BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Fred W. Hooper paid $10,200 for his first thoroughbred horse in 1943. In many ways, it was the most expensive horse he’d ever buy.

Before then, Hooper had risen from an eighth grade dropout from Cleveland, Georgia to running one of the biggest construction companies in the Southeast–Hooper Construction Company– all based in Montgomery, Alabama.

“I don’t know how he learned how to build roads. He didn’t even finish grade school,” said Kay Wheeler, Hooper’s daughter. “He just had a golden touch.”

As a hobby, Hooper began raising horses and cattle on Circle H, a ranch he owned outside of town. It wouldn’t be long before he got the itch: what if he got into horse racing?

That year, Hooper went to Keeneland Sales in Lexington, Kentucky to see what he could get. It wouldn’t be long before he saw one horse that had been sired March 15, 1942.

“It was the way he walked, the way he moved,” Hooper said in a selection of Benny Marshall’s book “Twenty Grand.” “It was the head on him, his alertness, his bright eye. I just liked him. ‘I don’t know how good he’ll be,’ I said, ‘But I want him.'”

Hooper quickly bought the horse and named him Hoop Jr., after his son. In his first year under Hooper’s care, Hoop Jr. ran five races, winning two and coming second in three. In total, Hoop Jr. won $5,300.

“You could tell he had speed, and you could tell about distance a long time before we ever raced him,” Hooper told Marshall in “Twenty Grand.” “He was that impressive before he ever got in a race, and he won his first one.”

Hooper had other plans for his prized horse. After a couple more years of training under Hall of Fame trainer Ivan Parke in Alabama, Hoop Jr. was entered in the 1945 Kentucky Derby. Due to WWII, the race that year was the first time it was run in June.

With jockey Eddie Arcaro, Hoop Jr. won the Derby.

Hoop Jr. (1) finishes first in the 71st running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Louisville, June 9, 1945, six lengths ahead of Pot O’Luck (2). Other horses in the order of their finish: (3) Darby Dieppe; (4) Air Sailor; (5) Jeep; (6) Bymeabond; (7) Sea Swallow; (8) Fighting Step; (9) Burning Dream; (10) Alexis; (11) Foreign Agent; (12) Misweet; (13) Tiger Rebel. (AP Photo)

At the time, Wheeler was at the University of Michigan, where she was studying music.

“My feet left the floor,” Wheeler said when she heard of Hoop Jr.’s win. “The very fact that he had a horse in the derby was already a surprise and very unusual. I was just very excited.”

Bill Heller, author of “Fred Hooper: The Extraordinary Life of a Thoroughbred Legend,” said that after winning the Derby, Arcaro let Hooper know how important Hoop Jr. would be to him.

“He told Mr. Hooper this will be the most expense horse you’ll ever own because you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to win another,” Heller said.

Arcaro was right. Despite breeding and training hundreds more horses after Hoop Jr., Hooper never won another Kentucky Derby. Hoop Jr. would run two more races: the Wood Memorial and the Preakness Stakes, the latter of which he came second. After that, Hoop Jr. was done with racing with only nine races run and $99,200 won.

Now retired, Hoop Jr. was moved back to Circle H farm, where he became a stud horse. In 1965, Hoop Jr. died at the age of 23, buried in Alabama. Later on, Hooper moved Hoop Jr.’s remains to his new ranch, Hooper Farms, in Ocala, Florida. In 2000, Hooper died at the age of 102.

Heller said that although Hooper would race many more horses, it was Hoop Jr. who started his second life as a legitimate horse breeder.

“It gave him immediate credibility,” he said. “It was the first thoroughbred he ever bought.”

To Heller, Hooper was a true American original.

“The general rule at the time is Kentucky races the best horses. Usually, it’s a closed society,” he said. “Back then, there were big stables that dominated. Mr. Hooper came in on his own, unannounced. It showed there were other ways to do things. And he did it his way.”