After training horses for more three decades and having his career peak this year with the success of the sensational filly Rachel Alexandra, Hal Wiggins will ride off into the sunset of retirement at the end of Churchill Downs’ fall meet in November.
“We really didn’t decide this would be the year (for retirement) until Rachel Alexandra,” said Wiggins, 66, who saddled the filly to four graded stakes wins, including a record-breaking 20 1/4-length victory in the May 1 Kentucky Oaks (gr. I).
When co-owner Dolphus Morrison sold Rachel to Jess Jackson’s Stonestreet Stables and Harold McCormick prior to the May 16 Preakness Stakes (gr. I), in which she triumphed for the first time over males, Morrison received a portion of the profit.
“My wife and I had been discussing (retirement) for about a year or a year and a half,” said Wiggins. “To be honest, Rachel really made it possible (financially) for us to do it, so we just thought (this fall) would be a good time.
“Also, our grandkids are growing up, and I want to be there for them. And our other son and daughter-in-law live in Chicago, so hopefully we can spend a lot of time with them too.”
Wiggins currently has 19 horses in training with a several different owners. When he retires, his stock will be spread between a few conditioners, one of which is his son, Lon, who is based at Arlington Park.
“(Lon) has trained a horse or two for Dolphus, and he said he would just turn everything over to him, so that will be a pretty easy transition,” said Wiggins, who indicated some of his other owners had also shown interest in transferring their horses to Lon’s barn.
As of Aug. 18, Wiggins has won 863 races from 7,111 starters, and has career earnings of $20,056,644. Some of his other major horses over the years have included three-time Fair Grounds Budweiser Breeders’ Cup Handicap victor Yukon Robbery, and graded winners Cielo Gold and Chorwon.
Wiggins said after he retires he and his wife of 43 years, Renee, would most likely move to the Houston, Texas area, where both of them are from and where their grandchildren, oldest son, Whitney, and daughter-in-law reside.
Looking back over all his years in the industry, which started at Delta Downs in Louisiana in the 1970s, Wiggins has a lot to be thankful for.
“Naturally, the highs (of my career) have been winning nice races for the owners,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate to train for people long enough where I’ve trained the daughters, and sometimes the granddaughters of some of the horses we’ve got now.
"People like Leon Millsap in Hot Springs, and Thomas Mueller, who has passed away now. I trained for him for more than 10 years, and we won a lot of stakes with the horses he bred and raised. When you’re with those people for that amount of time, it’s rewarding for me to see them and their families enjoy winning those stakes races and being in the middle of it. To me, that’s the best part of it.”
The following are some of Wiggins’ other thoughts as he reflected back over his training career:
On the hardest part of training:
“I guess the down part (about training) would be the injuries to the horses. When you have a horse in your barn, and see it all day every day, you get pretty attached to them. You know their personalities, and they know you, and then to have a devastating injury to the horse—that’s a tough thing. You want to get over it, but sometimes it’s hard to get over it.”
“Traveling is tough, but the friends you have in the different places makes it a whole lot easier. It was tough when we first started because our two sons were both young and in school. But I was blessed that they had a great mother (Renee) that never missed an activity. She was there all the time, and there were so many times I wasn’t there for them. I think about that a lot. It enters my mind more than a lot of people know, but we were blessed that she was there, so it made easier for me being away like that.”
On hobbies he will take up in his retirement:
“Being a horse trainer, you don’t have time for a lot of hobbies. Hopefully I can develop some. It will be fun being with friends, and having the spare time to do the things we want to do. Maybe we’ll travel a little bit with the grandkids. I went to Texas A&M, and that’s just an hour from Houston. So hopefully I can take them to some ball games.”
On Rachel Alexandra, who has won three more grade I races since being turned over to trainer Steve Asmussen:
“I want to complement them on the job they’ve done with her. I think they’ve done a tremendous job with her--Steve and his staff--picking the races out for her. I don’t talk to them, so all I know is what I read, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they try her against older horses now. I don’t know if she’s got anything more to prove with these 3-year-old colts. I saw when she just worked really nice over the Oklahoma track (Aug. 17, five furlongs in 1:00.37). I’ll just keep up with her, and hopefully they’ll keep running her and run her next year in the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill. I may have to make a trip to watch that. Every time she runs, we sit down and pull for her.”
On keeping up with the industry during his retirement:
“I love the people connected with (horse racing). I don’t want to just cold turkey stop (being involved). I want to stay in (the industry) in some small way. You’ll see me here and there, maybe at the sales at Keeneland and places like that, and I’ll still visit the track. I want to stay in contact with the people in the game.”