06/20/2001 12:00AM

2001: The year of Earlie Fires


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - No, he hasn't won five Kentucky Derbies. And if pressed, he can only carry a passable tune. But even though such luminaries as Bill Hartack, Shane Sellers, Laffit Pincay Jr., and Pat Day will be present Friday night at Lone Star Park, the real star of the evening should be a gentleman named Earlie Fires.

This is the year of the good guy, when Little Brother finally gains entrance into the racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs. Fires got the nickname as a kid and it stuck to him at the racetrack, where he has made his home for 36 seasons as a jockey of impeccable reputation and consummate ability. His total of nearly 6,200 winners as a Midwestern mainstay requires no further explanation.

On Friday night, Fires will tangle with 10 kids and one notable elder (at the age of 54, he trails Pincay by about three months) when he makes his first appearance in the annual NTRA All-Star Jockey Championship. Not that he needs the excitement - Fires gets flustered about once a millennium - but he is happy to oblige, and for all the right reasons.

"These are a lot of fun, and there's a lot of pride in doing it. But this one is great because it's for the benefit of disabled riders," Fires said Wednesday from his home near Arlington Park.

Fires and his fellow all-stars will be competing for the disabled riders fund administered by the Jockeys' Guild. A portion of the handle from the four championship races goes to the fund, providing such marquee performers as Jerry Bailey, Jorge Chavez, and Robby Albarado a chance to give something back to the game that has made them household names.

Still, Friday night is mostly for the fans. By the end of the evening, the jockeys will feel like hard-working rock stars, almost as famous as Sellers, the all-time all-star points leader who is cultivating a singing career while his injured knee mends. For the record, Shane sings both kinds of music - country and western.

For the participants, the evening is a treat. The autograph lines seem endless. Their names are shouted by doting children. The elaborate introduction ceremony is enough to swell even the most self-effacing ego. It's a weird scene, far from the grandstand tunnels of Belmont and Santa Anita, where abuse is rained down on these same athletes after they've risked their lives for a $50 mount fee.

Even Fires might feel the rush. "Well, I'm not really an emotional guy," he said. "I'm a lot quieter than people might think. Might not get quiet as hyper as some of the other boys."

Okay, no cartwheels for Little Brother. But don't be surprised if he gets caught up in the moment, especially if he manages to win one of the heats. On Friday night, those other boys will include Tyler Baze, Aaron Gryder, David Flores, Corey Lanerie, Ron Ardoin, and defending champ Edgar Prado, in addition to Pincay, Day, Bailey, Chavez, and Albarado.

Scattered among the dozen, there are five Hall of Famers and five Kentucky Derby trophies. Then there is Hartack, the man with five Derby winners all by himself. His presence alone as guest of honor makes the championship a landmark event, especially since Hartack restricts his public appearances mainly to his work as a steward at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Mostly, he prefers to fish. Hartack has been a member of the Hall of Fame since 1959. Fires feels like he'd been knocking on the door at least that long. "I've ridden with just about all those boys that got in the Hall of Fame for the last 35 years," Fires said. "My number just never would come up, I guess."

The Fires clan - including his wife and three children - is preparing to descend upon Saratoga Springs for the Aug. 6 Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

Don't look for a filibuster from the straight-talking Fires. Chances are, he will pass around a lot of credit, and linger upon the people who put him there. People like W.L. Proctor. The towering Texan gave Fires his first important push in the mid-1960's, when Earlie was no more than an Arkansas kid with a knack in the saddle.

In 1965, commencing with his first winner in March, Fires led the nation's apprentice riders with 224 winners. Of those, 90 came at old Miles Park near Louisville, where Fires once had six winners in a day and shattered the former record of 62 winners at the meet.

Proctor, who trained for such outfits as Claiborne Farm, Glen Hill Farm, and J. Graham Brown, held Fires's apprentice contract and took the responsibility seriously. Fires was a better rider - and a better man - for the experience.

"I wish we were both standing there together at the Hall of Fame," Fires said of Proctor, who died in 1997. "He was the world's nicest guy. He was always a little outspoken, and that might have hurt him some. But whatever he said was correct. And if he didn't know, he kept his mouth shut."

That sounds pretty much like Earlie Fires. Check that . . . Hall of Famer Earlie Fires. And if he'd like to make a little noise, there would be no better place than on Friday night at Lone Star.