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.