by Jon White
October 18, 2019
Talk about a Breeders’ Cup record that has stood the test of time.
Thirty-five years ago, Precisionist won the second running of the six-furlong Breeders’ Cup Sprint by three-quarters of length at Aqueduct. He was credited with a 125 Beyer Speed Figure. It remains the highest Beyer ever posted by the winner of a Breeders’ Cup race.
Chris McCarron rode Precisionist for owner-breeder Fred W. Hooper and trainer Ross Fenstermaker.
Precisionist not only could run faster than most, he was a grand-looking individual. The renowned artist Fred Stone, who died in 2018, once paid Precisionist a tremendous compliment. In the 2010 book “Reflections on a Golden Age: The Racing Art of Fred Stone,” Stone said this about Precisionist:
“I was awestruck when I saw him. He was the most beautiful horse I have ever painted.”
That was quite a statement when you consider that Stone painted such superstars as Kelso, Secretariat, Ruffian, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Cigar, Zenyatta and American Pharoah.
When Precisionist won the Grade I BC Sprint in 1985, the race was run on Nov. 2. This year’s Grade I BC Sprint also will be run on Nov. 2. Among the candidates for the upcoming renewal is Omaha Beach. For many, Omaha Beach has conjured up memories of Precisionist.
Precisionist was an exceptional equine athlete in that he had both the speed to win the BC Sprint in 1:08 2/5 and the stamina to win a pair of Grade I races at 1 1/4 miles.
Omaha Beach likewise is an exceptional equine athlete in that he had both the speed to win the Grade I Santa Anita Sprint Championship at six furlongs in 1:08 3/5 and the stamina to win the Grade I Arkansas Derby at 1 1/8 miles.
That’s not all that Omaha Beach and Precisionist have in common.
When Precisionist won the 1985 BC Sprint in early November, he had not raced since June 23. It was, without question, a fantastic training job on the part of Fenstermaker.
When Omaha Beach won the 2019 Santa Anita Sprint Championship in early October, he had not raced since April 13. It was, without question, a fantastic training job on the part of Hall of Famer Richard Mandella.
RACING INACTIVITY FOLLOWING GOLD CUP
Many questioned whether Precisionist could get the job done in the 1985 BC Sprint in early November at the Big A because he had not started since the Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup in June.
Six competed in the 1985 Gold Cup at Hollywood Park, but most observers felt it was strictly a two-horse race between Precisionist and Greinton, as reflected by the betting. Precisionist was backed down to even-money favoritism, while Greinton left the gate as a close second choice at 6-5.
Precisionist set the pace before yielding the advantage to Greinton just a little past the eighth pole. Greinton went on to win by nearly two lengths. Precisionist finished second, though it should be pointed out that he did have to spot five pounds to Greinton.
In the book “Breeders’ Cup: Thoroughbred Racing’s Championship Day,” Jay Privman wrote: “Few horses were as fast, versatile, or talented as Precisionist, who was quick enough to win going seven furlongs, yet had enough stamina to win going 1 1/4 miles, as he showed when sweeping Santa Anita’s three-race Strub Series during the winter of 1985. But that summer at Hollywood Park, he bruised his feet after the Hollywood Gold Cup, and went to the sidelines.”
Precisionist’s Strub Series sweep consisted of victories in the seven-furlong Malibu Stakes, 1 1/8-mile San Fernando Stakes and 1 1/4-mile Charles H. Strub Stakes.
Unfortunately, Santa Anita does not have the Strub Series anymore. The Malibu is the only one of the three races that still is being run these days.
Just five horses ever swept the Strub Series: Round Table in 1958, Hillsdale in 1959, Ancient Title in 1974, Spectacular Bid in 1980 and Precisionist in 1985.
After Precisionist completed his Strub Series sweep, I spent a considerable amount of time the next morning at Santa Anita with Hooper. At one point, I asked Hooper what he planned to do after he left the track that morning. He told me that he would be heading off to play a round of golf. I was stunned. That’s right. He would be playing a round of golf at the age of 87! Hooper was truly amazing.
As for the 1985 BC Sprint, in the recap of that race written by BloodHorse’s Deirdre Biles, Fenstermaker elaborated on the trouble Precisionist had with his feet after the Hollywood Gold Cup.
“His feet just wouldn’t grow very fast,” Fenstermaker said. “They kept getting bruised, and pretty soon they wouldn’t grow out fast enough to grow the bruises out.”
According to Biles, after the decision was made to take Precisionist out of training following the Gold Cup, the Florida-bred Crozier colt did not do anything more than walk for some three weeks, then just jogged and galloped lightly for most of the Del Mar summer meeting.
“Fenstermaker said that he was not worried about the lack of a prep race because Precisionist can be worked as fast as most horses race,” Biles wrote. “The serious work began when Fenstermaker’s stable returned to Santa Anita for the Oak Tree meeting, which began in early October.”
On Oct. 12, Precisionist worked six furlongs in a sensational 1:10 flat at Santa Anita.
On Oct. 18, Precisionist worked five furlongs from the gate at Santa Anita. Again, the time was fast, :57 4/5.
On Oct. 26, Precisionist drilled six furlongs in 1:11 2/5 at Aqueduct, an excellent time for a workout on that surface.
On Nov. 1, the day before the Breeders’ Cup, Precisionist worked two furlongs in :23 flat.
And then, on Nov. 2, Precisionist won the BC Sprint.
A BIG SCARE AND A FAST WORKOUT
Raised on Hooper’s farm near Ocala, Fla., Precisionist was involved in a scary incident as a youngster one morning.
“Precisionist ran off the training track after losing his rider,” Biles wrote. “Instead of taking the safe path to his barn, he opted for a different route. He ran into the back of a Honda.”
The brand new car had been parked near the training track by a farm employee.
“Precisionist miraculously was unscathed,” Biles wrote. “The Honda, however, was much the worse for the crash, its problems including a broken taillight and tailpipe.”
Biles had learned of Precisionist’s collision with a car from Robert Williams Jr., the Hooper Farm manager.
Williams also told Biles about the day that both he and Hooper witnessed a terrific workout on the farm by Precisionist. It was the second time the chestnut colt had ever worked as far as three furlongs. When the workout was over, Williams looked at his stopwatch, as did Hooper. Each man could not believe the time they saw. Precisionist had zipped three furlongs in :34.
“We thought we had something then,” Williams told Biles.
Hooper loved to bet. No doubt he contributed monetarily to Precisionist being sent away as an even-money favorite when the colt debuted in a six-furlong maiden special weight race at Hollywood Park on July 13, 1983.
Precisionist dashed immediately to the front and quickly opened a three-length lead. Turning for home, he had increased his advantage to six lengths. He still had a commanding six-length lead at the eighth pole. Even though jockey Terry Lipham was restraining the youngster toward the end of the race, Precisionist won by 7 1/2 lengths.
While the final time of 1:10 1/5 for Precisionist’s maiden victory was not sensational, to this day I regard it to be one of the most impressive debut victories I have ever seen.
RETIRED FROM RACING TWICE
Precisionist was retired from racing early in 1987 after he emerged from a five-furlong workout in 1:00 2/5 at Santa Anita on Jan. 9 with a fractured cannon bone in his left front leg. The fracture required surgery for the insertion of a pin to stabilize the fracture.
Arthur Appleton spent $4 million to purchase a half-interest in Precisionist for stud purposes. Appleton stood Precisionist at his Bridlewood Farm in Florida for the 1987 breeding season.
However, Precisionist proved nearly infertile. When Precisionist exhibited a serious fertility problem, Hooper refunded Appleton’s $4 million. Precisionist then stood the 1988 breeding season at Hooper’s farm in Florida.
Precisionist sired only a total of four fouls (one in 1989, two in 1990 and one in 1991). Two of his progeny were winners, Presailist and Classy Rate. Precisionist’s other two offspring were Personalized and Preciseness. They both raced, but neither won.
When Precisionist resumed his racing career for Hooper in the summer of 1988, he had a new trainer, John Russell. But the comeback certainly did not begin well. Entered in a one-mile allowance race on June 29 at Hollywood Park, Precisionist stumbled badly at the start, unseating jockey Chris McCarron.
Precisionist “went all the way down on his nose and pulled Chris over his head,” Russell was quoted as saying in BloodHorse magazine. “When he recovered, he was 10 lengths behind the field.”
The riderless Precisionist not only made an electrifying move to catch up with the field, he actually crossed the finish line first. It was an impressive effort by Precisionist despite not actually winning the race due to not having a rider aboard. The winner was Epidaurus, whose final time was 1:34 3/5.
Precisionist then was shipped to Belmont Park for the Grade II Tom Fool Stakes at seven furlongs on July 16. He finished fourth.
In his third start of 1988, Precisionist won a one-mile allowance contest at Del Mar by four lengths. His final time of 1:33 1/5 shaved two-fifths of a second off the track record set by Pirate Cove in 1963.
That the one-mile track record set by 7-year-old Precisionist in 1988 still stands 31 years later is yet another example that he was a special racehorse.
Precisionist won three of 10 starts in 1988. In his final race that year, he ran 12th as a 3-5 favorite in the Sunny Isle Handicap at Calder on Dec. 24. Bill Donovan was listed as Precisionist’s trainer for that one race. After Precisionist’s poor performance in the Sunny Isle, Hooper came to the conclusion that his accomplished Thoroughbred should race no more. Precisionist again was retired from racing. He was returned to Hooper’s farm in Florida.
In 1996, Hooper sent Precisionist to Dr. Siobhan Ellison at her farm in Florida. Precisionist lived in retirement at Ellison’s farm for the next decade. In 2006, Ellison donated Precisionist to Old Friends, an equine retirement home in Kentucky.
But less than four months after Precisionist’s arrival at Old Friends, he was found to have a cancerous tumor in his sinus passage. It was a virulent malignant tumor that was growing very quickly, according to Michael Blowen, the founder of Old Friends. As a result of the inoperable tumor, Precisionist was euthanized at about 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 27.
“This horse had so much class,” Blowen, said after Precisionist’s death. “He just exuded it.”
Precisionist was buried at the Old Friends cemetery.
During his racing career, Precisionist won 20 of 46 starts and earned $3,485,398. Voted an Eclipse Award as champion sprinter in 1985, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2003.
Precisionist was not included in the BloodHorse magazine’s Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century. I firmly believe he belonged somewhere on that list.
On my list of the Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th and 21st Centuries to have raced in North America, which I last updated late in 2018, I have Precisionist ranked No. 76.
KENTUCKY DERBY SUCCESS
There is no question that Fred Hooper, who was born in 1897, is one of the most interesting individuals to ever participate in Thoroughbred racing.
The first time Hooper had a starter in the Kentucky Derby, he won it with a horse named after his son, Hoop Jr. That was in 1945.
Hooper later would be voted the Eclipse Award as outstanding breeder in 1975 and 1982.
Moreover, Hooper was honored with the prestigious Eclipse Award of Merit in 1992.
In “The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes: A Comprehensive History,” Richard Sowers wrote in his recap of the 1945 Kentucky Derby: “Hooper was born on a Georgia farm and dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Hooper was, among other things, a barber, boxer, carpenter and farmer before he founded Hooper Construction Company in Montgomery, Ala., in 1923. Hooper’s company built roads, bridges and airports all over the South, enabling him to buy a 5,000-acre Alabama farm and the 1,100-acre Circle H. Farm in Ocala, Fla., where he became one of the pioneers of the Florida breeding industry.”
According to Edward L. Bowen, Hooper had gone into the construction business after a stint as a potato farmer.
In “Legacies of the Turf: A Century of Great Thoroughbred Breeders, Part 2,” Bowen wrote: “After Hooper’s mother died, he moved to Florida and went into potato farming, making money for a couple of years before a fungus wiped out his crop and left him in debt. Operating on credit, he put together a crew of a couple of hundred laborers and bid on a job to lay some road bases. Figuring out a way to use local quarry materials, he completed the job. Suddenly, in the mid-1920s as Florida boomed, he was a contractor. With no partners or shareholders, he flourished and eventually merged Hooper Construction with General Development Company.”
Bowen noted that Hooper also raised Herefords, some of them champions, in Alabama.
An early Florida Thoroughbred breeder, Carl Rose, sold Hooper a half-breed horse named Prince. That horse proved so fast and adept at turning cattle that Hooper decided to run him in match races.
“We ran him 55 times and he won 49 races, in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, so he was what actually got me into the racing business,” Hooper told Bowen.
Hooper first got involved with Thoroughbreds at a 1943 yearling auction in Kentucky.
“I went to the sales in Kentucky -- nobody knew me -- but I knew something about horses and breeding,” Hooper said in a 1996 story in The Washington Post written by Andrew Beyer. “I saw this colt and fell in love with him.”
Hooper told Bowen that when he attended that yearling sale, he especially was looking to acquire offspring of Sir Gallahad III.
“Well, I saw this Sir Gallahad III colt that didn’t have much flesh on him,” Hooper said. “I just liked his walk, and his looks, and the smartness of his eye and all, so I bought the horse for $10,200.”
Two years later, Hoop Jr. and legendary jockey Eddie Arcaro collaborated to defeat 15 opponents on a muddy track to win the $75,000 Kentucky Derby by an emphatic six lengths under Hooper’s red, white and blue silks.
Hoop Jr. “was the best racehorse I ever owned,” Hooper was quoted as saying in Hooper’s obituary that appeared in The New York Times following his death in 2000.
Until the day he died, Hooper felt that winning the Kentucky Derby with Hoop Jr. was the most exciting moment among his many thrills in racing.
You think winning the Triple Crown is difficult these days? When Hoop Jr. won the 1945 Kentucky Derby for trainer Ivan Parke, the three Triple Crown events that particular year were scrunched into a three-week window stemming from the United States being deeply immersed in World War II.
“Despite Hoop Jr.’s runaway Derby victory, neither Parke nor anyone else was discussing Triple Crown possibilities because of a war-mandated compact schedule that not only had the Preakness scheduled one week after the Derby, as was then customary, but the Belmont Stakes a week after the Preakness,” Sowers wrote.
After Hoop Jr.’s victory in the Run for the Roses, he finished second to Polynesian in the Preakness. Polynesian would go on to sire one of the all-time greats in Native Dancer.
As for Hoop Jr. and the Preakness, he “came out of the race decidedly lame,” according to the chart. Hoop Jr. bowed a tendon and never raced again.
A LUCRATIVE MATCH RACE VICTORY
Arcaro warned Hooper in 1945 that winning the Kentucky Derby with the first horse he ever ran in it was the worst possible thing that could have happened to him. Arcaro predicted to Hooper that he would spend millions trying to win another Kentucky Derby.
While it is true that Hooper never did get a second Kentucky Derby trophy, he did manage to win a pile of money when one of Precisionist’s ancestors, Olympia, beat a Quarter Horse in a 1949 match race.
I had lunch with Hooper at Hollywood Park on a number of occasions in the early 1980s. Once, with a gleam in his eye, he told me about the famous match race between Olympia, a Thoroughbred, and Stella Moore, a champion Quarter Horse filly. Olympia and Stella Moore faced each other between races at Florida’s Tropical Park on Jan. 5, 1949. Olympia had just turned 3, while Stella Moore had just turned 4.
Olympia had been precocious, winning four races as a 2-year-old, highlighted by a victory in the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland when it was a six-furlong race. But while Olympia had exhibited early speed in his races as a 2-year-old, he certainly had not demonstrated that he possessed the sheer zip that would be necessary to beat a Quarter Horse in a match race at 440 yards.
“A lot of people thought I was crazy to agree to the match race,” Hooper told me. “But I knew Olympia was fast, really fast. He hadn’t shown just how really fast he was [in his races at 2] because we were trying to teach him to rate. We were doing that because we wanted him to be able to go a mile and a quarter in the Kentucky Derby.”
Many also thought Hooper was totally off his rocker when he agreed to bet Quintas Roberts, Stella Moore’s owner, $25,000 on the outcome of the match race.
But Hooper was as game as they come. He did not just bet Stella Moore’s owner. Hooper did not back away from anyone wanting to make a bet with him on the match race. Hooper told me that he ended up with a total of $93,000 riding on Olympia in the match race.
That would be slightly over $1 million riding on Olympia in today’s dollars adjusted for inflation.
“And I’ll tell you that with so much money at stake, I was not about to get suckered, either,” Hooper continued during one of the most memorable lunches I have ever had. “I was confident that Olympia was going to win, but I didn’t want that match race to be one inch shorter than 440 yards. I had worked in construction. So, early one morning, I went out there and had the distance of the match race measured precisely. I had it measured from the exact place where the starting gate would be put in the chute all the way to the finish line. And guess what? It turned out to be 73 feet shorter than 440 yards. I made them change where the finish line would be for the match race so it would be run at the entire 440 yards. I made it clear that Olympia would not run unless they did that.”
Olympia and Stella Moore broke nearly even. At the eighth pole, Stellar Moore led by about two lengths, according to Hooper. But Olympia came on strongly and got up to win by a small margin.
The match race was such a big deal that there was this big headline in the sports section of the Jan. 6 New York Times: Olympia Beats Stella Moore, Star Quarter Horse, in Tropical Match Race
The margin of victory was a head. Time of the race was :22 3/5.
“I asked the Quarter Horse’s owner if he wanted a rematch,” Hooper told me. “He said, ‘No, sir.’ And I asked some of the other Quarter Horse people if they had any other Quarter Horses they would like to match against Olympia. And they all said, ‘No, sir, Mr. Hooper. We’re fine.’ And so then we concentrated on getting Olympia to the Kentucky Derby.”
Later in 1949 after the match race, Olympia won the Wood Memorial at 1 1/8 miles. He did indeed make it to the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby in which he started as the 4-5 favorite. He set the pace to the top of the stretch in the Derby, but then weakened and finished sixth. Ponder won the roses that year for the powerful Calumet Farm.
After Olympia’s racing career was over, he sired three champions in Decathlon (sprinter of the year in 1956 and 1957), Pucker Up (older female of the year in 1957) and Top Bid (America’s top steeplechase horse in 1970).
HIGHEST BEYERS IN BREEDERS’ CUP HISTORY
As mentioned earlier, Precisionist’s 125 is the record for the biggest Beyer Speed Figure in the history of the Breeders Cup.
Stormy Liberal’s 119 for his victory in the BC Turf Sprint was the highest Beyer recorded at the 2018 Breeders’ Cup held at Churchill Downs.
Below are all of the Beyer Speed Figures of 115 or higher by a Breeders’ Cup winner:
125 Precisionist (1985 Sprint at Aqueduct)
124 Sunday Silence (1989 Classic at Gulfstream Park)
124 Artax (1999 Sprint at Gulfstream Park)
124 Ghostzapper (2004 Classic at Lone Star Park)
122 Alysheba (1988 Classic at Churchill Downs)
121 Very Subtle* (1987 Sprint at Hollywood Park)
120 Princess Rooney* (1984 Distaff at Hollywood Park)
120 Proud Truth (1985 Classic at Aqueduct)
120 Black Tie Affair (1991 Classic at Churchill Downs)
120 Skip Away (1997 Classic at Hollywood Park)
120 Cajun Beat (2003 Sprint at Santa Anita Park)
120 American Pharoah (2015 Classic at Keeneland)
120 Arrogate (2017 Classic at Santa Anita)
119 Miesque* (1987 Mile at Hollywood Park)
119 Inside Information* (1995 Distaff at Belmont Park)
119 Squirtle Squirt (2001 Sprint at Belmont Park)
119 Pleasantly Perfect (2003 Classic at Santa Anita Park)
119 Corinthian (2007 Dirt Mile at Monmouth Park)
119 Curlin (2007 Classic at Monmouth Park)
119 Stormy Liberal (2018 Turf Sprint at Churchill Downs)
118 Smile (1986 Sprint at Santa Anita Park)
118 Skywalker (1986 Classic at Santa Anita Park)
118 Daylami (1999 Turf at Gulfstream Park)
118 Cat Thief (1999 Classic at Gulfstream Park)
117 Miesque* (1988 Mile at Churchill Downs)
117 Ferdinand (1987 Classic at Hollywood Park)
117 Cigar (1995 Classic at Belmont Park)
117 Fantastic Light (2001 Turf at Belmont Park)
117 Tiznow (2001 Classic at Belmont Park)
117 Fort Larned (2012 Classic at Santa Anita Park)
117 Gun Runner (2017 Classic at Del Mar)
116 Gulch (1988 Sprint at Churchill Downs)
116 Safely Kept* (1990 Sprint at Belmont Park)
116 Unbridled (1990 Classic at Belmont Park)
116 Tiznow (2000 Classic at Churchill Downs)
116 Volponi (2002 Classic at Arlington Park)
116 Thor’s Echo (2006 Sprint at Churchill Downs)
116 Invasor (2006 Classic at Churchill Downs)
116 Conduit (2008 Turf at Santa Anita)
115 Theatrical (1987 Turf at Hollywood Park)
115 Personal Ensign* (1988 Distaff at Churchill Downs)
115 Bayakoa* (1989 Distaff at Gulfstream Park)
115 Dancing Spree (1989 Sprint at Gulfstream Park)
115 Concern (1994 Classic at Churchill Downs)
115 Pilsudski (1996 Turf at Woodbine)
*filly or mare
THIS WEEK’S NTRA TOP THOROUGHBRED POLL
Bricks and Mortar again is atop the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll this week. It is the 29th consecutive week that he has been atop the poll.
Interestingly, even though he did not race last week, Omaha Beach moved up in this week’s poll from No. 10 to No. 8.
Here is the Top 10 in the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll for this week:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 413 Bricks and Mortar (27)
2. 379 Midnight Bisou (13)
3. 311 Sistercharlie (1)
4. 290 Mitole (1)
5. 208 McKinzie
6. 198 Code of Honor
7. 162 Imperial Hint
8. 103 Omaha Beach (1)
9. 99 Catalina Cruiser
10. 96 Vino Rosso