Hooper got hooked on horses in the late 1930s. He had bought a cow pony named Prince to work cattle on a ranch he owned in Alabama. Prince had great speed, and Hooper's father suggested he try the horse in match races. "Prince won 49 of 55 races," Hooper recalls. "After he'd beaten all comers, I renamed him Royal Prince. I figured he'd earned it."
In 1943 Hooper went to Keeneland's summer yearling sales to start a breeding operation. He had intended to buy some fillies by Sir Gallahad III, who had sired two Derby winners—Gallant Fox in 1930 and Gallahadion in 1940. "But I fell in love with one of Sir Gallahad's sons," Hooper says. "He had a sharp style of walking, and every time I saw him, I fell in love a little more." Hooper became so smitten that he shelled out $10,200 for the bay colt—about 10 times the going rate—and named him Hoop Jr., after his son, Freddie.
Hoop Jr. ran five times as a 2-year-old, winning twice, placing second in the other three and inspiring his owner to declare, "He'll win the Kentucky Derby next year." With Eddie Arcaro up, Hoop Jr. did just that. The track was sloppy, and Hooper told the jockey, "When you come out of that gate—-go! The horse, you and the colors will look a lot better without all that mud on you." Arcaro complied, turning a one-length lead in the early stretch to six at the finish. "That's the most expensive race you'll ever win," Arcaro later told Hooper.
"Why is that?" the owner asked.
"Now you'll spend the rest of your life trying to win it again."
Three other horses have worn Hooper's distinctive red, white and blue silks during the Run for the Roses. Olympia was the odds-on favorite in '49 but finished sixth; Crozier was second to Carry Back in '61; and Admiral's Voyage placed ninth in '62. While Hooper hasn't had a Derby starter since, he has achieved consistent success as a breeder. Eschewing yearling auctions, Hooper matches his own mares with his own stallions. The result of this unorthodox approach is the so-called Hooper Line, which includes such standouts as Copelan, Tri Jet and 1985 Breeder's Cup Sprint winner Precisionist. Hooper's favorite remains Susan's Girl. An oil painting of the Hall of Fame filly hangs prominently in the foyer of his Ocala home. "She won more than $1.2 million," Hooper says. "No other female that raced exclusively in this country had ever made that much. She won Eclipse awards in 1972, '73 and '74."
"It was '72, '73 and '75," says his wife, Wanda. "Susan's Girl fractured a sesamoid and missed the '74 season." Turned out at the farm in Ocala, the bay mare swam herself back to health and made one of racing's greatest comebacks. "Some Japanese guys offered me $4 million for her," says Hooper, referring to Susan's Girl, not Wanda. "Made three different offers."
Wanda: "And each time Fred refused."
Fred: "I told them, 'As long as I have two weeks groceries in the house, I won't sell her."
Wanda and Fred met on an airplane. She was a flight attendant; he, the only passenger in first class. "Perhaps you'd like to sit in coach," she suggested. "First class won't be having meal service."