By Nathan Mayberg
William “Jinks” Fires has a problem right now that every Thoroughbred trainer would love to have. He has a 3-year-old colt who doesn’t want to stop running.
Gray Attempt (Graydar) is on a three-race winning streak, most notably capturing the Sugar Bowl S. at Fair Grounds Dec. 22 prior to annexing the Smarty Jones S. on opening day at Oaklawn Park Jan. 25. He is due back in the Hot Springs oval’s GIII Southwest S. Monday, and a positive outcome in that race could further fuel the GI Kentucky Derby dreams of Fires and owner Dwight Pruett.
At 78, Fires, too, doesn’t want to stop running. He has lived a full life, both on and off the racetrack. He has been to the Derby once before in 2011 with Archarcharch. He served his country during the 1960s when he was drafted into the Army and was based on the Korean peninsula. In fact, Fires received his draft papers while bareback riding in Wisconsin. Three times, his Army unit was told it would to be sent to Vietnam, only for the order to be rescinded.
Back home, he juggled jobs as a rodeo rider and a Thoroughbred and quarter horse jockey. He galloped horses for the likes of Hall of Fame trainers P.G. Johnson and Jack Van Berg. Ironically, Gray Attempt’s lone defeat (when fourth in his career debut) came behind a horse named Jack Van Berg (To Honor and Serve)–trained by Van Berg’s son Thomas Van Berg, while ridden by Fires’s son-in-law, Jon Court.
Fires is the second oldest of 11 children (nine of them boys–a 12th child died at six months) born on a farm in rural Arkansas to a family that raised cattle and grew soybeans and cotton. Given the nickname “Jinks” by a family babysitter, Fires said he has vivid memories of breaking ice with his brothers so that the cattle could cross the water. Those times required hard work. “I wouldn’t trade it with anybody,” Fires said.
Without question, Fires’s most well-known sibling is his younger brother, Earlie Fires, a retired Hall of Fame jockey. Jinks brought Earlie and their brother Jackie into the Thoroughbred business when he was breaking yearlings in the 1960’s. Unfortunately for Jackie, he was paralyzed on the track in a riding accident in 1977 in the midst of a successful career as a jockey in Ohio. Another brother, Herman, still dabbles as a part-time trainer.
After the end of Fires’s service in the Army in 1966, he and his oldest brother, Bucky, bought a couple of weanlings, and Fires branched out into the training business. Over the course of his young training and riding career, he battled back from ankle injuries and a broken leg from accidents with horses.
Fires faced down even tougher times when a fire destroyed his barn at Washington Park in the 1970s, killing all of his horses. He was living in a motel at the time with his pregnant wife. “All I had was boots. I bought a helmet and galloped horses again,” he said. “It kind of kicks the props from underneath you. Just like families who lose their homes all at once and have nothing. You start over. You can’t give up.”
Fires rebuilt his training business over time, amassing 1,469 wins to date.
But Fires never had a Grade I winner until 2011 when Archarcharch came along and won the GI Arkansas Derby. Archarcharch went on to run 15th in the Kentucky Derby and was injured in the aftermath of the race–a return to reality for the veteran horseman.
“I’ve never felt better leading a horse into the paddock than I did that day,” said Fires, who added that he sees it as a near-miracle that Archarcharch defeated four horses that day, considering he was pulled up crossing the wire with a condylar fracture.
Archarcharch never raced again and was sent off to stud.
Eight years later, Gray Attempt is on the same path as Archarcharch, using starts in the Sugar Bowl and Smarty Jones as a springboard to the Southwest–which Archarcharch won as a 14-1 chance in 2011.
Fires credits part of his continued success to an ability to pick out winners in the sales ring. He selected Gray Attempt as a Fasig-Tipton July yearling for $50,000 in 2017.
“He’s a pretty gritty horse–he has a lot of speed,” Fires said. Gray Attempt and his jockey Shaun Bridgmohan utilized that quickness to get the lead heading into the first turn of the Smarty Jones and never looked back, winning by a neck over Long Range Toddy (Take Charge Indy).
Fires said his greatest challenge right now is to get Gray Attempt to relax. While the colt is often full of energy in the mornings and willing to go after any horse in sight, the trainer said he doesn’t classify his stable star as a need-the-lead type. Fires, who also has Hall of Fame racing driver A.J. Foyt’s Grade III winner Colonelsdarktemper in his 22-horse barn, likens his handling of Gray Attempt to the way Foyt handled his cars.
“If he would put his accelerator all the way down, the engine could blow,” Fires said. “You let the horse go out and do everything every day, something’s got to give.”
Again, not the worst problem to have.
“To have one [like Gray Attempt] in your barn at any time of your career is great,” Fires said. “I don’t plan on throwing in the towel soon. It keeps you getting up in the morning.”