05/05/2011 5:01PM

Kentucky Derby debut worth the wait for Fires

Barbara D. Livingston
William “Jinks” Fires has been training since 1966. Archarcharch gave him his first Grade 1 win this year and is his first Derby horse.

On a rainy afternoon at Keeneland in September 2009, William “Jinks” Fires found the horse he’d been looking for the last 40 years. The yearling by Arch was the kind of individual that made one think Kentucky Derby. Now the race is upon Fires and Archarcharch.

The horse will be Fires’s first starter in the Kentucky Derby. For Fires, 70, the journey from riding rodeos in Memphis, Tenn., to running for roses in Louisville, Ky., has been long and winding. His balance aboard bulls and broncs led to work galloping racehorses for well-known trainer Doug Davis. Not long afterward, a younger brother, Earlie, launched what would be a Hall of Fame riding career. Another brother, Jackie, was paralyzed in a spill at age 21, a few years after a barn fire wiped out the stable Fires had established as a trainer. In more recent times, Fires’s son, Doug, has gone through three tours of duty in the Middle East.

Now, at long last, the big horse has arrived. Archarcharch, who races for Bob and Val Yagos, gave Fires his first Grade 1 win last month in the $1 million Arkansas Derby, considered one of this year’s strongest preps. Archarcharch’s victory and final major work for the Kentucky Derby, a 59.40-second breeze, will make him a leading contender Saturday.

“I only wish this horse had come around way earlier in William’s career, instead of coming toward the end of his career,” said Earlie Fires, 63. “He probably would have been set up for life. There are trainers who got [top] horses early in their career, and it made their careers for them. Jinks had to struggle. He’s had a lot of nice horses, but not a great horse. Hopefully, this is a great horse for him.”

Archarcharch improved all winter for Fires, who operates a medium-sized stable that races primarily at Oaklawn, Churchill Downs, and Arlington Park. The horse won his maiden second time out in the $56,000 Sugar Bowl at Fair Grounds in December. He was entered in the race with the hope he would nail down the earnings needed to get into the Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest at Oaklawn in February.

Archarcharch went on to win the Southwest. He then finished third to The Factor in the Grade 2, $300,000 Rebel at Oaklawn before hitting a high note in the Arkansas Derby. Archarcharch closed from nine lengths back to beat Nehro by a neck, earning a career-best Beyer Figure of 98.

“He showed us what we believed in all along, that he was that kind of horse,” Fires said.

Archarcharch is now cause for a Fires family reunion on Saturday. William Fires is the second of 11 children who were raised in Rivervale, Ark., a small town in the northeast corner of the state. At least 40 members of the clan are expected for the Kentucky Derby.

“There’s a lot of family I haven’t seen in probably 10 years,” said Doug Fires, a 30-year-old captain in the Marines who flies attack helicopters. “It will be nice.”

Many family members have been directly involved in Archarcharch’s development. Fires’s brother Mannie gave the horse his earliest training lessons. Jon Court, who is married to Fires’s daughter, Krystal, will be aboard the horse Saturday in what will be his first mount in the Kentucky Derby. Fires’s oldest daughter, Candice, will pony Archarcharch to post, and another of Fires’s brothers, Teddy, has been brought in from Arkansas to shoe the horse for the Kentucky Derby. Penny, who has been married to Fires for 34 years, keeps the stable’s books.

But it won’t be just family cheering for Fires.

“I hope his horse runs his best,” said trainer Lynn Whiting, who won the 1992 Kentucky Derby with Lil E. Tee. “A guy like Jinks, you’d be tickled to see him win.

“Everybody roots for Jinks,” Whiting said. “He’s one of the real good guys. He’s a champion. He’s the first one to help anyone who needs it, no matter what they need.”

Whiting’s father, Lyle, gave Fires his first official job on the racetrack, as a hotwalker at Oaklawn in 1959. The gravitation toward racing was natural for Fires, who followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Buckie, an eventual outrider at Churchill Downs and Saratoga who died in June 2009.

“My family, we raised cattle and farmed,” Fires said. “I’ve driven many a John Deere tractor. I wound up getting with the racehorses through rodeoing. I rode bulls and bucking horses, and a guy talked to me about breaking his yearlings.” Fires brought on Earlie and Jackie to help, and both ended up becoming jockeys. Jackie, now 55, was a rising star before being paralyzed from the waist down in a spill at River Downs in 1977. Earlie would win more than 6,400 races and ride in the Kentucky Derby six times, with his best result a second on Francie’s Hat in 1968.

Jinks Fires was licensed as a trainer in 1966 after returning from two years of service in the military. He spent 13 months in Korea. Fires set up his public racing stable in the Midwest, but just a few years into his training career, disaster struck.

“In this business, you can go to bed feeling like you’re on cloud nine, then come back to the barn the next morning and look down your shed row, and everything just falls apart,” he said. “We’ve all had that happen. One night, I was heading back to the barn to check on the horses, and there was a barn fire. I lost every one of them. That was in the early 1970s in Chicago, at Washington Park. That was a bad, bad feeling.”

Fires rebounded, and soon a steady stream of stakes winners rolled through his barn. Fun Flight came around in the 1980s, for longtime owners Patricia and Buddy Blass. The filly would be key to the operation, an eventual foundation mare whose family would provide the Blasses and Fires with subsequent stakes winners Pink Shoes, Prom Shoes, and Wildcat Shoes. Other top horses for Fires included Nurse Dopey and Spotsgone, a multiple Grade 3 winner of $659,307 who raced for Yagos.

Yagos was not at the Keeneland auction in 2009, but he gave Fires the go-ahead to purchase Archarcharch for $60,000. Yagos has since had the chance to sell the horse for seven figures more than once, but has said his relationship with Fires and those affiliated with his stable was one reason he kept Archarcharch. After the Arkansas Derby, the winner’s circle could not have held more people. Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe made the presentation. The group photo also included Father Mike Bass and Sisters Noeline Banks and Cheryl Quave, all from St. John the Baptist Catholic Church near Oaklawn. “Doug went to school here at St. John’s, and in the past, the pastor who was here would go back and bless Jinks’s horses,” Banks said. “Jinks asked us to come bless the horses at the beginning of the meet, and Father Mike Bass blessed Archarcharch.”

Doug, who is now based in California, has served two tours in Iraq and another in Afghanistan. He was married in March, a few weeks after Archarcharch won the Grade 3, $250,000 Southwest at Oaklawn.

“I could not be more proud of my father,” Doug said. “Finally, he’s getting his opportunity to race in the Derby.

“I admire him,” he said. “He’s up every day at 4 a.m., never takes a break. Nobody works harder.”

For his part, Jinks Fires is relishing life leading up to his first Kentucky Derby.

“I did a radio show at 8:30 the other night,” he said. “I’m usually asleep at 8:30. But that’s what we have to do to keep the fans coming to the racetrack. They like to hear something about what’s going on.

“Everybody in this business hopes to make the Derby,” Fires said. “Some people will never get that blessing. I guess that’s the word. We’ve always tried. Something would step up and win a stakes, but not quite be the quality to run in the Derby. I always said, ‘I just really don’t want to run one in the Derby to say I ran one.’

“We feel good about our horse,” he said. “We’re pretty excited going in there.”

Even more excited Fires than when he saw Archarcharch for the first time in 2009.