By John W. Russell
On a sultry February morning at Hialeah Race Course in 1958, a tall southern gentleman approached me with a proposal that was certainly the turning point in my life. At 21 years old, I had been debating the prospect of struggling through a career in racing or returning to school and taking a different path. I was an exercise rider at the time, a very few years of racing in England with my father, and a couple of years with Ben and Jimmy Jones of Calumet Farm under my belt.
"Boy, can you saddle a horse?" asked Mr. Hooper that morning.
"Yes, I...I think so, sir," I stammered.
"Then go over and get your trainer's license, I'm going to leave you down here for the Gulfstream meet with a dozen horses."
So started an owner/trainer relationship that--off and on--spanned more than 30 years, and a friendship that lasted much longer, until the death of Fredrick William Hooper on Aug. 4 at almost 103 years old.
He was always referred to by me as Mr. Hooper, never Fred. It was simply the mark of the man. He was in no way pretentious, but in his modest, and unassuming way, he deserved a respect that transcended familiarity. If he had been English, I'm sure I would have addressed him as Sir Fredrick, but never Fred.
He was a titan of the racing world, an institution. So many people were affected by his presence and many will be affected by his passing. He gave me that first opportunity, and for a number of years after that, he produced some of the best horses I had the pleasure of training, and some of the best horses ever to race in this country.
I had the privilege of campaigning, among others, the wonderful filly Susan's Girl for three of her four years of racing; Tri Jet for his first three years; and Precisionist for his final year at the track.
I appreciated the time Mr. Hooper spent with me, but above all, the time and interest he devoted to his horses. That was a contributing factor in his success--his empathy for his horses.
We didn't always agree on the best course of action, but he never failed to consider my point of view, and on many issues, concede to my judgment. Together we were a team, and I can say that due to his patience and respect for his horses and his trainer, we were not often wrong.
His mantra was an uncompromising attention to detail and integrity. It was well known in the heavy construction industry, a world of political wrangling with government agencies, labor unions, and sub-contractors, that his word was his bond, a reputation that carried over into racing.
Although a fierce competitor, he was nevertheless opposed to running his horses on medication. His philosophy of fairness, and an unswerving concern for the welfare of his horses, convinced him that to race horses on medication was tantamount to cheating and cruelty.
He accepted victory and defeat with the same grace, no matter the stakes. And often the stakes were immense, since in every endeavor, he embraced rather than shunned a challenge.
He liked to tell, without a hint of bravado, the story of when he accepted a challenge to run his brilliant miler, Olympia, against the world champion Quarter Horse, Stella Moore, at the Quarter Horse distance of two furlongs. The racing world thought he was mad, but in his usual indomitable way, he quietly accepted side bets in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, risking much of what he owned. He collected too, as Olympia won by a head.
He followed his own convictions, and was never influenced by popular opinion. He never made a decision predicated upon advancing his public image. He would not hesitate to take on the establishment if he thought it was wrong.
Chronologically he lived almost two lifetimes, but in achievement, many more than that. No one ever loved racing more than Mr. Hooper, and certainly no one loved his horses more than this extraordinary man. His race has run, and with unfailing courage in every stride, he has reached the finish line. It was a grade I performance all the way. Retired trainer JOHN W. RUSSELL is a native of Great Britain living in Southern California.