First Time’s The Charm: Remembering Mr. Hooper

by | 06.19.2017 | 8:44am
Fred W. Hooper in the Kentucky Derby winner's circle with Hoop Jr., the first Thoroughbred he ever owned

When a 96-year-old Thoroughbred trainer turned heads recently by winning a fist-bumping race at Gulfstream Park, there was an immediate flashback to one name, Fred W. Hooper, who more than any other personified racing's unique claim to being a cradle to grave sport.

I first met Mr Hooper in the early spring of 1996 on his rambling breeding farm in Ocala, Fla.  It had been more than 50 years since he had won the Kentucky Derby with his first Thoroughbred, Hoop Jr.  And it was during a blustery, early morning walk that the 98-year-old proudly showed off his new yearlings and began to talk about that first Derby in 1945.

He'd had horses since he was a little boy on his father's Georgia farm, not Thoroughbreds mind you, but farm animals.  He was hooked.  As a young man, he took some chances and went into the road construction business in Florida, where his idea of a good time was to challenge all comers that his farm horse could beat your farm horse, for a princely sum, and he usually won.

“In 1943, I went to the Keeneland Sales in Kentucky,” he told me.  “I didn't know a living soul up there and no one knew me. But I wanted to get into the racing business and I wanted to raise my own horses when I saw this colt. I just fell in love with him and went back and looked at him a third day and I patted him on the nose a little bit and I said, ‘Now, don't bite me because I'm your Daddy now.' I was going to buy him regardless of price.”

He paid $10,200 for the son of Sir Gallahad III out of One Hour. The average price in that Keeneland yearling sale was $1,800. But Mr. Hooper proved to be no sucker, though he had to jump some sticky wickets to get Hoop Jr to the starting gate at Churchill Downs in 1945. The track had been shut down during the last months of World War II in Europe, but when Germany surrendered the Derby was quickly rescheduled for June and the legendary Eddie Arcaro would be Mr. Hooper's jockey.  It rained all week and Hoop Jr. had never run in the mud before. The crowd made Calumet Farms' Pot O' Luck a slight favorite over Hoop Jr.

Fred Hooper (left) and John Nerud

Mr. Hooper debated scratching his horse, but Arcaro argued otherwise.  In a separate interview, I asked Eddie about that conversation and he said it went something like this.  “I said to Mr Hooper, ‘Do you know if he can run in the mud or not?' The answer was no.  So I said, ‘It's Derby Day, you get one shot in your lifetime with one like that.  You gotta run him.'”

Arcaro won the debate.  With a big field of 16 entered, Mr Hooper's pre-race instructions were pretty simple.  Ho looked Arcaro in the eye and said, “When the gate opens, you be the first one out and I know you'll be the first one home.”

He won by six lengths, leading almost all the way, beating Calumet and all the other big names in the game on his first try.  “It was quite a thrill to beat all those real race people,” he said.  And just like in the old days Mr. Hooper backed up his faith with a $10,000 win ticket, which along with the $64,850 purse money made it a payday of over $100,000 in 1945 money.  That was big bucks then.

Unfortunately, Hoop Jr. bowed a tendon in finishing second in the Preakness and never raced again. The loss stung like no other Fred W. Hooper would experience in racing. But it only stiffened his resolve to find that next champion. And for the rest of the 20th century, more than 50 years, he bred or raced the winners of over 100 stakes races. Susan's Girl was one of his best, the winner of 29 of 63, a prodigious feat, that included three Eclipse Awards as filly champion in the 1970s. Precisionist was the champion sprinter of 1985 when he also won the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Fred and Wanda Hooper at the races with actor Karl Malden

Mr. Hooper, personally, went on to win most every prestigious award Thoroughbred racing had to offer, including the Eclipse Award of Merit, membership in The Jockey Club and honorary director of the Breeders' Cup.  The closest he came to winning a second Derby was in 1961 when Crozier finished second to Carry Back. But he lived to be 102 and still went to the racetrack in his final year of life, where the fans seemed to cheer louder when his horses won, seemed to be cheering for the owner.

Back at Hooper Farm in Ocala, we continued our journey with this 98 years young lover of Thoroughbreds.  His attention to the breed was remarkable. When one yearling filly especially caught his eye, he remarked, “She's just perfect in every way. You won't see better legs…knees, joints. Everything is perfect, her body. Talkin' about you, girl.”

At the end of our walk, Mr. Hooper led us to his favorite place on the farm, Hoop Jr.'s gravesite.  And as the sun bounced off the marble tombstone, he recalled the words of Eddie Arcaro.  “Eddie said the easiest ride he had was on Hoop Jr. in the Kentucky Derby.  Said it was like sittin' home in a rockin' chair.”

Arcaro added later, “Mr. Hooper was lucky to get Hoop Jr., million-to-one shot really.”

E.S. (Bud) Lamoreaux III was the longtime executive producer for CBS News Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt.  He won four Eclipse Awards for national television excellence.

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