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Photo courtesy Hawthorne Race Course
BOBBLEHEADS FIRED UP EARLY AT HAWTHORNE
What do Michael Jordan, Mike Ditka, Ernie Banks and Earlie Fires all have in common?
All are Hall of Famers in their respective fields. All have hung around their sports beyond their prime for a love of the game. And now, all have been honored with a "bobblehead doll" promotion.
The patriarch of Chicago-circuit jockeys, 56-year-old Earlie Fires, receives this collectible honor Saturday at Hawthorne Race Course, host of the afternoon's $250,000 Sixty Sails Handicap. The first 3,000 paying customers through the Stickney, IL track will get their own Earlie Fires bobblehead doll in the familiar silks of Leonard Lavin.
"We wanted to recognize the accomplishments of Earlie Fires, not only as an athlete, but as one of the truly great gentlemen of our sport," stated Hawthorne National's Thomas Carey III. "We wanted to coincide this promotion with the opening of our turf course, since Earlie has been such a great turf rider. We felt the bobblehead doll concept has been popular with other sports. We wanted our fans to have something to remember Earlie by and enjoy their visit to Hawthorne."
As for the leather-faced Fires, whose thick southern drawl evokes throwback days of jockeys, anything he can do to help promote horse racing in the sunset of his career and keep riding, he'll do it.
"I'm proud to be honored by this," Fires said about the bobblehead doll that looks somewhat like him. "They (Hawthorne officials) asked me about it last year, and I said I'd be honored. They did some skull impressions, and mine looks a little bit like me. But I'm sure it'll be fun, especially for people who like to collect these things."
Joining the horse racing bobblehead community of Pat Day, Jerry Bailey, Chris McCarron, Laffit Pincay, Bob Baffert and Jon Court, Fires won't mind a little razzing that may come with the honor.
"I'm sure I'll get teased a little bit," laughed the affable Fires. "Heck, I've been called a bobblehead and more before. I've got one of Bailey and Jon, who married my sister, so we're just keepin' it in the family. Hawthorne said they'll give me a few of them. I'd like to give one to my first grandchild we had last month."
Fires' wife of 35-years, Kathy, thinks the bobblehead doll is a cute idea.
"More tracks are picking up on the idea," Mrs. Fires admits of the doll promotion. "We got one after approving of the model. It's looks a bit like him."
Since becoming the leading apprentice jockey in 1965 with 224 wins, the Arkansas native has dominated thoroughbred jockey standings at local tracks, and at times, around the country. He holds the distinction of being a meet's leading rider in four different decades at tracks such as Hawthorne, Arlington, Churchill, Keeneland, Calder, Gulfstream, Hialeah and old Mile Park.
Fires has ridden in five Kentucky Derbies, officially finishing second on Franci's Hat in 1968 and rode the 1967 Preakness runner-up, In Reality. The 1991 George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, voted by fellow horsemen and media, came ten years before being inducted into the National Thoroughbred Racing's Hall of Fame at Saratoga Springs, NY. Fires has ridden over 6,200 horses to the winners circle, earning more than $77 million in purses.
When it comes to honors, Fires has always taken an "aw shucks" and "thanks y'all" approach. When it comes to riding raging Thoroughbreds, he's more outspoken.
"I still love riding the horses. Just being around the horses is what I love," Fires said after returning to his northwest suburban home. He spent the "dark day" from the track at his far west suburban ranch, where he doesn't ride recreationally. "My age is not my concern really. I'm only riding three or four horses a day, so it's not like riding nine races a day. If I feel good, I'll keep riding 'til I'm 60."
The older you get, the longer it takes to recover from injuries, a daily reality to guard against for all jockeys. One he knows about all too well.
"I'm not worried about getting hurt," said Fires, who has missed several weeks to several months riding from various injuries over the years. "The day I'm afraid to ride, I'll stop riding."
Several siblings are involved in horse racing, including his brother William, who trains, and brother Jackie, who was seriously injured while galloping a horse at the track one morning 26 years ago. Kathy Fires remembers those injuries, but doesn't worry about her man slowing down.
"He loves to keep going," Mrs. Fires said. "That's why he's out at the farm so much mending fences or stocking the two fish ponds. He's still got so much energy."
The wily ol' Fires admits he still enjoys many of the people he sees at the track and horses around with in the jock's room, but he doesn't like the business side of horse racing. He won't hang around the industry when he does retire.
"I've got an RV," Fires says. "So when I do retire, we'll drive around the country, see some places and go fishing."
You'll know his RV. It's the one that will surely have an Earlie Fires bobblehead doll bouncing on the front dashboard.
Photo courtesy Hawthorne Race Course
McMahon wins the 2000 Royal Glint,
Hall of Fame jockey Earlie Fires up.
Talk about Earlie Fires in our Racing Forum.
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