Jesse Norman "Sonny" Wigginton III, a longtime trainer of Thoroughbred horses who enjoyed his biggest successes at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas but called Keeneland his favorite track, died Tuesday at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Lexington. He was age 78.
Mr. Wigginton, born in Lexington on Dec. 11, 1934, graduated from Henry Clay High School in 1952 and attended the University of Kentucky for two years before volunteering to join the U.S. Army.
During his youth, Mr. Wigginton rode and showed gaited ponies at competitions including the Lexington Junior League Horse Show before moving onto a career training Thoroughbreds.
Mr. Wigginton won his first race as a licensed trainer in 1968 at Churchill Downs with a horse named First Volley and began training racehorses full-time later that year.
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Mr. Wigginton's stable raced regularly on a circuit that began the season at Oaklawn Park each winter. In April he would ship his stable to his home base at Keeneland, followed by races at Churchill Downs and other regional tracks, including Turfway Park and River Downs. He also raced at Arlington Park, Saratoga Race Course and Belmont Park and won stakes races at several of those tracks.
At Belmont Park, he ran Witchy Woman in a stakes race against champion Ruffian when the fillies were 2-year-olds. He won the only race he entered at Saratoga with Gold Spring in the Grade III A Phenomenon Stakes. At Arlington, he won the Wedgewood Handicap with Flying Continental.
He said Gold Spring was the best horse he trained and Flying Continental as his favorite.
Mr. Wigginton raced horses at Oaklawn through 2011. At one point, he had a remarkable .500 winning percentage at the track.
But his favorite racecourse always was Keeneland, where he could race in front of his hometown fans.