When Raymond Lyle approached William H. “Jinks” Fires about working for him as a hotwalker at Churchill Downs in 1988, the trainer hired him while assuming their business relationship would be short-lived the way so many backstretch associations are.
He did not know Lyle.
Lyle had just kept a pledge to his mother, Frances, by graduating from nearby Central High School. He had struggled to reach that finish line, and had no interest in advancing his education.
“I wasn't smart enough,” he said. “They say college is not for everybody.”
The backstretch was for Lyle, who grew up on Heywood Avenue, one block from Churchill Downs. He stands 6' 4” and weighs approximately 300 pounds, imposing size that helped him in handling horses. He quickly learned their ways.
“You've got to be smarter than the horse,” Fires would tell him and other employees.
Lyle could handle that.
The trainer soon observed in Lyle exceptional dedication and loyalty.
“I always knew he was on my team. There wasn't any doubt he was on your team,” said Fires, 78. “People like that, you lean toward taking care of.”
Lyle admired Fires for many reasons. He respected his emphasis on treating inexpensive claiming horses as well as he did stakes winners. He liked everything about the way he conducted himself at the barn each day.
“He's just plain old down-to-earth Jinks,” Lyle said.
In time, Fires wanted to be able to pay Lyle more than a hotwalker's meager wage. He suggested he teach him to groom horses. Every time the promotion was offered, Lyle declined.
“It's a lot of pressure,” Lyle said. “You're under a lot of pressure like the trainer because the feet and legs of the horse are very important.”
Lyle began living in Barn 40 and became a mainstay of the operation each night. He would handle the 3 a.m. feeding and make sure horses had ample water. As the years sped by, he became so capable as a hotwalker that he could spot problems in the horses he led around.
“There are times when I walked them and you can feel somehow, some way that they are not walking right,” Lyle said. “You can feel it in your hands.”
Such aptitude would endear any hotwalker to a trainer. In the case of Fires and Lyle, though, they developed a relationship that extended far beyond that of beneficent employer and devoted employee.
“I always told everybody it cost me more to raise Raymond than it did my sons,” said Fires, a father to two sons and two daughters. “I helped him in a lot of different ways, cars and things like that.”
Backstretch workers began referring to Lyle as “Raymond Fires.”
Fires said of the relationship, “It's about as strong as you and your kids, just about. Everybody teases me around the racetrack. They'll say, 'Your son, Raymond.'”
The career highlight for both men occurred when Archarcharch won the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby in 2011 and advanced to the G1 Kentucky Derby. Lyle could not have been more excited as he accompanied the colt on the walkover from the housing they shared in Barn 40 to the paddock. He was awed by the roar of the crowd as horses came into view. He was swept up by emotion when it was time to sing, “My Old Kentucky Home.”
“The only thing I missed about it was that my mom wasn't there to see it on TV,” Lyle said. “I wish she would have been there to see it.” Frances had died six years earlier.
It hardly mattered that Archarcharch finished up the track in 15th.
“I actually tell people 'I got to live my dream,'“ Lyle said. “I dreamed of being in the Kentucky Derby for as long as I can remember.”
He will hold on to that memory as tightly as he can, because a lengthy battle with diabetes has ended his 30-year career as a hotwalker. His family has a strong history of the disease, including his mother, maternal grandmother and various uncles. An infection in his left foot led to the amputation of all of the toes and the removal of part of that foot. He said his left ankle remains swollen to the size of a softball.
Lyle was devastated when doctors informed him earlier this month that he can no longer serve as a hotwalker.
“That hurt me like you wouldn't believe,” he said. “I don't know anything else.”
He hired an attorney to help him apply for permanent disability. The Kentucky Racing Health and Welfare Fund is assisting him with housing. The Jockey Club Safety Net Foundation is providing additional funding.
“We're going to provide him with some bridge financial support to get him over some rough spots so that he is not homeless and the rest of the system has a chance to play out,” said Richard Riedel, executive director of the Kentucky Racing Health and Welfare Fund.
Fires deeply regrets that his income makes it impossible for him to do more than he already has for someone who took such great care of his horses. “The racetrack is a tough place for a guy to go to and expect to retire,” said Fires.
His emotional support for Lyle remains steadfast, for that uncommon bond can never be broken.
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