With Rachel Alexandra being retired earlier this week, I thought it would be timely to catch up with her previous trainer Hal Wiggins, who was one of the major reasons she accomplished as much as he did. Wiggins, who retired from training shortly after Rachel was moved to Steve Asmussen, now lives in Texas. He is semi-retired, but works as an advisor for Legacy Bloodstock.
Wiggins, truly one of the nicest guys you will ever find in this sport, was as gracious and candid as always.
JS: How are you enjoying Texas?
HW: Really enjoying it; all the sun and spending time with my grandkids. It's great. We're from here, so it was really just coming back home for us. It's nice to stay connected to the industry (with Legacy) too. I've got the best of both worlds.
JS: At the time you were retiring I know you said you wanted to stay involved, but this thing with Legacy seemed to come along a little quicker than you expected.
HW: It really did. Mark (Toothaker) and Tommy (Eastham) and I talked, but I didn't expect anything to come of it so soon. I was just at the Keeneland sale and it was great to be back in Kentucky. I'm really enjoying the work.
JS: And I read you're still getting up at 4 a.m., just like when you were training?
HW: (Laughs). It's true. For 30 years I needed an alarm clock to get up. Now, I haven't set the clock and I don't need to get up that early but I still do. Of course, I still go to bed very early, so maybe that's why. Luckily, my newspaper comes very early in the morning.
JS: What was your reaction to Rachel's retirement?
HW: I wasn't surprised. I thought it was going to happen at some point this year. I was hoping she would make the Breeders' Cup and was looking forward to it even if she wasn't going to face Zenyatta in the Classic. The Distaff still would have been nice.
The timing (of the retirement) was a little odd. I thought she ran tremendous in the Personal Ensign. She beat that filly ( Life At Ten) that won five or six straight races by 10 lengths that day, but she just got caught at the end. I thought she ran fine.
JS: Her 2010 campaign was very strange to me, almost from the start. What did you make of it?
HW: I was really surprised too. First off, and even Steve (Asmussen) said it, they tried to rush her back for the Apple Blossom. Even when they got (Oaklawn) to push it back a week I thought, ‘one week isn't going to make a big difference.' It just seemed like the whole year was kind of off kilter.
At the same time, I think Steve did a great job with her in 2009, winning all those races. It was very aggressive and they got what they wanted out of her. But I think they paid the price. I think the Woodward gutted her.
JS: So you think the Woodward took that much out of her. What makes you say that?
HW: Just watching the race. She was all out and I think sometimes when a filly has to do that she has a hard time coming back, even with rest. It might have quit being fun for her. When she was running against 3-year-old fillies she was never extended; she did it so easily. After races, she was dragging the rider around the track. After you give everything you have a couple times, it takes something away from them.
JS: Do you think she may have been left in the barn too long before getting started this year?
HW: It's hard to say. I wasn't around her and I don't want to second guess. Steve is an excellent horseman and if he felt she needed the time off she probably did. But whether he gave her two months or six months off, I don't think she would have been the same in 2010. And that's not to criticize anyone. Steve did a great job with her and he made her Horse of the Year. I was proud of her the whole time. But never in my mind did I think it was the time off that changed her.
JS: Do you think you and Mr. Morrison would have tested her against males at some point if you guys had kept her?
HW: I think we might have. We talked a little bit about that and I think he had a little inclination to do it at some point. He just didn't want to do it in the Triple Crown. I mentioned the Belmont at one point, but that probably wasn't going to happen. We had decided after the Oaks we were going to the Acorn and then a race at Philly Park or Delaware against fillies, and then back to New York again. The colts may have come sometime after that if the timing was right.
JS: Would you have gone to the 2009 Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita?
HW: I think so, because she ran so well at Keeneland and won pretty nicely. But I think we would have gone to the Distaff.
JS: I remember talking to you in March of last year when she was getting really good and you told people not to get their hopes up about the Derby because the owner wasn't going. But part of me recalls you saying that if it were up to you, you might have run her in the Derby? Do I remember correctly?
HW: Yes, that's correct. I would have been on the fence, but I think I might have if it was my decision; especially if the Derby came up the way it did. And don't foget, I would have had Calvin on her too. There is no way that Mine That Bird wins that race without Calvin. Any other rider would have been tapping on him early in the race when he was so far back. But he was patient and knew what he was doing.
I think Mr. Morrison was worried that in a 20 horse field, if she broke slowly she could have been 13th or 14th, or something like that, and it would have compromised her. That was his decision. I trained for him for 30 years and he's a very, very wise man. I have so much respect for him. I would never try to talk him out of something or change his mind. But if I owned her, I probably would have gone for it.
JS: It's funny how everything might have changed if she would have run in the Derby.
HW: It is. If she would have won, maybe he would have kept her, no matter how much money he was offered. It's hard to give up a Derby winner (Laughs).
JS: I think the most disappointing thing for fans is that she never got to face Zenyatta. Do you think she would have met her at some point if you guys still had her?
HW: I think so, probably this year. We might have been undefeated the rest of last year if she stayed in filly races and the other mare would be undefeated too. I think there would have been a lot of public pressure on us to make it happen. I would have enjoyed it. That's what racing is all about. It would have been great for our industry.
But I could see it wasn't going to happen this year. Not with the way Rachel was running and the other mare not leaving California.
JS: At their best, who would have won?
HW: (Laughs). At a mile and eighth or a mile and a quarter?
HW: I say Rachel would have won at a mile and eighth and at a mile and quarter it would have been as close as you could ask for. Of course, they probably would have entered a rabbit, but Calvin knows her so well I think he would have gotten her to relax just fine.
JS: What was her best race?
HW: It's tough, maybe the Preakness. Calvin told me she despised the surface (at Pimlico). It was supposed to rain that day but it never did, and they didn't water the track. It was dry and he said she was fighting it the whole time.
What she did in the Woodward was very special too. For a 3-year-old filly to beat older males in a grade I was great. And she went very fast early in the race.
JS: Some say she didn't face the best of fields in the Woodward.
HW: That wasn't her fault. If you look back at the two horses she beat (Macho Again and Bullsbay) those colts did nothing after that. It took a lot out of all of them.
JS: Looking back at it all, I guess you're just proud to be part of her career?
HW: I am. People love her. I still get calls and mail from people that I don't even know. She was really something special. I hope she enjoys that sun and grass in Kentucky. She deserves it. And I hope she enjoys retirement as much as I am.