Nice Guy Finishes First - By Mark Toothaker

I had the great fortune of meeting Hal Wiggins in 1989 at Louisiana Downs when I was a young man trying to find my way in the horse business. My first impression then is the same as now: Hal is one of the greatest guys horse racing has ever known. After 34 years as a trainer and more than 840 wins, Hal is retiring to enjoy some well deserved time with his wife, Renee, and his grandchildren in Houston.

Hal has always said he never once thought he was having to get up to go to work; that it was a privilege to get to go and do what he loved—train horses.

I remember last year Hal telling me he had a really nice Medaglia d’Oro he thought could be special. How right he was. As Rachel Alexandra was running rough shod over the competition this spring, and it looked more and more like Hal was going to have the favorite for the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I), I couldn’t help but think back to the late ’80s and taking one of his colts to Evangeline Downs because he wasn’t good enough to win at Louisiana Downs.

How far this man had come from the small tracks and small purses to having one of the greatest fillies racing has ever seen. Hal told me once that in the early ’70s the purse was so small on a race he won that after he paid for the win pictures he owed the track money.

The week of the Oaks was the thrill of a lifetime, getting to see the man I have respected for so long play a gracious host to the horseracing world. Hal’s barn was bombarded with media and spectators all week, but he took time to give everyone an interview or a kind word. When most people would have been nervous and tried to keep people away, Hal took time for everyone, making each person feel as if they, too, were a part of his team.

Nothing Oaks week could have better defined Hal, though, than Rachel Mattson, a precious 7-year-old girl who came to the Oaks and Derby courtesey of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Rachel found out Hal had a filly with her name, and she became Rachel Alexandra’s biggest fan. Hal and Renee played host Oaks day to Rachel and her family, and after his filly galloped into the record books and won the biggest race of his career, there was Hal in the winner’s circle holding little Rachel Mattson in his arms.

The following week I was looking at yearlings in Louisiana when Hal called to tell me the papers had been signed and Rachel Alexandra was going to be leaving his barn. All of us close to Hal were saddened to hear the news, because as Hal said, it took him 34 years to get one like her and at that rate he would be 100 before the next one would come along. Hal showed the world his class once again as he handled the situation with nothing but the utmost respect for his owners and for the new connections. 

On Nov. 21, Hal was honored with the Warner L. Jones Jr. Horseman of the Year Award, presented annually to a person that personifies what horseracing is all about. Hal joined the likes of Carl Nafzger, W.T. Young, Pat Day, and Woody Stephens. Hal accepted the award on behalf of all his grooms, hotwalkers, exercise riders, and his assistant, Brett, saying they did the work to make him look good. Typical of Hal, he gave everyone else all the credit.

I learned long ago when Hal gives advice, you had better listen, and the point he drove home at the awards dinner was that we do a bad job as a sport recognizing our owners. We are quick to tell the stories of our jockeys and trainers but put very little focus on the owners. He pointed out that owners are the ones who put the money up, pay the vet bills, and allow the trainers to ply their trade. Each owner has a story to tell, and if we told the public more about each of them, then maybe more onlookers would think this is not just a sport of kings but something they could do as well.

As Hal wrapped up his last week of training, it was only fitting that his last two starters at Churchill both won, proving that good guys do finish first.

Mark Toothaker is a partner in Lexington-based Legacy Bloodstock.

31 Comments

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Mike Relva

Great read! I'm still saddened that RA was taken away from Mr. Wiggens. In my book he sets the standard,he deserved better. I certainly could care less for RA's present trainer!

15 Dec 2009 1:42 PM
Edie

I was so lucky to be at my first Oaks and witness greatness as Rachel Alexandra won by over 20 lengths! A few days later I was very disappointed to hear that, once again, it is all about money when her owner couldn't say no to Jess Jackson. She and Hal Wiggins deserved to stay together.

15 Dec 2009 7:23 PM
ThePixiePoet

When I saw Hal's interviews at the Kentucky Oaks, it really impressed me that he took time to give condolences to "JustWhistleDixie"s connections because they had to scratch. It was heartwarming to see his concern for the competition! I knew then that he was a GOOD GUY!!!

Personally, I think Hal Wiggins does a BETTER JOB training Rachel Alexandra. I wish Jess Jackson would have kept him on as the trainer!

15 Dec 2009 9:33 PM
Fire Slam

Mike Relva--

What did Steve A. do to you? Whenever he was at Churchill, and I passed him in the morning, he would always make eye contact, lift his cup of coffee, and ask "Are you doing ok?"

Steve A. takes a lot of heat, but he gave credit to Hal directly after Rachel won her first start for him.

15 Dec 2009 10:10 PM
Fire Slam

Edie--

It better be about money. Dont even lie. If someone offered you the amount of money they received for Rachel, you would have taken it.

Anyone who differs is a lie. A few thousands dollars, I could see turning down. But millions. You better take it. And you see what Mr. Hal Wiggins is doing with his cut, retiring.

15 Dec 2009 10:13 PM
Barry Irwin

Very sad the Rachel owners didn't let the trainer run the filly in the Kentucky Derby or against males. But he did a superb job in developing the filly.

15 Dec 2009 11:01 PM
PomDeTerre

couldn't agree with you both more.  ANY credit due this filly goes to Mr. Wiggins, same as Helen Pitts deserves the credit for training Curlin.  

16 Dec 2009 6:08 AM
The Arkansas Fat Man

Hal Wiggins, notice that it's always Hal, hardly ever Mr. Wiggins, unless of course your first name is Lon, the doll house bomber.

Markie T certainly has Hal pegged as one of the good guys. I'll miss Hal at Oaklawn and wish him the best for his duration of his time on earth.

16 Dec 2009 8:08 AM
lobieb

So much is said about "the big trainers" who get all the big named horses but in all the time I have been a racing fan I have come to realize that it is not a vast stable that can care and train a horse as can a good trainer, "the little guy" who has hands on day to day contact with his small band of horses.  I for one if I could afford a race horse would opt for  hands on from a small barn who could give my horse the attention he or she needed.  They are the heart and soul of racing not the big guns who don't even know who or what they have in their many barns.  Hal, live a full life with your wife and grandchildren but I am sure that we will hear of you in some capacity with racing in the future.

16 Dec 2009 8:46 AM
Heidie Jo

Good Job Mark.  Very Good Job!  Thanks for writing such a wonderful message.

16 Dec 2009 9:13 AM
Daunice

In the time leading up to the Oaks, I enjoyed reading & hearing interviews of Mr. Wiggens and was at Churchill Downs for Rachel’s final work prior to the Oaks.

I was sadden when she was taken away from the Wiggins barn and sent a letter to him.

Mr. Wiggins took the time to send a note and photos of Rachel Alexandra.

What a great and classy guy.  Best Wishes to Mr. Wiggins and his family.  

16 Dec 2009 9:51 AM
Junie Wise-Rocky Road Farm

I never could understand why the NEW Owner of a Horse after purchase has to change trainers???...Especially in this case???....I guess they just want to go with a "NAME"

That is one reason I pull against "HER" now!!!!

16 Dec 2009 10:35 AM
Sally in Indy

I was fortunate to meet Rachel's original connections, including Mr. Wiggins, during an autograph session at Churchill in June. What a gracious, unassuming gentleman! - among the best the sport has to offer. The Horseman of the Year Award was well deserved. Best wishes always, Mr. Wiggins!

16 Dec 2009 10:37 AM
Cgrif

Great column - fantastic and most deserving subject.  

Mr. Wiggins all class - head to toe - and he'd not approve of bloggers taking hits at the new connections for Rachel just because they committed the apparently cardinal sin of purchasing her for a whopping load of money.

I remember full well Asmussen giving more than one sound bite offering full credit for Rachel's Preakness win and her overall great physical and mental attitude to Wiggins' careful care.

I felt bad when she was taken away from Hal, as well.  I wish Jackson would have kept him on - but Asmussen is Jackson's trainer of record - so it wasn't a huge surprise when he didn't.  

And don't forget- the very hefty commission from her sale allowed Hal to retire at a level of security and comfort he might not have had otherwise.  And he's earned the right to relax a bit and enjoy the game as a part timer rather than living 24/7 at the bar.

So let's just honor the class and professionalism Hal Wiggins exhibits by being thrilled for his grand career, bright future and that one brightest moment when he trained a real superstar in racing.

Thanks for the memories, Hal!

16 Dec 2009 11:13 AM
Karen in Indiana

Fire Slam, I would have taken the money, but I also would have cared enough about the horse to put in the contract that she stays with her trainer, at least until the end of the year. That would have lessened the stress for her. Yes, she won a lot of very good, historic races this year. But she has also had to deal with a lot of change, some of which didn't have to happen. Owners put sale conditions in contracts all the time, it would not have been hard for them to do.

16 Dec 2009 12:19 PM
da3hoss

Mr. Wiggins did a great job with her while he had her...such a great job that she handled the barn and trainer change and still won the Preakness a mere two weeks later!

He's right about owners, too...she had a very good owner, and she ended up with a very good owner who took her to a new level..both very good for this very wonderful filly.

16 Dec 2009 1:41 PM
Dixiebandfan

The previous owner and trainer were opposed to running her in the Preakness. In 20/20 hindsight, it was a good thing for the sport that Jess Jackson bought the horse and gave it to Steve Asmussen to take to the races. It would have been a brilliant showdown to have seen her take on Zenyatta, but that will never happen, it seems. Barry Irwin and PomDe Terre are both spot on. Wiggins did a great job.

16 Dec 2009 3:37 PM
anna

i look at it this way. what if they never sold rachel alexandra and had ran her in the acorn stakes as had been planned because then she wouldn't never had a chance to do what she was capeable of doing. hindsight is 20/20. besides her former owners they still own her dam and they could've stayed in for 50% but they didn't. that they was the ones who lost the most.

16 Dec 2009 3:43 PM
mtb-jr

Has anyone seen the hour-long interview on HRTV with Hal Wiggins?  What a nice, sincere, down-to-earth guy!  Then, contrast it with the Richard Mandella hour they show right it.  Short-answers.  Abrupt.  Confrontational.....Arrogant.  The difference between a true horseman/gentleman and a "trainer to the stars".  

16 Dec 2009 8:50 PM
Barbara

Speak for yourself, FireSlam. I don't have millions and I would never sell a horse like Rachel outright after her Oaks win. Yes I am old enough to be sure of that statement. Anyone can end up with millions, very few if any end up with a horse like Rachel.

As for keeping her with Wiggins, I think he might have been one of the best representatives of this sport ever if given the chance to show more of that Oaks week grace with her this summer...

16 Dec 2009 10:49 PM
Charles Dattalo

 This is a great article on a truly good guy. I have known Hal since childhood. His family is like a second family to me and I can say byond a shadow of a doubt what you have written about him is the same way those of that have known him for years feel. You will never meet a nicer guy or for that matter a nicer family, including his lovely wife.

17 Dec 2009 5:42 AM
GreyK

I believe Hal Wiggins, gentleman that he is, told an interviewer he was happy that the money from selling Rachel Alexandra made it possible for him to retire and enjoy his grandchildren.  Boy oh boy, that Jess Jackson sure is a big old evil meanie for giving this good man a chance to retire at the top of his game and in good health.  LOL  

17 Dec 2009 11:04 AM
Mike Relva

MTB-JR

I totally regarding Mr.Wiggins. He's a great guy! But,you are WAY OFF w/your comments regarding Mr. Mandella. He's a class act and first rate trainer. What planet are you from?

17 Dec 2009 12:12 PM
Fire Slam

Richard Mandella is has always been super nice. My father use to handle business for Harry Trotsek.

When I met Richard Mandella, and we began talking about old time trainers, he was very sincere, and very humble.

17 Dec 2009 2:59 PM
Mike H

Very good article. Hal we miss you and Renee in LOUISVILLE enjoy your retirement. (by the way we have a new football coach)

18 Dec 2009 11:43 AM
Ida Lee

All the best to Mr. Wiggins in his retirement. And yes I give him the credit for training and conditioning Rachel. He made her a super athlete. But, I think we can agree that her new connections sent her out a whole new door. It was Jackson and Asmussen that put her into the national TV spotlight by putting her into the Preakness where she was exposed to non-horse people. It was this race that got her into Vogue for goodness sake. If her new connections had her from the beginning, I believe they would have entered her into the Derby and she would have gone on to win the Triple Crown. I have no doubt since she is the best 3-year old in the country. This is not taking anything away from Mr. Wiggins. He was incredibly gracious when she was taken away from him. And I will be forever grateful to him for training this Goddess of Racing to be the Champion she is today.  

18 Dec 2009 12:18 PM
John T

When Rachel Alexandra won the Kentucky Oaks the way she did it showed what a good job Hal Wiggins

had done bringing her up to that race.I can,t even imagine the pain

and the heartache it must be for a trainer to lose a horse like that.The same thing happened to Helen Pitts when Jess Jackson bought Curlin and transferred that horse also to Steve Asmussen.What a great joy it was to see Pitts have some level of compensation this year with Einstein.

18 Dec 2009 11:00 PM
Soldier Course

mtb jr.:

Richard Mandella is one of the nicest people in the sport of horse racing. He showed a great kindness to me a few years back, and I am simply a fan he'd never met.

21 Dec 2009 12:09 PM
DT

Nicely written, my brother!

28 Dec 2009 4:50 PM
Funnydecide

Mark, thanks for bringing out the best of the best! I'm an owner in the racing industry and almost to the point of giving up. Hal Wiggin's comment of "we do a bad job as a sport recognizing our owners." That statement give me hope that there is trainers out there that truly watch out for the small guy in the industry and I see alot of honesty in Hal Wiggins just by his comment. Owners do everything to support the industry and we are constantly by-passed. Thanks again Mark, your article was very well written and thanks to Hal Wiggins, only wished I knew him.

06 Jan 2010 8:52 AM
Fadi Hosn

Nice article written by the best horseman I ever met.

29 Jan 2010 11:16 PM

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