06/15/2003 11:00PM

Weekend stars share 40-year gap in age

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - One was born during the Truman administration, the other is still in high school. The 56-year-old Earlie Fires and 16-year-old Tim Thornton practice the same profession, riding racehorses, and it was a good weekend for both of them.

Thornton, a 10-pound apprentice who launched his riding career this month, won his first race Friday, guiding the 30-1 shot Saturday Sin to a three-length victory in the fourth race.

That milestone put him roughly 2,700 wins behind Fires in the all-time Arlington standings. But the margin increased a day later when the ageless Fires won three races on Saturday's card.

"I feel great," said Fires, who entered the Hall of Fame two years ago. Fires has been riding regularly and riding well this summer. His 14 wins tie him for sixth in the jockey standings through Sunday.

"I feel like I've got two more years, maybe three," he said. "But you know, as long as I don't feel like I'm hurting the horses, I'll keep riding. Right now, I don't feel like I'm hurting them. I feel like I'm helping them."

Fires has been getting more live mounts this meet than in recent Arlington seasons, and that, he said, accounts for his recent surge.

"The way I've always said is you're no better than your stock," he said. "My horses have been running good, and that's what you need."

What Thornton needed was to secure one live mount, and he got it from trainer Christine Janks late Friday afternoon. Racing on the lead, Saturday Sin drifted out in the stretch and briefly was passed by a horse named Ricardo Sioux, but Thornton kept his head, got into a rhythm urging his mount home and drew away to an easy win.

Sunday, Thornton rode twice and got only hot and dirty, but no matter - Thornton is living out his dream. After the third race he came off the racetrack wearing a purple helmet cover with the name "Emigh" sewn onto the back. That's Chris Emigh, a regular on this circuit and Thornton's guardian angel.

"I just try to steer him straight," Emigh said. "It's not me teaching him how to ride. He knows how to do that. I knew his dad when I was working at a farm in Moss Bluff, La. He was 2 or 3 years old, riding around bareback."

In the present, Thornton is balancing his fledgling career with more mundane matters, like school. Thornton has high school junior status right now, and he attends classes two days a week, year-round.

At the racetrack, the learning never stops.

Coach Jimi Lee may try Florida

Coach Jimi Lee's not a big horse. He just runs faster than the others.

Coach Jimi Lee found himself trapped between three other horses on the far turn in an overnight stakes race Sunday at Arlington. An eighth of a mile later, they were fading in the rear view mirror as Coach Jimi Lee drew off to a 3 1/2-length win.

"He's so small, and I'm in between these horses, looking up at all of them," said the jockey Marlon St. Julien. "He just exploded at the eighth pole. I was pretty much in hand the whole way."

Coach Jimi Lee was coming off a third-place finish to the crack 3-year-old sprinter Posse last month at Churchill Downs, and he is in a different class than the races for him on this circuit. Trainer Jimmy DiVito ran him in Sunday's race for lack of better spot, and though he would prefer to keep Coach Jimi Lee close to home, out-of-town stakes races beckon.

Divito said the primary race under consideration is the $300,000 Carry Back on July 12 at Calder. "Straight 3-year-olds and a good purse. That's what we're looking for," he said.

Nicole's Dream likely winner

The best horse Wednesday at Arlington runs in a starter allowance race. That's Nicole's Dream, who dropped into $7,500 claiming company this past December, but has proven to be much more horse than that.

Nicole's Dream lost by a neck here May 31 in the $75,000 Real Delight Stakes, where she bucked a bias against inside speed horses yet led into the shadow of the wire after setting a breakneck pace.

On Wednesday, she should be even better. Her race is for $20,000 starter horses, which she outclasses off her recent stakes effort, and at five furlongs the dash plays to Nicole's Dreams's strength, quickness.

Her owner, Randy Hamelers, and trainer, Odin Londono Jr., have a filly that could terrorize starter allowance races like this well into 2004.

The nominal feature is the eighth, a nine-furlong, first-level allowance race that drew a field of seven fillies best separated by a soothsayer or numerologist. Trip handicappers should take a long look at Tricked Into Love, who had an abysmal journey in a comeback race here June 6.

* The Prairie State Festival returns Saturday, with six statebred stakes races and fair-like activities at the racetrack. Coinciding with the Festival is a sale Saturday of 2-year-olds in training and older horses.

* Arlington drew a huge crowd of 26,101 to the track Sunday, the highest attendance among tracks in the country. It was the third straight year that Arlington's Father's Day attendance led the nation.