“What a way to finish,” trainer Hal Wiggins said Saturday morning at Churchill Downs. No kidding.
With his final starter as a trainer Nov. 27, Wiggins watched as Robert V. Hovelson’s High Spirit closed from far back to win the 10th race by a nose and pay $55.60 under Terry Thompson.
“I didn’t bet a dollar on him,” Wiggins said. “I had a hundred dollar bill in my pocket and I was planning to break it and bet $5 across on him, but I got to talking with a lot of people and never did it.”
What made the win all the more unreal for the 34-year training veteran were the circumstances surrounding the race.
“If it hadn’t been the end of the meet, we probably wouldn’t have run,” Wiggins said. “I had to change riders because Calvin (Borel) was riding for his brother in the race. High Spirit was shortening up (from a mile to seven furlongs) and jumping up in class. He was a legit 26-1 shot.
“When I put the saddle on him, I started to think about it being the last one a bit and I spent a little extra time in the stall.”
More than 12 lengths back after a half-mile, Thompson swung High Spirit wide at the head of the lane and began to mow down the field. At the eighth pole, racing in the middle of track, High Spirit was still four lengths off the lead and still managed to win.
“After I took the saddle off, Calvin was waiting for me by the scale and he gave me a big hug,” Wiggins said. “He had won a race for me on Lady Durlyn on Thursday. We go a long way back together. I found an old picture the other day from 1983 at Delta Downs with the two of us the first year he rode.”
So the day capped a Hollywood ending for Wiggins…almost.
“If Hollywood had written the script, I would still have Rachel,” said Wiggins, who turns 67 Nov. 30.
Rachel, of course, is Rachel Alexandra, the brilliant 3-year-old filly who Wiggins saddled for owner-breeder Dolphus Morrison and partner Mike Lauffer for a record-smashing 20 1/4-length victory in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) this spring.
Wiggins said that Friday’s victory and Rachel Alexandra’s Oaks triumph would rank high in the top five moments in his career. The day Rachel Alexandra was sold to Jess Jackson’s Stonestreet Stables and Harold T. McCormick and would be at the opposite end of the spectrum.
“It was a low point, no question,” Wiggins said of the morning Rachel Alexandra left his barn for the short journey to new trainer Steve Asmussen’s barn in early May. “But I don’t blame the owner for selling. To hit a home run like that with the size of operation that I have, that doesn’t come around often.
“I sure didn’t foresee a year like this. I thought we would have traveled around the country with her and eventually maybe tried the males once.”
Wiggins, who will stay at Churchill Downs until Dec. 1 to oversee a couple of works before turning the barn over to his son, Lon, retires with a total of 872 victories in a career that began in 1976 and produced its first winner at Evangeline Downs on July 2, 1977. His horses earned a total of $20,218,625 in purses.
“It’s been a great ride and I’ve met a lot of great people,” said Wiggins, who will join his wife Renee in Houston. “I am still going to go to sales and still be involved in it. I love the game so much, I don’t want to quit cold turkey.”