09/22/2008 12:00AM

Hall of Fame jockey Fires retires

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For the first time in 44 years, Earlie Fires awoke Monday morning and was not a professional Thoroughbred jockey.

Every day beginning late in 1964, Fires could think ahead to the horses he'd be riding, but after announcing his retirement Sunday at Arlington Park, all that is in the past.

"I like to fish, I'm going to travel," Fires said, shortly after waking following an evening of family merriment Sunday night. "I got plenty to do."

Fires, 61, won more races in a decades-long career than all but eight other jockeys in the history of the sport. Earlier this summer, he passed Sandy Hawley to become the ninth-leading all-time rider, and Fires retires with 6,470 wins, more than any active jockey save career wins leader Russell Baze. At Arlington, where Fires had a surprisingly resurgent meet this year, finishing with 35 victories, he is the all-time leading rider, with 2,886 victories.

Fires, known around the track as "Brother," was born in rural Rivervale, Ark., the son of a cotton farmer. Growing up in the country, he was on horseback at a young age and started galloping Thoroughbreds at 13. Fires said he would come to Chicago for the summer to work on the track and then return home for school in the fall. He dropped out of high school at age 15 and spent his next 46 years on the racetrack.

Fires said he traveled to watch his older brother, trainer Jinks Fires, ride races in Raton, N.M., in 1959.

"I wanted to be a rider from that day," Fires said.

Fires started out at tiny Miles Park, near Louisville, Ky., and was the nation's leading apprentice in 1965. By the time he was done, Fires had ridden at about every major racetrack in the country. He was leading rider six times at Arlington and also topped the standings at Hialeah Park, Gulfstream Park, Calder Race Course, Churchill Downs, Keeneland, and Hawthorne.

The best horse Fires ever rode might have been In Reality. More recently, he rode the champion grass horse Bucks Boy to two graded stakes wins. Fires rode only twice in Breeders' Cup races, finishing fifth both times.

For years, Fires was known as a speed jockey. He has disdained that label at times, but on Monday morning granted that having a particular niche might have helped his career.

"I don't know how I ended up with that, cause I always thought I rode the same from all over," Fires said. "When I first started riding, I came from way back, but riding those bull rings and riding out in California, too, you had to learn to get your horses out of the gate right away."

Fires was inducted into racing's Hall of Fame in 2001, an honor he termed "one of the most special things in my life."

Now, for the first time in almost a half-century, it's a life that won't be lived from atop a horse.