Updated on 09/15/2011 12:45PM

Hall welcomes emotional inductees

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Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Hall of Famers Earlie Fires and Richard Mandella.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Earlie Fires has always liked to go to the lead. So on Monday morning, when the veteran jockey was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, he set the pace emotionally, crying tears of joy and turning other stoics and fellow Hall of Famers into putty.

His heartfelt speech set the tone on a day when the inductees preferred to talk more about those who helped them get there than themselves. Trainer Richard Mandella, who was also inducted, adding his dry wit after Fires concluded his remarks.

"We were all fine until Earlie got up here," Mandella said, trying to compose himself when he reached the podium. "Look what he did."

The other inductees this year were the late Tom Smith, best known as the trainer of Seabiscuit, and the horses Holy Bull, Maskette, and Paseana. The ceremonies took place in the Fasig-Tipton Sales pavilion, two blocks from the actual site of the Hall of Fame.

Among those in attendance were Hall of Fame jockeys Dooley Adams, Braulio Baeza, Jerry Bailey, Walter Blum, Don Brumfield, Angel Cordero Jr., Pat Day, Jerry Fishback, and Julie Krone, and trainers Jimmy Croll, Allen Jerkens, P.G. Johnson, Tommy Kelly, Ron McAnally, Bill Mott, Scotty Schulhofer, Jonathan Sheppard, and D.M. Smithwick.

Fires, 54, has won nearly 6,200 races in a career that has spanned five decades. Ed Bowen, the chairman of the Hall of Fame Committee and the master of ceremonies, cited Fires for his "sustained dedication" to the sport. Terry Meyocks, the chief operating officer of the New York Racing Association, presented the award to Fires. The association between Meyocks and Fires goes back decades, as Meyocks's father was Fires's agent.

The crowd rose to give Fires a standing ovation, and he began to cry even before he spoke. After muttering a platitude regarding people he needed to thank, Fires had to stop. "I'm getting a little emotional here," Fires said. "It's been a long time trying to get here."

"I'm a pretty strong person with my fellow riders," Fires said while unsuccessfully trying to fight back tears. "They're probably not used to seeing me like this. I'm a little hard-headed."

Several audience members had to wipe away tears, including Bailey, who dabbed at his eyes and mouthed the words "I'm crying" when he locked eyes with Fires.

Mandella, 50, was presented with his plaque by another Hall of Fame trainer, Jerkens. Citing the influence of Lefty Nickerson, Mandella's mentor, Jerkens said, "Thirty years ago, Lefty told me he's got a kid around who's going to make it." Jerkens, too, began to cry.

Mandella, whose runners include 1993 Horse of the Year Kotashaan, cited the influence of Nickerson, and the importance of his cadre of former assistants, a number of whom - such as Chris Baker, Dan Hendricks, Jedd Josephson, and Mike Machowsky - were in attendance. Nickerson, now confined to a wheelchair because of a stroke, beamed while his protege spoke. "Do they have any dancing girls here?" the impish Nickerson said.

"We'd be here an awful long time if I had to thank everyone responsible for me being here today," said Mandella, who laced his remarks with self-deprecating humor.

Mandella related a conversation he had overheard between two parking lot valets at Hollywood Park, the day after two Mandella-trained runners had dead-heated for the win in a Grade 1 race. The previous afternoon, South African leader Nelson Mandela had spoken in Los Angeles. As a motorcade, sirens blaring, roared past the track, one valet said, "I think that's Mandella."

According to Mandella, the other valet, apparently less worldly, replied, "I know what he did was important, but I didn't know it was that great."

Mandella spoke eloquently, and without notes, saying: "When I went to school I just snuck by. I can't read that well." But he caught a lump in his throat when thanking his ailing father, Gene, who was in attendance, and his wife, Randi.

The award for Smith, known as "Silent Tom," was presented by Col. Mike Howard, a Marine who is the great-grandson of Seabiscuit's owner, Charles S. Howard. Accepting were Jane Smith O'Brien and Phyllis Smith, granddaughters of the trainer.

Col. Howard read a letter from Laura Hillenbrand, author of the popular best-selling book on Seabiscuit that was published this year. She said Smith "was not, by any stretch of the imagination, personable," preferring horses to people.

"Tom didn't need to speak. His horses spoke for him," Howard said, reading Hillenbrand's letter. She called the training of Seabiscuit, an ex-claimer turned champion, "Tom Smith's magnum opus."

Croll, the owner and trainer of Holy Bull, the 1994 Horse of the Year, accepted Holy Bull's award from Leverett S. Miller, the vice president of the Florida Breeders and Owners Association. Miller recalled Holy Bull's "remarkable courage" when winning the 1994 Travers. Croll, like Fires and Mandella, also became emotional, particularly when thanking his wife, Bobbie.

Owners Sid and Jenny Craig accepted the award for Paseana, a two-time Eclipse Award-winning mare, from broadcaster Chris Lincoln. Craig spoke as if he were talking directly to Paseana. Of her loss to Hollywood Wildcat in the 1993 Breeders' Cup Distaff, Craig/Paseana said, "I've never trusted anyone in Hollywood ever since."

Maskette, a winner of 12 of 17 starts in the early 1900s, was honored as the horse of yesteryear, the equivalent of the old-timer's category. Richard Duchossois, who oversees Arlington Park, accepted the award.

Frank Deford, a two-time Eclipse Award winner and a nationally prominent print and broadcast journalist, was the keynote speaker. While largely telling personal tales from racing and other sports, Deford implored racing's leaders to eliminate handicap racing. "The dumbest thing anybody can do is take heir biggest stars and penalize them," Deford said.

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