Though he sported the requisite winner’s circle attire - jacket, white shirt, tie - Jimmy Hooper couldn’t have looked more out of place. The shirt was unbuttoned at the collar. The red tie was crooked. His hair - a color not too dissimilar from the brilliant white of his charge - was covered by a worn baseball cap. Sometimes, it can seem as though trainers spend more time getting themselves ready for a winner’s circle photo than they do getting their horses ready for the races that get them there.
Jimmy Hooper is not one of those trainers. But his work with Inherit the Gold - who captured Saturday’s Excelsior Stakes (G3) by a commanding 6¼ lengths - has proven, without a doubt, that he belongs there just the same - even if he looks like the kind of guy who couldn’t get a table at “21.”
Of course, Jimmy Hooper also looks like the kind of guy who doesn’t want a table at “21.” He looks like the type that would turn down a meal at Le Cirque in favor of a Royale with cheese. Saturday’s white-collar notwithstanding, Jimmy Hooper appears decidedly blue-collar. It doesn’t take a giant leap to assume his training methods mirror his persona.
It’s an assumption that becomes ever stronger upon examination of Inherit The Gold’s past performances. He has raced seven times on this circuit in the past six months, losing only once in that span. He shows up and puts an honest day of work in every time. One gets the impression that Hooper doesn’t take many vacation days either.
All the better for the New York race fan.
Jimmy Hooper didn’t cry after his victory in the Excelsior. But he came quite close. Put it this way: Hooper came closer to crying over Inherit the Gold’s victory than any of the other horses in the field did to preventing that victory.
The race became a formality in short order. Understatement - trained by Todd Pletcher - took the Excelsior field of five through opening fractions of 24:3 and 49:2. During his winning streak, Inherit the Gold - a five year-old son of Gold Token - has typically spent the early portions of his races about four or five lengths off the pace. In the Excelsior, though, jockey Eddie Castro understood that it was on him to pressure Understatement, given the lack of speed in the rest of the field.
“There was only one horse with speed in the field today,” Castro noted after the race. “So I (had to) stay fairly close.”
Castro didn’t wait long to make his move. As the field began to make their way around the
far turn, Castro encouraged Inherit the Gold to make his way around Understatement. Once he got clear, he kept going. He rocketed to the finish, and reported home a convincing winner in a snappy time of 1:50.34. He earned a 104 Beyer speed figure for the effort.
“It was a perfect trip,” said a choked-up Jimmy Hooper “Eddie knew he might have to stay a little closer today and he did. It’s whenever he decides he wants to make the move.”
With due respect to Castro, it would’ve taken a dreadful trip to get Inherit the Gold beaten. The white gelding seemed to be in control the whole way.
“He’s getting better,” remarked an impressed Eddie Castro.
So how much better can he get? Can he get good enough for, say, the Met Mile?
Hooper, overcome with emotion after capturing his first-ever graded stakes race, refused to tempt the racing Gods with such a bold utterance.
“We just listen to what [the horse] tells us. He’s a very, very smart horse, way smarter than we are. I’m just going to enjoy this one; who knows where we’ll go next? I want him to be happy. As long as this horse is happy, we’ll have a lot of fun.”
Five days from now, when the Uncle Mo show hits town, the Excelsior will become a distant memory. The hard work of Jimmy Hooper and his gritty gelding will be forgotten. Todd Pletcher, the perfectly-coiffed, five-time Eclipse Award winning trainer will address at least 30 times more media personnel after Saturday’s Wood Memorial (G1) than Hooper did after the Excelsior (apart from NYRA’s media representative, Horse Racing Nation was the only media outlet present in the post-race gathering). And Inherit the Gold’s role will be ably filled by the reigning two year-old champion, who - with each passing week - appears more destined for Triple Crown glory.
But this man and this horse need to be saluted. Todd Pletcher has had his day. Presumably, he will have many more. If we let this one pass without recognizing the efforts of Jimmy Hooper, we do a tremendous disservice to the thousands of horsemen out there just like him. Hooper represents the many lunch-pail guys and gals that keep this sport afloat day-to-day, and then watch the Bafferts or the Pletchers swoop in when they start handing out the hardware.
Saturday belonged, not only to Hooper, but to all of them.
Photo courtesy of Adam Coglianese/NYRA