Heller’s latest is biography of owner/breeder Fred Hooper

Author Bill Heller's latest Thoroughbred racing book is a biography of the late owner/breeder Fred Hooper.
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Author Bill Heller's latest Thoroughbred racing book is a biography of the late owner/breeder Fred Hooper.

SARATOGA SPRINGS — There’s a Grade III race with a $150,000 purse in January at Gulfstream Park that carries the name of Fred W. Hooper.

His stamp on Thoroughbred racing endures much more deeply than that, though, despite the fact that he died over 20 years ago, at the age of 102.

If you root around in the respective pedigrees of the last two Triple Crown winners, American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018), you’ll find names like Olympia, Tri Jet, Zetta Jet, Crozier and Hoop Jr. These were all horses that Hooper campaigned as racehorses before sending them to the breeding shed.

Organizations like the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, which Hooper helped found, still carry influence in the industry, and there are plaques for two of Hooper’s horses, Susan’s Girl and Precisionist, at the Nation Racing Museum and Hall of Fame.

If Hooper hadn’t had the vision to bring jockeys Laffit Pincay Jr., Braulio Baeza and Jorge Velasquez to the U.S. from South America, who knows if they’d ever have enjoyed the success they did. They’re all in the Hall of Fame.

Author Bill Heller has made Hooper the subject of his latest biography, “Fred Hooper: The Extraordinary Life of a Thoroughbred Legend,” which chronicles Hooper’s ascension from an eighth-grade dropout to a highly successful owner and breeder based in Florida.

Heller will be at the NMRHOF from 10 a.m.-noon on Friday for a book signing.

He speaks with a sense of wonder about a man he thought he was familiar with, but realized that that knowledge barely scratched the surface, once he started researching his subject and interviewing people who knew Hooper.

“How much did I know, compared to what I found out? Maybe 3%,” Heller said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “No, really, because maybe somewhere in my mind I knew that he brought over those three jockeys. There was so much that I was just astounded. In the first chapter I wanted to mention the different things he’d done, and the list kept going. And I might’ve missed a couple.”

This is Heller’s 27th book, and his previous Thoroughbred-related biographical subjects include jockeys Randy Romero, Jose Santos and Ron Turcotte.

Hooper’s life story offers a much more expansive view, not just because he lived so long, but because he accomplished so much in a variety of areas in and out of the sport. He and his horses won seven Eclipse Award championships, including two for Fred as top breeder, in 1975 and 1982.

Hooper was born in 1897 on a farm in Cleveland, Georgia, one of 13 children, but spent much of his life in Montgomery, Alabama, where he made his fortune in the construction business and branched into cattle herding before moving to Ocala, Florida, to build upon his racehorse breeding operation.

“I asked almost everyone — and I interviewed a lot of people — why was he so successful, and there wasn’t one answer, but the theme from it is that he just looked forward and did it his way,” Heller said. “And some of it was getting lucky.”

That certainly was a factor when Hooper enjoyed his greatest moment as an owner, when Hoop Jr., named for his son, won the 1945 Kentucky Derby.

Not only was he lucky to have found a horse capable of winning the Derby, but that the Derby even happened in 1945, in the midst of World War II.

Racing was shut down, then was allowed to resume once V-E Day was declared, which was May 8. The 1945 Kentucky Derby was rescheduled for June 9, and Hoop Jr., ridden by Eddie Arcaro, romped by six lengths.

Fred Hooper spent the rest of his long life trying to win the Derby again, to no avail. But there were scores of other important victories, many of them by his eventual Hall of famers, Susan’s Girl and Precisionist.

He also campaigned Tri Jet, who set a track record at Saratoga in winning the 1974 Whitney that stood for 31 years, until Lawyer Ron broke it in 2007. Tri Jet became a star as a stallion, siring 366 winners, 42 of whom won stakes.

Heller likens Hooper to George Steinbrenner (who owned racehorses, too, besides the New York Yankees), since Hooper had a habit of firing and re-hiring trainers. He had an opportunity to speak to some of them, including Ross Fenstermaker and Bill Cesare, an NFL player who believes he was cut by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1980 because the team general manager walked into the training room to find Cesare watching racing from Saratoga on Travers Day.

“Ross Fenstermaker was a hoot, because he said he got hired and fired four times,” Heller said. “Fred’s favorite horse was Susan’s Girl, and she had seven different trainers.

“Bill Cesare was a real interesting guy, getting fired for watching the Travers replay. They released him the next day.

“I thought I knew a lot about him, and I wasn’t even close. To think that Wayne Lukas really got credited for flying horses across country for stakes. It was called Wayne-off-the-plane … he [Hooper] did it 30, 40 years before Lukas. He had the wherewithal to send his trainer to Argentina to bring back horses to be stallions, before anybody did that. I didn’t know that he had formed the original Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. I certainly didn’t know that he was an eighth-grade dropout and wound up having a school named in his honor.”

Heller begins his book with a recounting of the 1981 Racing Hall of Fame induction ceremony, for which Hooper served as the keynote speaker.

He couldn’t interview the subject of his biography, of course, but Fred Hooper’s essence can be pulled from that speech. Heller expands on that in “The Extraordinary Life of a Thoroughbred Legend,” with a plenty of material to draw from.

“He was a very positive man,” Hooper’s daughter, Betty Hooper Green, told Heller for the book. “He always said, ‘Look to the future. Don’t think about mistakes you made in the past. Look to the future and make things better.'”

“I remembered that I had been impressed with the speech because of his love of horses and his love of life, so when I finally got the deal, [NMRHOF historian] Mike Veitch was kind enough to get me a transcript of it, and there it was at the beginning of the book,” Heller said.

“I wish I had his outlook on life, which I think about more and more often, because it’s a pretty damn good way to go through your life.”

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