In every bar where racetrackers gather here, there are nightly discussions and argument about great throughbreds and races of the past.
On the eve of the Travers Stakes, which shaped up as a wide-open, intriguing betting event, such a discussion turned to races of yore that had inspired intense gambling interest.
One well-traveled journalist declared, "In my life, I've never seen anything remotely like the match race between Olympia and Stella Morse in 1949."
"It was unbelievable," a trainer agreed. "People were coming into Miami with suitcases full of $100 bills. Not briefcases!"
Abashed, I had to confess my ignorance. I had never even heard of the Olympia-Stella Morse race.
"Well, go see Fred Hooper," the journalist suggested. "He's 82, but he'll remember that race like it was yesterday."
Fred Hooper remembered it like it was yesterday. But what man wouldn't remember betting $93,000 on an event that would last approximately 22 seconds?
Hooper was watching his horses at his barn on the Saratoga backstretch, but his mind quickly flashed back to the day when a man named Roberts visited him at the office of his Jacksonville, Fla., construction company. The stranger said he owned a quarter horse named Stella Morse, who had trounced all her competition in the Southwest. Now he was trying to set up a match race with a thoroughbred, but he could find no takers. Would Hooper be interested?
"Olympia had finished his 2-year-old season," Hooper said, "and we were getting him ready to run at 3. On paper he was nothing to get excited about: his sire's stud fee was $300, and he was out of a mare who was a $2,500 claimer. But he had run good as a 2-year-old, and I didn't think anybody could beat him. So I suggested we put up $50,000 apiece for the race. Roberts said, 'How about $25,000? If you want to bet more, there will be all the money you want at the race.'"
Hooper's rapid agreement to the match was somewhat naive, the result of unrealistic optimism that comes when a man buys his first thoroughbred as a yearling and seems him win the Kentucky Derby -- as Hooper did with Hoop Jr. in 1945. The owner didn't know much about quarter horses, and did not know then that in a previous, similar match race, the quarter horse had beaten the thoroughbred decisively.
Other thoroughbred horsemen doubted Olympia's chances. Ben Jones, the sagacious trainer of Calumet Farm, told Hooper, "You've got no chance against a quarter horse in a quarter-mile race." And even Hooper's own trainer, Ivan Parke, had his doubts when he raced Olympia against a stablemate in a two-furlong trial -- and the stablemate won.
But Hooper's confidence never wavered. "Onr morning I was at our barn at Hialeah and two fellows in their late 30s came up to me. They were wearing cowboy outfits that must have cost $1,000 dollars and they said, 'We want to bet on Stella Morse. Do do we see"? I said, 'I guess you're looking at the right man.'
"One of the guys said he'd just sold a thousand big steers and wanted to bet $25,000. I didn't really consider myself a gambler. But if people wanted to gamble, I gambled. I didn't back off from anyone.
"I don't know how many people came up to me. But by the time of the race, I had $93,000 bet on Olympia."
The race was set for a quarter-mile down the stretch at old Tropical Park in Miami. (Hooper had had a man measure the course to make sure the short-winded Stella Morse would be running the full quarter-mile). As Hooper watched from his box by the finish line, he saw that Olympia seemed to lunge forward as the starting gate opened, and the ground broke from under his feet. After a few strides, he was a length and a half behing. "It looked like we were beat," he said.
But Olympia accelerated with the speed that would make him one of America's most celebrated sprinters in the year ahead.He drew abreast of Stella Morse after an eighth of a mile, and he crossed the finish line a half-length ahead. Fred Hooper had won more money than he had when his horse captured the Kentucky Derby.
"It wasn't really for the money that I agreed to the race," he said. "It was for sport. After the race I told Roberts that if he wanted to wait a few days and try again I had another horse in the barn I'd run against him. He said, 'No thanks. We've got just enough money to get back home.'"