Photo: Terri Cage Photography
It was the late 1950s. William “Jinks” Fires, a rodeo cowboy, was competing at the Mid-South Fair and Rodeo in Memphis, Tennessee. When he won the bull riding event, a prominent racehorse owner and trainer took notice of him. The man wanted so badly to bring Fires into the world of horse racing that he sent his chauffer to pick up Fires so that he may present him with this offer. Only a few rodeos remained in the season, so Fires agreed to it. According to Fires, other than two years spent in the Army, he has “been here ever since.”
An Arkansas native, Fires is based at Oaklawn Park and Churchill Downs. In his training career, Fires has conditioned the likes of Archarcharch – the 2011 Arkansas Derby (gr. I) winner who became Fires’ first Kentucky Derby starter – and several other the stakes winners, including She’s Our Annie, Spotsgone, and Wildcat Shoes. However, racehorses are not the only horses that have made an impact on Fires during his career as a trainer; many pony horses have been a part of Fires’ racing stable. But one pony in particular stands out: Skippy.
Skippy is easily recognizable. A big, eye-catching palomino with a wide white blaze that sports exceptionally beautiful Western tack, Skippy is exactly the horse Fires was looking for nine years ago. However, Skippy entered Fires’ life in a different manner than Fires had planned.
“I had one of my polo mares; she was a chestnut,” Fires said. “Most of the time you breed a chestnut to a palomino, you get a palomino. . . I was looking for a palomino stud and a friend of mine in Louisville said, ‘This girl’s got one out by Fort Knox. He’s a good-looking horse.’ So I drove out there to see him before I decided to breed to him. I got out there and I saw this horse; he was a two-year-old. I’m driving back and I thought to myself, ‘Man, that’s a good-looking horse. It’s gonna be three years down the road before I can ride the one I’m breeding, but I buy that one and I can ride him tomorrow.’ So I did. I went back and bought him.”
Skippy and Jinks Fires
Photo by Terri Cage
As it turned out, Skippy’s maternal grandsire's dam is Little Blue Sheep, a Quarter Horse mare who won twenty-five races, including fourteen stakes races. In both 1977 and 1978, the mare was honored as the American Quarter Horse Association’s Champion Racing Aged Mare. One day, Fires showed D. Wayne Lukas – who is in both the AQHA and National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fames – Skippy’s papers, only to be informed by Lukas that Little Blue Sheep was the mare Lukas’ claims got him into the AQHA Hall of Fame. According to Fires, Lukas exclaimed, “This horse would’ve been able to run!”
While Lukas’ notion may have been true, Skippy’s true calling is as a pony horse. Since Skippy joined Fires, he has served as one of the trainer’s stable ponies and has excelled in doing so.
“If one gets really bad, he doesn’t bail out on you,” Fires stated. “A lot of ponies, when a horse gets to acting up bad, they’ll duck away and then you can’t really help the person and the horse. Not him. He will go right to them and push into them until they settle down and stay right with them. If they wheel back, he’ll wheel back with them. He knows his job.”
Skippy ponying 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace
Photo by Terri Cage
However, Lukas may have been onto something. While Skippy’s job usually does not require much use of speed, Fires discovered that Skippy certainly can hustle when necessary.
“I didn’t know he could run so fast ‘til a horse got loose, ran off, and ran by the outriders on the backside,” Fires recalled. “Skippy went right to her and caught her. . . He’s got some speed, which I never make him use, just canter around, but he’ll go if you ask him to.”
Skippy has proven to be an intelligent horse, which has shone through while he is working. This quality has not only made Skippy’s job easier; it has made Fires’ job easier.
“He is a smart horse,” Fires said. “Any horse he walks out there with, when they come by, he’ll pick up his head and start towards them to pick them up. He watches. When they come by there, he’ll remember who he went out with and goes right to them. He automatically turns and starts walking that way.”
Skippy’s intelligence is not only evident when he is escorting racehorses, but also around the barn. His intelligence has been reflected in his personality, which has given Fires his fair share of laughs.
“When I get off of him – I hardly ever tie him up – I just leave him out there by the barn,” Fires stated. “If I stay in the tack room too long, he’ll come in there and stick his head inside the tack room like, ‘What’s going on in here?’ He’s pretty funny. He doesn’t take off on me or anything. He’ll wait for somebody to come give him a peppermint or he’ll look in the doorway wondering why I’m in there.”
Skippy’s personality has earned him the attention of many other people at the track, which has allowed him to become quite pampered, particularly among his Churchill Downs admirers.
“Everybody at Churchill Downs comes by to see him every day and bring him peppermints,” Fires said. “They’ve got that tour group that comes by every day and they stop and sometimes the girls that run the thing might stop and go give him peppermints. . . He is spoiled.”
Photo by Terri Cage
It is no wonder that Skippy has become quite the figure at Churchill Downs. As one of Fires’ main bases, the gelding spends much time at the Louisville, Kentucky track. In doing so, Skippy has earned plentiful moments of fame.
“He works the Kentucky Derby every year and he took Mine That Bird to the post when he won,” Fires stated. “My daughter ponies off of him up there during Derby and Oaks time and she’s taken a lot of the Derby horses to the post on him. . . If you watch 50-1, you’ll see [Mine That Bird] going to post and you’ll see Skippy taking him.”
While Skippy has left an impression on many and has earned the affection of a multitude of admirers, it is Fires who will never forget the striking palomino. In Skippy, Fires has the one quality every horseman hope to have in their horse: trust.
“I know he’s always dependable; I can depend on him for anything,” Fires said. “That’s pretty good traits even with people. He’s always dependable. I know he’s gonna always be there. He’s pretty much the same horse every day, so he’s gonna be there to do his job, so you don’t have to worry about him. He’s one that will go out and do the job without you having to be worried something’s going to happen.”