It was back in October and Jim Hooper had already sold a big chunk of his farm and didn’t know how he was going to be able to hold on to the rest. Through no fault of his own, his business had fallen apart, the creditors were knocking on his door and the only hope he had came in the form of a gray gelding he owned who appeared to have nothing more than a modest amount of talent.
These were the things that were running through his mind Oct. 21 at Belmont when he was about to make his debut as a trainer, forced into the role because he couldn’t afford to pay anyone else to do it. It’s hard to imagine any trainer ever facing more pressure. His horse, Inherit the Gold, had to perform well that day or just about everything he had and had worked for would surely be gone.
“If he ran up the track that day I was probably done,” he said.
Inherit the Gold didn’t run up the track. He won by a length. Next time out he ran third, but has since reeled off five straight wins, including a last-out victory in the Grade 3 Excelsior Handicap at Aqueduct. During the winning streak, he has earned $189,000, split 50-50 between Hooper and his co-owner, Glas-Tipp Stable.
It’s hard to understand how these things can happen. Maybe it’s divine intervention or just a case of good luck, awfully good luck. But when no one expected it, a horse got very good and saved Jim Hooper’s farm. And now he’s going for the top prize in a $1 million race, Saturday’s Charles Town Classic, proving once again that horse racing is a place where fairytales can and do come true.
Hooper and his wife, Susanne, operate Haven Oaks Farms in Fort Edward, New York in Saratoga County. Along with the horse operation, they worked for an Arizona-based company that helped rehabilitate teens with drug and alcohol problems. The Hoopers were paid to work with the kids, most of who came from privileged backgrounds, and help them straighten out. Part of the program involved getting the youths to understand what hard work is all about, which meant helping take care of the horses.
But the Arizona company fell on hard times and stopped funding the Hooper’s satellite operation, which was the main source of income for the couple. Making matters worse, the Hoopers admit they were guilty of over expanding their horse business, which left them with a pile of bills.
“At our peak, we had 10 to 12 babies every year for a few years there,” Hooper said. “That adds up quicker than you think. The bills, the veterinarian bills and everything else you have to pay for to get them going, really pile up. We really had to reel things in.”
With few other options, the Hoopers sold 22 acres of land, leaving them with about 50. But even that wasn’t enough to get them straightened out, and Hooper was worried they would have to close the farm and sell what was left.
“It was bad enough that we had to sell 22 acres of our farm and, for us, we had put so much into the farm that it was very tough to have to sell our land,” he said. “We were getting down to the nitty-gritty and we were prepared to sell our entire farm this spring had it not been for this horse.”
In the process of trying to cut as many corners as possible, Hooper took Inherit the Gold away from trainer Charlton Baker. It wasn’t that Baker was doing anything wrong; Hooper simply didn’t have the money to pay him any longer.
So it was up to Hooper and the horse he affectionately calls “Harry” because he had rings around his eyes when he was born and looked like Harry Potter. Coming into the October race at Belmont, Inherit the Gold was just 1 for 7 in his career and hadn’t done anything to suggest he was going to develop into a graded stakes winner. But Hooper says he always believed good fortune was right around the corner.
“We’re people of faith and feel like we’ve always done the right things,” he said. “So we thought something good was going to happen. Maybe it wouldn’t have been Harry. We had a filly we thought was going to sell for decent money last year at the preferred sale at Saratoga and she had to be withdrawn because she got a sore throat. But she was probably going to sell for about $25,000, which would have really helped us. It wasn’t like it was all on Harry’s back. We believe that if you do the right thing things will work out for you in the end.”
Inherit the Gold has been on magical run but it could get a lot more magical come Saturday night. The field includes some very tough horses, which comes with the territory when you are racing for $1 million. But Inherit the Gold doesn’t look to be in over his head on paper. A victory would be worth $600,000, half of which would go to the Hoopers.
“I can’t imagine how that might feel,” Hooper said when asked what a win in the Charles Town Classic would mean to him. “Winning all those other races has been quite emotional and something I just can’t believe. I don’t know how it could get any better, but I’m sure it would if he wins a $1 million race.”
It won’t be easy, not when Inherit the Gold will have to face horses like Tackleberry, Rule and Game on Dude. But it can be done. He’s good, he’s hot and you have to wonder if he doesn’t have fate on his side.
Originally Posted on ESPN