Aren't the apocryphal stories usually the best ones?
Consider the tale that retired rider Larry Spraker likes to tell about Earlie Fires, who on Aug. 6 will become the 80th jockey to enter racing's National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. According to Spraker, when Fires first appeared on the racetrack as a teenager he worked horses in the mornings "barefoot and wearing jeans and a Future Farmers of America jacket."
Not true, said Fires with a grin as he relaxed after training hours one recent morning at Arlington Park. "I was a little green, but not to the degree Larry Spraker says. He's exaggerating," said Fires of his old friend.
Fires, one of only 14 North American reinsmen to win more than 6,000 races (6,161 through July 23), is in the 36th renewal of a season concentrated in the Midwest for most of the year, Florida for the rest. Raised on his parents' farm near Rivervale, Ark., some 40 miles from Memphis, Earlie was one of 11 children; most of the nine boys in that contingent wound up working in horse racing in some capacity. Because of his diminutive size, his siblings called him "Little Brother." Once he hit the racetrack that was truncated to "Brother," the nickname by which he is known to this day.
"My brothers Jinks (a successful trainer) and Bucky (an outrider) both could've been top rodeo cowboys, but there wasn't the money in it back then that there is today," Earlie said. "We all learned to ride on the farm, where my dad raised soybeans, wheat, cotton, and cattle, and I got into amateur rodeo, too, when I was a kid. I did barrel racing, which I was pretty good at, and junior bull riding, which I wasn't much at. After Jinks and Bucky went to the racetrack, at Raton (New Mexico), I followed along.
"I started galloping horses at Arlington Park in the summer of 1962 for trainer Baldy (Harold) Tinker. I was 15 years old. People didn't pay as much attention to kids' ages on the racetrack in those days."
Fires then hooked up with the late Willard Proctor, a no-nonsense Texan who "was like a father to me," he said. "I lived with Willard and his family. He was probably as good a horseman as I've ever been around, and the best 'ground man' I've seen--he'd sit out there on his pony on the racetrack in the mornings watching horses come down the stretch and he'd always know if a horse was 'off,' and where. I learned a lot about horsemanship from him."
When Fires was 16, Proctor put him under contract and connected him with jockey agent Paul Blair. Thus began one of the longest and most successful such associations in racing history: from 1965 to 1993, Blair put the lad from Rivervale on more than 5,000 winners.
Earlie's first career victory came aboard Carnation Kid at Oaklawn Park on March 6, 1965. It was one of 224 tallies he would compile that year, enough to make him the nation's leading apprentice. That summer, Proctor and Blair decided to send their prized prospect to old Miles Park in Louisville, Ky., where they thought more mounts would be available to him. Blair remained in Chicago with his other client, the accomplished journeyman Kenny Knapp. It was an astute move. With agent Eddie Campbell booking his mounts, Fires won 90 races to destroy the previous one-meeting Miles Park record by 28. (In 1976, Campbell returned the favor by sending another apprentice sensation to Chicago for Blair to work with--Hall of Famer Steve Cauthen.)
Fires' great start proved to be no fluke. He won his first $100,000 race in 1966 (on First Family in the Gulfstream Park Handicap) and continued to pile up the winners with metronomic regularity. He won his 3,000th race in 1982, his 4,000th in 1986, his 5,000th in 1990, and his 6,000th in 1998. On two occasions he rode seven winners on one program at Arlington Park (Aug. 16, 1983, and May 25, 1987), and he was a perfect six-for-six at Hawthorne on the glorious afternoon of June 19, 1989.
In the course of notching five riding titles at Arlington (he is that track's all-time leader with 2,660 wins), five at Keeneland, four at Churchill Downs, three at Hawthorne and "singles" at Gulfstream, Hialeah, and Calder, Fires piloted a plethora of top stakes horses including In Reality, Abe's Hope, War Censor, Foolish Pleasure, Swinging Mood, Pattee Canyon, Classy Cathy, Tumble Wind, and One Dreamer.
"In Reality was probably the best-known horse I rode," Fires said, "but not the best horse. He was plenty good--if In Reality hadn't have come along in the same crop with Dr. Fager and Damascus he would have been a champion.
"But the best horse I rode, the one with the most talent, was Abe's Hope. He could fly. But he'd cheat on you. He'd get up to a horse and start playing, or get the lead and try to pull himself up. When Buckpasser just beat him in the (1966) Flamingo, it wasn't because Buckpasser was getting to him, it was because Abe's Hope was loafing.
"I've taken some criticism over the years for using the whip too much. But there are horses that just won't run without it (being used). Abe's Hope was one of those. I've always believed that when people are betting their money, they deserve to get their money's worth from both the horse and the rider."
After Fires won his 3,000th race, he told Daily Racing Form columnist Don Grisham that he had "never really set any career goals when I started riding. I just wanted to win all the races I was in." And, Fires said recently, while he has "enjoyed winning a lot of graded races over the years, I've gotten just as much satisfaction out of winning claiming races for people I know and like--people who I knew could sure use the money."
Fires today is neither riding as many horses nor as many good horses as in past years, but he doesn't see retirement listed on his overnight sheet. "I'm going to take it year by year," he said. "When I do retire, my wife Kathy (they've been married 34 years and have three grown children) and I plan to tour the U.S. in a customized mobile home we're having built." In the meantime, Earlie relaxes by pond fishing on the 80-acre farm he owns some 45 minutes from Arlington and, in the winters, snow skiing in Colorado with his family.
Racing people who have known Fires invariably refer to his courtesy and professionalism. Blair once commented, "Earlie is as honest as the day is long. Horsemen know that." Former jockey Alan Monat, his current agent, marvels at his client's determination. "No matter what horse he's on, Earlie gives his best. He's in fantastic physical shape for a man of any age, not just an athlete of 54. And he's as fierce a competitor as he's ever been."
Fires said that his winning the George Woolf Award "as voted by my fellow jockeys" in 1991 was a huge thrill. His major career disappointment, on the other hand, was "never winning a Kentucky Derby. It's every rider's dream.
"But," said the man from Arkansas, "getting into the Hall of Fame means more to me than I can say. This tops everything." Former Daily Racing Form editor John McEvoy is a freelance writer based in Chicago.