Alex Solis has led a pretty rugged life. Jockeys often do, trying to use their 110-pound frames to wrench 1,500-pound thoroughbreds through tight spaces while traveling at speeds of 35 to 40 mph.
It's a high-risk, high-reward business, and the 46-year-old Solis has experienced some of the sport's greatest heights. He lists his finest accomplishments as winning three Breeders' Cup races -- including two in one hour -- as well as the 2004 Dubai World Cup, the planet's richest thoroughbred event. Solis also won the Preakness 24 years ago. The Panamanian-born jockey was on the ballot in May for racing's Hall of Fame, though he did not draw enough votes.
In order to keep up his lifestyle, Solis must keep his weight down. Many riders spend hours a day sitting in the "hot box" of the jockey room to atone for the sin of eating 3 ounces of steak instead of 2 the night before. A rugged guy like Solis, though, finds that running and hiking the canyons of Southern California are a more inviting challenge than idling in the jockeys' room.
One of his favorite hiking spots is the Mount Wilson Trail in the town of Sierra Madre, just north of Santa Anita Park where Solis won five of his 16 career Southern California riding titles. The trail rises sharply, approximately 1,800 feet in the first mile. The path is only about 3 feet wide, cut into the side of the mountain, and as Bugs Bunny once said, "Watch out for that first step, Mac. It's a lulu." Drops of 200 to 300 feet off the side are common. There are no gates, rails, or fences along the edge of the trail.
"It's not Disneyland. It's the wilderness. You go out there to be in the wilderness," Barbara Fortini of Sierra Madre Search and Rescue said.
On March 30, Solis and some of his jockey friends, along with his father and cousin, were hiking the Mount Wilson Trail. At about 1:30 p.m., the group was three-fourths of a mile into the outing when they heard the cries of a woman in distress. Just before the point on the trail known as First Water, 70-year old Elaine Gorton lost her footing and began rolling down the unforgiving, 60-degree granite embankment.
A veteran hiker and retired nurse, Gorton knew that the loose rock on the harsh desert mountain might not stop her fall. The Little Santa Anita Canyon stream loomed 400-500 feet below. Gorton rolled into the only manzanita bush in that area, which broke her slide after a 30-foot drop.
"I thought, 'If I roll to the bottom of the canyon, I will die.' If I didn't hit that bush, I would have rolled another 200 feet," Gorton said.
The Alex Solis of a few years ago might not have been up to the challenge in front of him. He admitted that his mind played tricks on him following a horrifying 2004 spill at Del Mar that left him sidelined for nine months with three broken ribs, a fractured vertebra and a punctured lung. He sometimes awoke in the middle of the night, crying. Now, Solis has on his iPod the motivational words of gurus like Tony Robbins and Jack Canfield. Solis said in a 2009 interview: "I know I could be hurt, whatever. But what's my destiny? God gave me this talent for racing and I have to fulfill my life."
His life has been one dangerous call after another, and in this case, Solis did not hesitate to go right into the teeth of that danger. He took off two of the turtlenecks he was wearing and the plastic suit underneath them (his version of the hot box), and tied them together along with the shirts of his father and cousin to make a lifeline. His cousin held the makeshift rope while Solis lowered himself to Gorton's side.
"My heart started beating really fast, like I was in a race," Solis said. "My father asked, 'Why are you going down?' I said I had to help her out."
When he reached Gorton, she was pale, her skin felt clammy, but she was alert and responsive. Her injuries consisted of a sprained right thumb and numerous scrapes and abrasions, including a nasty cut on the back on her head. Solis gently carved out a little area on that hill for Gorton to sit down, then he sat next to her, held her hand, and supported her head.
"I [told] her how lucky she was to be alive. I said, 'God must really like you.'"
In more than 25 years of race riding, Solis has figured out how to handle every potential obstacle with split-second decisiveness. On the Mount Wilson Trail, though, he forgot two important details during that instantaneous rush of adrenaline. First, the embankment was too steep for him to pull himself up with that lifeline, much less pull up Gorton. Plus, no one in his party had taken a cell phone along for the hike, so they couldn't call for help.
Coincidentally, Gorton's neighbor happened by at that moment. How many times during the day do you even see your neighbors on your own street, much less when you are 1,800 feet up on a remote trail inhabited by bears, mountain lions and wildcats? Gorton's neighbor saw the situation, and immediately called the Sierra Madre Search and Rescue department.
Despite not being trained in first aid, Solis comforted Gorton on that hill for more than 45 minutes, knowing that one false move could start them sliding on that steep, loose granite.
"It was a beautiful spot to be listening to the river and watching the mountains," Gorton said.
The Search and Rescue team, all of them volunteers who have other jobs within the community, hiked up toward First Water in about 45 minutes. They were joined by a Sikorsky H3 helicopter, the kind that had been used in Vietnam. The helicopter lowered a paramedic to the ground. He put a fast-attachment harness -- a type of horse collar -- under Gorton's arm and the helicopter lifted Gorton and the paramedic together into the helicopter and took her to safety. Then, Search and Rescue used a rope system, held to the rocks by anchors in the ground, to pull Solis back up to the trail.
Alex Solis has spent a great deal of time psychoanalyzing himself and his line of work, especially after his accident almost six years ago at Del Mar. Yet, when reflecting upon this episode, he summed it up very simply: "It was kind of crazy that I did that. But then again, in a situation like that, it was an instinct. The adrenaline -- it just kind of happened."
After 25 years of basing himself in Southern California, Solis moved his tack two weeks after this rescue, on April 18, to Kentucky, where he will spend most of 2010. He plans to compete in the Saratoga meeting in New York in July and August as well.
Barry Abrams is an ESPN television feature producer.