Earlie Fires, who retired with about 6,500 wins at Arlington since 1965, will return for one race on Friday as part of the Festival of Racing at Arlington Park.
Daily Herald file photo, 2009
Decades of riding horses competitively taught Earlie Fires sound judgment and expert timing.
He sure exhibited both over the weekend in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., when fellow retired jockey Gary Stevens suggested Fires join him in exercising some horses for trainer Todd Pletcher.
"He said, 'C'mon, work a horse with me for Todd.'" said Fires, who was at Saratoga for the Hall of Fame ceremony.
"I said, 'Gary, no, I think the world of you but I'm not going to ride anyone's horse that I don't know.
"Chicago people - I know them. I'll get on their horses. If something happened and someone got hurt, I didn't want to be responsible."
Sound judgment and expert timing indeed, because it wasn't too long after Fires made the call that Stevens went down on the track in an accident, breaking his left collarbone and forcing him out of the "Cagey Veterans vs. Young Guns" race Friday afternoon at Arlington Park.
"I appreciate Gary asking me and I'm sorry he got hurt," said Fires. "I feel so bad for him. He was really hyped and looking forward to it. He was really up for it."
The 63-year-old Fires still is.
"It's going to be a lot of fun," he said. "I wish Gary hadn't gotten hurt, but other than that it's going to be a blast.
"All of us have had to come back and get a little more fit. I've been off for two years. But I stay pretty fit; I actually hunt, walk around, fish a lot - stay pretty busy on my farm. So I stay a little more active than probably other guys do."
But that activity didn't include riding horses - until early Wednesday morning that is.
"I haven't been on a horse in two years," said the Hall of Famer, who retired with 6,470 career victories, including an Arlington Park record of 2,886. "I worked one today a half-mile for (trainer) Wayne Catalano. Then Spanky Broussard put me on one and I worked it three-eighths.
"They went good, it felt good; now how I feel Friday -," he said with a laugh.
With Stevens and Jean Cruguet out with injuries, joining Fires on the "Cagey Veterans team for Friday's fifth race, at a mile on the turf, will be former Arlington riding champion Mark Guidry, Patti Cooksey, Otto Thorwarth and former Chicago-based jockey Zoe Cadman.
Since retiring from the saddle in 2004, Cadman has since served as a television racing analyst. After starting her on-air career at Arlington, she moved to the West Coast and currently works for the horse racing television network HRTV.
In addition to subbing for Stevens in the saddle Friday, Cadman will pinch hit for the Hall of Fame rider-turned-broadcaster as part of HRTV's daylong coverage of Saturday's International Festival of Racing at Arlington Park.
Cooksey, who became only the second woman to ride in a Kentucky Derby in 1984, returned to the saddle once already as part of a promotion at Preakness time last May in Baltimore to finish fifth in Pimlico's special "Lady Legends Day" race.
"My horse broke a little slow and was running along somewhere in the middle of the pack," she said. "The horse started looking for oxygen about the sixteenth pole, and I remember thinking, 'Look, I haven't ridden since 2004, so I'm not exactly fit enough to carry you the rest of the way.'"
The veteran team will be going up against a "Young Guns" squad consisting of leading rider Junior Alvarado, Michael Baze, James Graham, Jesus Castanon and Inez Karlsson.
In addition to regular win, place, show, exacta, trifecta and superfecta betting available on the race, Arlington will offer a wager pitting the young guns vs. cagey veterans in a head-to-head format based on a point structure.
"I would love to win the race but we're doing it more for charity and really the fun of everyone getting to see the old guys come back and ride, I guess," Fires said. "But I would love to win the race. I'm sure everyone would."