08/10/2011 2:59PM

Arlington: Rider challenge pits past against present


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. – Earlie Fires has won 2,886 races at Arlington Park, by far more than anyone in track history. Retired since September 2008, the 64-year-old Hall of Fame jockey says he is enjoying his time on the ground as much as humanly possible, having traveled extensively throughout the United States in recent months.

For the second straight year, however, Fires will be back in the saddle for one race by participating in a jockey challenge on the Arlington Million eve program that pits five retired riders versus five active Arlington riders.

One of the retired jockeys, Mark Guidry, is about to become active again, having announced Wednesday that he will return to riding full-time Saturday at Ellis Park in western Kentucky.

The jockey challenge, said Fires, “is a whole lot of fun. I’ve been getting on horses the last couple of mornings for Wayne Catalano and feel real good. I mean, I’m about as fit as I’m going to get. It’s not like they’re asking me to ride over the Rocky Mountains.”

Carded as the fifth of 10 races on the Friday twilight card, the jockey challenge serves as a fund-raiser for the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund and the Racetrack Chaplaincy of America. It is a $15,000 claiming race for fillies and mares at a mile on turf, with horses matched with jockeys by random draw. First post is 3 p.m. Central, with the challenge going at 5:09.

Besides Fires and Guidry, the other retired jockeys in the race are Chris McCarron, Patti Cooksey, and Jean Cruguet. However, Cruguet, 72, was said Wednesday by Arlington officials to be unlikely to be able to ride, in which case Zoe Cadman will be his replacement on a filly named Raillery.

The active riders are the top five in the Arlington standings through last weekend: Jozbin Santana, Jimmy Graham, Eddie Perez, E.T. Baird, and Junior Alvarado.

Besides all the standard parimutuel wagering options, the challenge also carries a proposition bet, with a points system (12-10-7-6-4) for highest finishes determining the winning side. The Arlington morning line lists the active jockeys as a 2-5 favorite over the retirees (7-5).

Clearly, the most fascinating aspect to the race is the return of an iconic jockey such as McCarron, the Hall of Famer who earlier in the week was at Del Mar working a few horses. “I’m trying to get fit,” said McCarron, who otherwise stays busy with his riding academy in Kentucky.

This is the second year that Arlington has carded the jockey challenge. Last year, Inez Karlsson prevailed for the active jockeys, going wire to wire on the 9-5 favorite, Saint Leon. Fires was second on Bobby Sands, the 3-1 second choice.

Other variations on the retired-riders theme have been held in recent years, including a race won by Sandy Hawley at Santa Anita in October 2008 and a specialty event for retired female jockeys the last two years on Preakness eve at Pimlico.

The riding challenge coincides with the third annual Dining With the Dynasty charity event, with more than a dozen legendary jockeys being on hand throughout the Friday program in the Mr. D’s Sports Bar area.