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.

  • Jbumi

    Excellent piece! Was the “perfect filly” he was talking about/to turn out to be one we’ve heard of?

    • Scottie Goldfish

      that’s my question too! Dont leave us hanging…

  • whirlaway

    What a great story has always been one of my favorites. The great thing about racing is stories
    like this just a feeling and a belief and a horse you feel you need to buy. The beginning of a lifetime of good horses.

  • Longshot

    Met Mr. Hooper in1973 . We were at his farm in Ocala trying to buy some cheap horses to take back to Cleveland. They were getting ready to go to the airport to fly some horses to Santa Anita .John Russell was his trainer then. Never seen anything like his place in Fla. really impressive, He didn’t know us at all, but he took us on a tour of the farm. He acted like he was glad we were there. I was with my father who has been training horses since the 50’s. They told each other old racehorse storys all morning .I’ll never forget that experience

  • what a wonderful story

  • Tinky

    One of the great characters to have appeared in this endlessly fascinating game.

    And Precisionist was absolutely one of the best horses to have raced over the past 50 years, yet many have never even heard of him.

    • C Hogan

      I would take Precisionist with Chris McCarron back in early eighties over any. He ran hard and fast.

      • Tinky

        Completely agree. In fact, I would salivate if somehow given the opportunity to bet him against, say, American Pharoah, at anywhere from 6-9f.

        • Michael Castellano

          Part of it is my personal dislike of Baffert, and the same quandary faces me today when other horses by some other trainers achieve alleged “greatness”. My concern is, “Are their performances truly on the level?” Disappointing that today, more than ever before, I feel there is some basis for this suspicion. Ruins one’s ability to enjoy a horse like Arrogate or American Pharoah. I can live with the over hyping. Many have not seen the greats of the past, so who can blame them for elevating the ones they see today.

          • Joel Schiff

            I am with you. I do not at all trust today’s top trainers like Pletcher, Baffert, and Asmussen. It is simply a matter of who has the best juice and crooked vets. Like Baffert won with 4 juiced Cal. horses on Belmont Day and gets away with it. All made the same wide sweeping move and had the look of very juiced horses. No other horse all day made the same move.

    • Michael Castellano

      I remember that he was a very fast sprinter, but could also race at longer distances like Fager. Only saw him race once, on TV, I think it was in a B.C. race. Probably the sprint.

      • Tinky

        Although he was at his best from 6f. to around a mile, he had such class that he was able to beat very good horses up to 10f. The horses that he was facing in his prime were far, far better than the type of average Handicap horses that AP faced in his BCC win. They included:

        Super Diamond
        Greinton
        Wild Again
        Skywalker

        • Michael Castellano

          Hard for the newbies of the sport to appreciate how good the horses were that they never saw. I recommend to them the DRF book that they put out with the past performances of all the greats. Just bugs me that they have already annointed Arrogate off of only winning four graded races as an all time great. And those 4 races were not against strong fields, and in one in which he did face a good horse, he barely beat CC who had a poor ride. The others were not strong fields. He has run good times, but . . .

    • GT Bloodstock

      Precisionist was certainly one of the most versatile horses of his generation. He had brilliant speed, and the ability to carry it a route of ground. Don’t have his PPs available at present, but he ran remarkable fast times from six furlongs to 1 1/4 miles, and against some very good opposition. One of my all-time favorite horses, for sure!

      UPDATE: I see you added some of his times below.

      • Tinky

        And for further perspective, when Precisionist crushed Lady’s Secret in the Woodward, he recorded a 128 Beyer figure. I believe that the 125 that he earned while winning the BC Sprint was the second-highest ever recorded in the Breeders’ Cup, behind only Ghostzapper’s 128 in the Classic.

        In those two races, he beat a Champion and HOY, and Champion and BC winner the following season.

        American Pharoah, in striking contrast, earned a (probably inflated) 120 while towing comparatively ordinary horses around the track at Keeneland.

        • The DRF Champions book mentioned above is useful, not only in looking at the records of superb horses like Precisionist, but also for tangibly, physically, irrefutably seeing the differences in medicating, training, and racing that have done their part to change the sport and not for the better.

          Also, the number of non-sprinting racers who have achieved a Beyer of 120 or higher since universal medication (SUM) can practically be counted on one hand.

      • gus stewart

        I also think his rider for most or all of his starts Chris McCarron, got along with him and his speed. Chris was able to get him to relax and deserves a lot of credit for getting him to go further distances.

  • J

    Fred Hooper was Wonderful.
    Diplomatic Jet will always be one of my Favorites.
    3 Stakes Wins @ Belmont.

  • Bob Hope

    Fred’s father’s farm was in Alabama, not Georgia. Fred owned the farm in Alabama and raced Alabama Bound.
    Fred was an incredible person. He owned one of the largest construction companies in the U.S.

    • LongTimeEconomist

      Road construction primarily, if I remember right.

  • Bob Hope

    How about Susan’s Girl?

  • LongTimeEconomist

    That fellow on the right in the photo holding Hoop, Jr. is Hall of Famer Ivan Parke, who trained Hoop, Jr. He also bred and trained Olympia, a heavy favorite in the Derby for Mr. Hooper. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get 10 furlongs.

    There is a great story about Olympia racing against a champion quarter horse mare over a quarter mile early in his three year old season at old Tropical Park that was written up in Sports Illustrated years ago. The night before the match race, Hooper took Ivan and his jock out to supper and told them they were going to bet $5,000 each on the race, which was not a pari-mutuel event. “If I’m betting a lot of money, I want to be damn sure that my trainer and my jock are, too.”

    Hooper covered every dollar of the people who wanted to bet on the quarter horse (They were all in town for the Orange Bowl.), reportedly more than $100,000. The money was held in the racing secretary’s office by a fellow whose name escapes me now, but who spent many years involved in Florida racing and breeding as an official and a journalist.

    After the race, every dollar that had been wagered belonged to the Olympia team.

  • Sampan

    I always admired and respected his successful effort to establish Ocala. ]
    He was also very knowledgeable about breeding theories and used good judgment
    mating his horses to be a top breeder.
    I remember when Susan’s Girl won The Matchmaker it included a free service to breed Susan’s Girl to Secretariat.
    He didn’t want to do that because the sire had no foals to race and of course Susan’s Girl hadn’t produced any foals.
    He didn’t want to breed and unproven sire to an unproven dam.
    He suggested and requested to breed his proven broodmare Roman Goddess to Secretariat.
    The resultant foal ended up being the stakeswinner If This Be So.

  • Bob Hope

    Precisionist was sent to stud after a tremendous racing career. Was a difficult sire and returned to racing under trainer John Russell but never regained his previous form.

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