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Arlington Park's rein man calls it a career
When it comes to racing horses, few did it better - or longer - than Earlie Fires
By Mike Spellman | Daily Herald Staff

Jockey Earlie Fires, who retired last Sunday, at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights.


George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

Jockey Earlie Fires is all smiles after he won a race on the horse Power Soldier in 2005.


Daily Herald file photo

Jockey Earlie Fires smiles after winning a race on Power Soldier in 2005.


Daily Herald file photo

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Published: 9/29/2008 12:13 AM

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Next May when the gates swing open for another summer racing meet at Arlington Park, something will be missing.

When you open your racing program and scan the list of jockeys, a name that was both familiar to and revered by generations of local racing fans won't be listed. And you won't find it in the Hawthorne program as its racing season begins.

That's because after 2,886 visits to the winner's circle at Arlington Park, Earlie Fires made his final stop last week.

The 61-year-old legend wasn't there to celebrate win No. 2,887. The track's all-time leading rider was there to announce that after 45 years in the game and after compiling 6,470 career victories (ninth all-time), he was hanging it up.

"I thought I'd be a jockey until I quit," Fires said. "How long it would last, I didn't know. I actually overlived being a rider. Most riders are done at 45 and I made it to 60 - that's pretty good."

His last shot at going out with a victory came on Sunday, Sept. 21's fifth race aboard Mancho Prince. But despite his best efforts, Fires couldn't bring home a winner.

"I really wanted to win a race," he said. "I was actually going to quit earlier, but it didn't work out that way. I thought I could ride a horse or two that had a shot to win a race. I wanted to win my last race here, but it just didn't happen."

Win or lose, however, his plans weren't going to change. Because for Fires, it was only a question of when - not where - he would announce his retirement.

"I was quitting at the end of Arlington and I was quitting at Arlington," Fires said. "I love Arlington. I always have loved Arlington.

"I used to come here when I was 13, 14 years old, got on horses and would go back to school (in Riverdale, Ark.), then come back here. I actually married a girl from Arlington Heights. I just love being in this area. All my family was here. All my life, this is what I planned on doing."

Fires began riding at Arlington in 1965 and was a force on the local circuit for decades, twice winning seven races on one card at Arlington and finishing up a stellar career with six riding titles there.

Things slowed down in the last few years for the man known for his masterful turf riding and his penchant for winning on the lead, but Fires experienced a bit of a renaissance this year when he was given a chance to ride some top horses for some top outfits at Arlington and finished the 2008 meet with 35 wins, good for 11th in the jockey standings.

"I had a great career; maybe not as good as a lot of guys, but I had a great career," he said. "I missed a few things I wanted to do. I would've like to have won the Kentucky Derby, and didn't do it. Other than that, I don't really have too many regrets."

As he heads into a retirement that will include some fishing, some skiing and a whole lot of travel, Fires doesn't plan to look back.

"I'll miss the horses more than anything," he said. "I like riding horses, like riding good horses, that's what it's all about, nothing else. A few of the people in the racing business you've been really good friends with you'll miss them on a daily basis, but that's about it.

"But the horses have always been it. You get on special horses and it's so much fun. You get one that really tries, it didn't matter if he was a good horse or a bad horse as long as he's a hard-trying horse."

As he prepared to head off into the sunset, Fires rued some of the changes he has seen in horse racing over the decades. Most noticeably that it has gone from being one of the top attended sports in the country to basically a niche sport, reduced to agate type - at best - in newspapers and as an afterthought on television.

"It needs to be promoted better from the newspapers and the TV," Fires said. "We've lost a lot of that. When I first started riding, if you had a big race or it was the end of the meet, you would see it on TV or see it in the newspaper.

"I picked up the newspaper the other day and there were hardly any articles at all about Arlington closing. Years ago, there'd be articles about it closing down or opening up and special days at the track.

"It's not there anymore."

And now, neither is Fires, but don't expect him to completely disappear from the scene.

"I'm going to be back," he said. "I'm not going to drop out. I'm going to be here forever."

At some point next year he'll be back at Arlington to celebrate Earlie Fires Day with a fan base he simply adores.

"The fans here at Arlington have been great - I love the fans here," he said. "We go to a lot of racetracks and we hear all this booing and yelling. Here, the fans are nice. Super people, always polite."

Just like Fires himself, who, when asked how he'd like to be remembered, said simply:

"Just a hard-trying and honest rider ... that's it."

The Earlie Fires file

Born: March 19, 1947

Residence: Palatine

First victory: March 6, 1965, at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas

Overall victories: 6,470 (ninth all-time)

Overall earnings: $86,392,977

Arlington Park victories: 2,886 (first all-time)

Arlington Park jockey titles: Six (1966, '69-tie, '75, '79, '83, '84)

Quote: "I will miss the Illinois people, especially at Arlington Park. This crowd has always been a good crowd, and I love that more than anything in the world. I'm going to travel but I'll still be around to visit."

Inducted: National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame at Saratoga (2001)

Source: Arlington Park; Equibase Co.