Flashback: Beginner's luck? Hooper's first horse wins Derby

By Keeler Johnson/Special to HRN
January 21, 2020 09:14am

Back in the 1940s, a jack-of-all-trades farmer and businessman named Fred W. Hooper decided to try his luck in Thoroughbred horse racing.

It seemed as though no industry was beyond the mastery of Hooper, who traveled around Georgia, Alabama, and Florida working a staggering variety of jobs. As recounted by Edward Bowen in
Legacies of the Turf: A Century of Great Thoroughbred Breeders (Vol. 2), Hooper — at one time or another — grew potatoes, tamed mustangs, raised cattle, cut hair, taught school, fought in boxing matches, worked in construction and built highways.

It was through his success in the construction industry that Hooper acquired the means to invest in racehorses. In 1943, he showed up at an auction in Kentucky to shop for Thoroughbred yearlings, and a son of Sir Gallahad III caught his eye. Sir Gallahad III had already sired two winners of the coveted Kentucky Derby, and Hooper — aspiring like any other horseman to win the race — purchased the yearling for $10,200.

Hooper named his first Thoroughbred Hoop, Jr. in honor of his son, Fred Hooper Jr., and assigned training duties to former jockey Ivan H. Parke. Together, this unheralded team burst into the spotlight and crafted one of the most legendary Kentucky Derby winners.

Hoop, Jr. was not especially remarkable as a 2-year-old. Racing five times, he never missed the exacta, but failed to win a stakes race. Just when he seemed to be on the rise, winning a minor race at Suffolk Downs by five lengths, a setback derailed his juvenile campaign.

William H. P. Robertson, writing in
The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America, noted “Hoop, Jr. had developed osselets, so Hooper in June decided to put him aside and save him for the next year’s Kentucky Derby. (There is nothing like the optimism of an owner with his first race horse.)”

With the United States deep in the final stages of World War II, racing went on hiatus during the first 4 1/2 months of 1945. When the sport finally returned in mid-May, Hoop, Jr. wasted little time preparing for the Kentucky Derby. Indeed, he packed the type of racing and training into a short time that’s unfathomable by modern standards.

The Derby was scheduled for June 9, and Hoop, Jr. emerged under silks for the first time on May 22, finishing fourth in a six-furlong allowance sprint at Aqeuduct. On May 30, he won a division of the Wood Memorial, then traveled to Churchill Downs. Judged to be in need of a serious workout to sharpen his fitness, Hoop, Jr. breezed 1 1/8 miles on June 6, getting the distance in a blazing 1:51 3/5 while reportedly galloping out 1 1/4 miles in 2:04 and change.

This eye-catching workout made Hoop, Jr. the talk of the town pre-race, and the colt was bet down heavily to 3.70-1 at post time, establishing him as the second choice behind Calumet Farm’s 3.30-1 favorite Pot O’Luck.

Then the rains came — heavy rains throughout Derby morning — and the world discovered Hoop, Jr. had an unmistakable penchant for sloshing through mud.

The Derby itself was decidedly undramatic. With legendary jockey Eddie Arcaro in the saddle, Hoop, Jr. came bursting out of the starting gate to seize the early advantage. He proceeded to happily splash along on a one-length lead through fractions of :23 1/5, :48, 1:14, and 1:41, increasingly slow splits that were a testament to the tiring conditions of the muddy track.

Tiring to everyone except Hoop, Jr., that is. When Arcaro asked the speedy front-runner to respond, Hoop, Jr. casually exploded to a six-length advantage. No one came close to challenging in the final furlong as Hoop, Jr. cruised easily to the finish line in 2:07 seconds.

“Hooper came slogging happily across the ankle-deep soup of the track shortly after Arcaro reined up with Hoop, Jr.,” according to
The Courier-Journal of June 10. It was a bit of a journey, but Hooper soon reached Hoop, Jr. and led his Derby champion back to the winner’s circle.

So soggy were the conditions that Kentucky Governor Simeon Willis, presenting Hooper with the Derby trophy, said, “Your horse has demonstrated not only that he can negotiate a mile-and-a-quarter horse race, but also that he can negotiate a lake.”

“I feel so great I just don’t know what to say,” Hooper told
The Courier-Journal. “I just haven’t got the words. I know this is the biggest thrill I ever had in my life.”

Perhaps inspired by his early success, Hooper remained involved in racing for decades to come. He was still breeding stakes winners well into his 90s and ultimately lived to the age of 102, passing away in 2000.

This Saturday, on the Pegasus World Cup (G1) undercard in Gulfstream Park's entries, fans will enjoy a stakes race in Hooper’s name. There will be similar beginner’s luck required; it’s for older horses, after all.

J. Keeler Johnson is a writer, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. You can follow him on Twitter at @J_Keelerman.


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