Arlington fans said goodbye to Earlie Fires on a recent Sunday afternoon, the final day of the 2008 meeting, 42 years after he first rode at Chicago’s showplace racetrack. Arlington’s all-time leading rider (2,886 wins) and North American racing’s ninth all-time leading rider (6,470 wins) kept to his word from last spring, retiring when he had said he would. Don’t expect any second or third or fourth farewells, à la Cher, from Mr. Fires. His style has always been to be direct, speak his mind without showboating, and keep his promises. He was voted into racing’s Hall of Fame in 2001, a decade after his fellow riders had honored him with the George Woolf Award for professionalism of the first order.
Fires went out on a high note. At age 61, he had an excellent Arlington meeting: 35 winners from 160 mounts, a success percentage of .22, and purses of $830,908—all this for a man less than a year shy of eligibility for Social Security. Many of Earlie’s mounts were provided by perennial Arlington leading owner Frank Calabrese and leading trainer Wayne Catalano. Fires even won a stakes race during the Arlington meet, the Isaac Murphy, with Magnetic Miss for his old friend J.E. “Spanky” Broussard. He didn’t ride like a sexagenarian, and he looks years younger than his age.
When I first met Earlie Fires, he was a fresh-faced lad of 18, brought to Arlington under contract to trainer Willard L. Proctor and placed in the capable hands of jockey agent Paul Blair. He was known as “Brother,” a shortened version of “Little Brother,” his family’s nickname for him. Proctor and Blair both said to me, “This boy can ride.” Blair proceeded to put Fires on some 5,000 winners in a remarkable professional association that stretched from 1966 to 1993, ending only when Blair retired.
Young Mr. Fires had said goodbye high school, hello racetrack at age 16. One of 11 children, he came to the Midwest with an Arkansas accent, a country toughness, and a rare gift for getting horses to do what he expected of them: win.
“I started galloping horses at Arlington in the summer of 1962,” he once said. “I was 15 years old. People didn’t pay as much attention to kids’ ages on the racetrack in those days. I was lucky to catch on so quick.”
It was at Arlington that Fires would twice ride a record seven winners on a card (once in 1983 and in 1987).
Fires rode stakes winners (including In Reality, Foolish Pleasure, Abe’s Hope, Swinging Mood, One Dreamer, etc.) and $4,000 claimers with the same intensity.
Chicago is known as a “working-class town.” Maybe that’s why Earlie’s attitude toward his job so endeared him to the people who bet on his mounts. He performed the same way for major stables and small outfits, knowing that any kind of check he could get for the latter contingent was important. Ever see this man try to save fourth money with a bad horse? I have, many times.
He never leapt off horses à la Angel Cordero Jr. or Frankie Dettori; he didn’t blow kisses or shake his fist in triumph in keeping with current custom among many of his colleagues. Earlie took his horse back to the winner’s circle and often thanked the trainer of the winner for giving him the ride. Sometimes, he suggested that the trainer might consider another approach to the horse in question. He was usually right about that, too.
That Arkansas accent is still there. So is the toughness, an aspect of his personality that briefly melted in the heat of the Sept. 21 moment at Arlington when, during the winner’s circle ceremony, Earlie talked of Kathy, his wife of 38 years, who had passed away in 2005. But he quickly composed himself and thanked his children and grandchildren present at this winner’s circle ceremony, his fellow riders who were on hand along with dozens of backstretch friends, and Arlington chairman emeritus Richard L. Duchossois, who said, “Brother, we wish you the best.” The two men clicked glasses of champagne. Earlie looked about as comfortable holding his bubbly as Mr. D. would look astride a stable pony.
Back in 1966, Blair had this to say about his young employee: “ ‘Brother’ is as nice a boy as you’ll ever meet. He’s very polite, hard-working, easy to get along with, and honest. And he is a very, very fine rider who’s going to get even better.”
How prophetic was Paul Blair?
John McEvoy’s third horse racing mystery novel, Close Call, was published in March.