05/06/2008 12:00AM

Fires says retirement is near


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Jockey Earlie Fires, 61, rode 4 winners from just 7 mounts during the opening week of the Arlington Park meet, a huge three-day total considering Fires had won just one race this year before Friday, opening day. Still, Fires confirmed Tuesday morning that the rumors are true: His Hall of Fame career is ticking down to its final moments.

Fires, who became a jockey in 1964, said he would retire from racing sometime during the Arlington meet, which ends in September, and that he had no intention of continuing his career after the local season ends. Fires said he is trying to reach a personal goal - a mark he declines to divulge to anyone - and once that goal is reached, he will feel free to hang up his tack.

"I've got a goal, and if I don't get hurt or something, I should get there pretty soon," Fires said. "I'm not saying what it is until I get there. I might be just riding some day, win a race, jump down and say, 'I quit.' I'm trying to do everything proper, the way I like to do it."

Fires is the all-time wins leader at Arlington and first rode in Chicago in 1965, though he had come around these parts with his brother, trainer Jinks Fires, a couple years before that. His 6,439 victories are the 10th-most by a jockey, and Fires is within 10 victories of ninth-place Sandy Hawley.

Fires said that when he quits riding, he'll sever all but informal ties to the racetrack.

"I'm really retiring," he said. "I don't want to be a steward, I don't want to be a trainer."

Fires rode 70 winners in 2003, but his yearly victory totals have ranged between 30 and 40 the last four years. Fires has missed time for various reasons and said the feeling he got being away from racing surprised him.

"I really didn't miss the racing as much as I thought I would," Fires said. "I love the horses; I just don't miss the business that bad. Sometimes you say, that's enough, and that's where I'm at now. It's time to do it."

Strong start for Calabrese-Catalano

Fires's successful opening weekend was fueled by mounts for owner Frank Calabrese and trainer Wayne Catalano. Arlington's perennial leading owner-trainer combo got off to their usual sensational start at the meet, winning with 6 of 8 starters. That gave Catalano an early three-win lead over Steve Hobby, who also had a good three-day run opening week.

"I've got to be real happy with the start," Catalano said. "I didn't really try to arrange things like this. We were just buying and claiming, trying to get some horses to run, get a little action, get some starts. We tried to look for Polytrack horses, some for grass, is about all the homework we did."

Catalano said he and Calabrese used Fires frequently this past weekend in great part because Rene Douglas rode at Churchill on Saturday. Douglas is likely to take the bulk of the Catalano-trained horses as the meet goes on.

Catalano and Calabrese won the opening-day feature Friday, the Double Delta, with Dreaming of Liz, who reversed the poor form she'd shown since capturing the Arlington-Washington Lassie here last fall. Dreaming of Liz, with Fires up, led throughout the Double Delta, which was moved from turf to Polytrack because of wet conditions.

"I don't know what she was doing, but she hadn't been there for me," Catalano said of Dreaming of Liz. "She worked very well for the race, where before she wasn't putting much into her works. I got on her myself, made sure she got a lot out of it when she worked up here."

Meanwhile, Catalano said Dreaming of Anna emerged from her second-place finish in the Distaff Turf Mile on Saturday at Churchill in good order, and would ship to Arlington in the coming days. Dreaming of Anna is possible for the Nassau Stakes on May 31 at Woodbine, according to Catalano.

And finally, 2007 Washington Park Handicap winner Lewis Michael posted his first work of 2008 on Tuesday, going a half-mile at Arlington in 49.40 seconds.

Polytrack playing fair, formful

The regularly hard-to-figure results produced by Keeneland's Polytrack have been well-documented, and Arlington went through its own spells of sheer unpredictability last year during the first season of Polytrack racing in Chicago. But opening week of Polytrack's second year at Arlington brought forth fair and formful racing.

So formful, in fact, that favorites won the first six races on Sunday's card, and went 13 for 32 in all races run here opening week, a 41 percent strike rate.

The Polytrack has allowed runners to win from all racing positions, both in terms of their proximity to the pace and to the rail, but the surface has undeniably been lightning-fast, both morning and afternoon. The meet's first race, a second-level allowance, produced the fastest six-furlong time of the Polytrack era here, 1:08.78, but that mark was lowered to 1:08.40 by two modestly talented horses Saturday.

Jockeys getting higher fees

The efforts of local riders to raise the base-mount fee from $45 to $75 in Chicago appear to be succeeding. There were no disruptions to racing during opening week, as had happened two Fridays ago at Hawthorne, where racing was delayed almost two hours after most of the jockey colony refused to ride unless horsemen agreed to the $30 raise for losing mounts.

Jockeys say they are operating as independent contractors able to set their own fees. While most are charging $75 for a losing-mount fee, Rene Douglas and Fires are riding for $100 per losing mount.

Second-level allowance feature

Owner Jim Tafel and trainer Greg Geier won a one-mile Polytrack overnight stakes called the Timeless Native here Saturday with Coragil Cat. Thursday, they can capture a second-level allowance race at a mile on Polytrack with Rags.

Rags was one of eight horses entered in the featured eighth race. The favorite figures to be William Tell, who exits a solid Keeneland win over entry-level allowance foes.