08/05/2001 11:00PM

A tale of two brothers

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Friends were dumbfounded. The audience was moved. There, standing at the podium accepting his place in the Racing Hall of Fame, the tough, cool-headed man known as Earlie Fires was fighting back tears like a mother at her daughter's wedding.

Everyone immediately circled the date. Even Fires himself was surprised. After 36 years in the profession, after riding more than 42,000 horses and winning more than 6,000 races, the man known as Little Brother had earned the reputation as racing's Rock of Gibraltar, the last guy on earth who would let his emotions leak. As far as anyone could remember, it had never happened before.

Jackie Fires can tell you different. Sitting in his wheelchair in the front row of the Fasig-Tipton pavilion, Jackie Fires could recall that day nearly 25 years ago when his big brother stood at his bedside in a Cincinnati hospital. The younger Fires lay paralyzed from mid-chest downward after being thrown from a horse at River Downs. He was 21, a jockey for barely five years, and he would never walk again.

"I was just laying there in intensive care, tubes running out of me everywhere," Jackie said. "Earlie looked down at me, and he was kind of like he was up there today."

The bond between brothers is complicated, a messy stew brewed from adoration, rivalry, friendship, and blood loyalty. When brothers choose the same profession, the stakes become even higher.

Jackie Fires was 10 when his brother led all North American apprentice jockeys in 1965. There was nothing else Jackie wanted to be. He never fancied himself as good as Earlie - Earlie would disagree - but he managed to lead the standings at Finger Lakes and challenge for the local titles at places like Detroit Race Course, Tampa Bay, and River Downs.

"It was kind of tough," Jackie said. "They kind of wonder why you're not doing as good as he is. But in some ways it kind of helped. Anytime you said your name was Fires, they figured you were kin to Earlie."

Jackie Fires was 16 when he boarded a plane from his home in Arkansas bound for California, where a job with W.L. Proctor awaited at Del Mar. Proctor also got Earlie started. Every rider should be so lucky. So it was a wide-eyed, excited teenager who found himself in Los Angeles International Airport that summer of 1971, looking for his ride to the track.

Problem was, he was supposed to be in San Diego.

"I got off the plane and they were announcing my name over the loudspeaker system," Jackie recalled. "I thought, 'What do they want me for? What did I do?' I wasn't exactly fresh off the farm, but I was pretty close."

Jackie finally made it to Del Mar, and beyond, to a career in his brother's footsteps. Even so, there was a chance his days as a jockey were numbered from the start. "I was bigger than Earlie," he said. "I was already having trouble with my weight."

And then came that day at River Downs. Not in the heat of a race. Not in the tension of the paddock. Not even during a full-speed morning workout. Jackie Fires was hurt while galloping a horse.

"It was the first time I saw this horse," Jackie began. "I was supposed to ride him a couple days later. I knew he was sore, so I wanted to find out how sore before I rode him. Apparently, he was too sore."

Fires is half-way grinning as he tells this, like it's a crazy racetrack story that happened to somebody else. He folded his big, strong hands in his lap and continued.

"He fell so quick that there was no time to get away. I had a hold of him and he pulled me right beneath him. He didn't stumble or nothing. He just must have got his legs crossed. I don't really remember."

A quarter of a century later, Fires lives peacefully with the injury that ended his dreams.

"Going to rehab helped me a lot," he said. "There were guys there in a lot worse shape than me. Guys who were quadriplegics, who couldn't use their arms. They'd spend an hour just trying to pull their pants up with a coat hanger."

Jackie also got lucky at home. Come October, he and his wife, Janie, will celebrate their 18th wedding anniversary. He has helped raise her two daughters by her first marriage - Donna Rae and Casey - as if they were his own.

"There's no bad feeling about racing," Jackie said. "I loved it before I started riding, and I still love it. Me, I look forward to the next time I can laugh. That's what makes me happy."

At the Hall of Fame ceremony on Monday, Earlie Fires regretted that his induction came too late to be enjoyed by people, gone now, who had been so important in his life and his career. He didn't say it, but he didn't need to. It was only by a stroke of good fortune that Jackie Fires was around to share his brother's greatest moment.

Then Earlie concluded his acceptance speech, still wrestling with his emotions. The audience jumped up, filling the pavilion with cheers and applause. Down in the front row, brother Jackie didn't stand. He floated.