it doesn’t work out, you’ve got to do something with your life. I was off for a year doing nothing, drinking beer, going to the beach, fishing. Afterwards, I was pulling my hair out. For 37 years, I was always focusing on accomplishing something. I’ve always had goals. I had to find something that would make my heart beat-something for which I can be recognized.
I’m getting more and more in tune with everything [as a trainer]. I’m grasping a lot of stuff–there’s so much that’s going on all the time. That’s one thing [Mandella] always does, writes things down, keeping it in files. Everything’s very organized in that barn. It’s a lot of work, but it’s well worth it, recording all the things he did with each horse, so, if you can’t remember, you can go back…
TDN: A file for everything?
AS: Every little thing, there’s a file for it. It’s a lot of work, but it’s well worth it. That’s the way it should be. If you’re going to take a horse’s life in your hands, you should be that prepared. He’s very serious about that. And he listens to you. He’s a pretty amazing guy–there’s a reason he’s in the Hall of Fame.