Who to Root for at the Kentucky Derby? Try Jinks Fires

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As the race approaches, a case for a gorgeous three-year-old colt and his Arkansan trainer

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It is the middle of April. The rolling pastures and paddocks of Kentucky have greened. And we are less than three weeks away from the May 7th running of the 137th Kentucky Derby at fabled Churchill Downs in Louisville. It's time to start thinking about picking your horse--and your connections.

So let me now, today, make the case for a gorgeous three-year-old colt named Archarcharch and, more specifically, for his trainer, a man they call Jinks Fires. The horse has been up and down this year (and last). But the small-boned Arkansan has been a dogged constant in the Thoroughbred game for over 50 years and the upcoming Derby is his first shot at one of the "classic" Triple Crown races. I don't know Fires from Adam--I have only talked to him on the telephone twice--but I generally root for people who get their chance for eternal glory after a half century of sweat and dedication. Don't you?

The Horse

"If they don't block the road we'll be there," Fires told the Daily Racing Form over the weekend after it became clear Archarcharch was Derby-bound. "I always wanted to go there with a horse I thought had a shot. And we do think we have a shot." They do. Archarcharch stepped up this past Saturday--the 25-to-1 longshot won the Arkansas Derby. "He's great," Fires told the BloodHorse magazine after the race. "It's been incredible. Everybody has called. It felt like everyone in Arkansas was in the winner's circle."

Archarcharch is owned by Robert Yagos, also from Arkansas, who himself seems like quite the character to be unleashed soon upon the fancy hats and white bucks in Louisville. When the Thoroughbred Times' talked to him after the Arkansas Derby, Yagos provided reporter Mike Curry with wonderful detail about the horse and his rowdy upbringing. Curry wrote:

"I sure feel like we were in a horse race yesterday," said Yagos, an owner of a salvage yard in Jacksonville, Arkansas. "I told everyone that if we keep up this stress my hair is going to turn as white as Bob Baffert."

While the stress might be getting to Archarcharch's owner, Yagos said because of unique circumstances he is quite confident his colt will handle the excitement and media crush awaiting him at Churchill Downs.

"Just before we sent him to be broken, he lived with us on the farm, and that's right next to the salvage yard," said Yagos. "He's been used to forklifts and trucks and equipment since he was a baby. And we are also right in the flight path for an Air Force base. We get those big C-130s coming and going all the time. He's sure going to be used to all the noise."

How can you not root for a horse who has to grow up hearing C-130s roaring over his head every day next door to a scrap heap?

The Trainer

When I spoke with Fires on Tuesday, he was leaving a family reunion of sorts in Eastern Arkansas on his way to Louisville to meet up with his star horse, who had been shipped into place in Kentucky earlier that morning. "So far, knock on wood, he's fine," Fires told me. "He's had some tough things he's gotten through." And so, evidently, has Fires, whose mother, for the record, named him William Henry Fires (he got the nickname "Jinks" because one of his babysitters had a brother whom she called Jinks. William became "Little Jinks." And then just plain Jinks, not to be confused, we hope, with jinx).

During the 1950s, for at least seven years, Fires rode bulls and bucked broncos at local rodeos and fairs; well enough, evidently, so that one day, a prominent horse owner-trainer sent over a chauffeured car to pick up Fires and pitch him on the notion of breaking yearling race horses as well. Fires took the job. They raced at Oaklawn Park. The year was 1959. He has never looked back. But for a brief stint in the Army from 1963-1965, Fires has broken, ridden, trained, and otherwise watched over the fortunes (or lack of fortune) of thousands of racehorses. Yet until Archarcharch, and until this past Saturday, he had never won a Grade-1 (major) stakes race.

He's also an old-timer at Churchill Downs, where the big race will be run on the first Saturday in May. "I've been there forever," Fires said. "I've probably been there longer, continuously, than any other trainer." He remembers the first Kentucky Derby he saw in person. It was 1961 and Carry Back, with John Sellers aboard, won the race. "I watched it from the top of a barn," Fires told me. He says he hasn't missed a Derby since except for the two he missed while in service. So the horse should be comfortable amid the hoopla. And the trainer, too.

The Field

Until a few weeks ago, there was hardly any point in rooting for any Derby-eligible race horse in America other than a horse named Uncle Mo, who routed his competitors last year as a two-year-old and was widely-viewed as a shoo-in for heavy-favorite status in the Derby. That is, until he finished a well-beaten third in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 9th. Uncle Mo's staggering loss--his connections insist there is nothing seriously wrong--has opened up this year's Derby to all manner of speculation and conjecture, both in and out of horse racing. Is the field now wide open? Or did Uncle Mo just have a bad day at the office.

There are other story lines leading up to Derby Day and other horses, trainers and owners that merit attention. There is the Nick Zito-trained Dialed In, who will likely be the Morning-Line favorite for the race. There is a Bob Baffert-trained horse named The Factor, who has been tied to Bill O'Reilly's show on the Fox News Channel (Archarcharch beat the heavily-favored The Factor in the Arkansas Derby). And Todd Pletcher, who trains Uncle Mo, also has a horse named Stay Thirsty, who won the Gotham in New York in early March. You'll be hearing a lot about these horses in the next 18 days or so.

But not from me. "We're going to be there, hopefully show up to race sound," Fires told me Tuesday. "I'd be tickled to death if we win it," he said, "and if we don't and he races good and comes back sound that's okay, too." My kind of trainer. My kind of horse. For now through the wire, I'm for Archarcharch. I want to see "everyone in Arkansas" in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs. And I want to see Fires right up close to those roses.

Image credit: Reuters/John Gress

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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