Horses

Wigginses can't wait to make every day a Monday

LOUISVILLE — For the better part of the last three decades, Renee Wiggins has looked forward to Mondays.

That was the day her husband of more than 40 years would usually take off from his duties around his barn, and that was the day where, no matter what was happening at the track, the couple made themselves the priority.

"That is our special day," Renee Wiggins said. "We wake up whenever we wake up, he has his coffee, I have my tea, and we just visit and talk.

"We call that our day, and we are so looking forward to having our special day every day."

When Churchill Downs' Fall Meet comes to its conclusion Saturday, every day from then on will be Monday for Hal and Renee Wiggins.

Few people get to walk away from their profession while at their peak. For that reason among others, trainer Hal Wiggins considers himself an extremely lucky man.

After 34 years on the backstretch, Wiggins will retire at the end of the week, capping a career that saw him rise from the ranks of the unheralded to one of the sport's most respected horsemen.

While much of the outside world came to know him this season as the original trainer of Horse of the Year candidate Rachel Alexandra, Wiggins' success story began long before his former protege set the sport on fire.

A third-generation horseman and native of Port Arthur, Texas, the 66-year-old Wiggins fully caught the racing bug at age 14 when he went to live with and work for New Mexico trainer Ab Simpson.

Though he later graduated from Texas A&M and had a solid job as a tax assessor, Wiggins made the bold decision in the mid-1970s to give up his 9-to-5 paycheck and pursue his dream of training horses full-time.

That choice has been validated by a career that has produced 870 victories to date from horses that have earned more than $20.1 million.

More important than the results, however, is that as demanding as Wiggins' career has been, he says it never once felt like work.

"Renee has heard me say 100 times over the last 30 years that my alarm goes off a little before 4 a.m., but I never get up thinking I'm going to a job," said Wiggins, who was recently honored by the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners as the 2009 Horseman of the Year. "It is great to earn a living doing something you thoroughly enjoy. I'm going to miss it but ... I had an old-timer tell me years ago, there is life away from the racetrack."

That Wiggins is winding up his career in Kentucky is fitting considering it was his move to the Bluegrass in the early 1990s that transformed his life.

After saddling just a handful of winners his first few years, Wiggins established himself as one of the rising trainers on the Louisiana circuit, racking up a what was then a career-best 50 victories in 1992.

If he wanted to stretch his talents, however, Wiggins knew he had to try to make it in the heart of Thoroughbred country. Thus, in 1993, Wiggins and his family left several top clients behind and moved their base to Churchill Downs.

"We've had our struggles, but I've never doubted him, and he has provided for his family in a wonderful way," Renee Wiggins said.

His warm demeanor earned Wiggins several comrades on the backside, but it was his impeccable work ethic that convinced owners to come his way.

One year after shifting to Kentucky, Wiggins saddled his first Breeders' Cup starter in Morris Code, a hard-knocking filly who would go on to notch eight stakes wins and more than $745,000 in earnings for Wiggins and his longtime owner, Dolphus Morrison.

Two years later, Wiggins was again in the spotlight when Leo's Gypsy Dancer — a filly he bought for $20,000 for a syndicate of 17 women — went on to earn more than $457,000.

"That kind of got me to the forefront in Kentucky because it got my name out there," Wiggins said. "Before that, we just had regular horses and would win a race every once in a while, but it was slow."

And when a most extraordinary horse by the name of Rachel Alexandra came into his barn last season, Wiggins got to showcase his long-respected skills to the masses.

Though she was later sold by Morrison to wine magnate Jess Jackson and transferred to the barn of Steve Asmussen, it was Wiggins who conditioned Rachel Alexandra through her first 10 career starts, including her breathless 201/4-length triumph in the Kentucky Oaks in May.

The sting of losing the horse of a lifetime was undeniable for Wiggins. However, a comfortable retirement was among the many gifts Rachel Alexandra provided for her former trainer and his family.

"To be honest, financially she made it possible to (retire) and me not have to work anywhere," Wiggins said.

While Wiggins insists he has no plans for a comeback once he saddles his final horse, he isn't exactly going to be a stranger in racing circles.

His son, Lon, also a trainer, will inherit a majority of the 20 to 25 horses in Wiggins' string, and his and Renee's new home in Houston is only 10 to 15 minutes from Sam Houston Race Park.

Admittedly, Wiggins heads into this weekend with mixed emotions. But with three grandchildren and a devoted wife, he knows the days ahead of him will be among the most special of his life.

"His entire life, he's been living his dream, and that is a successful man," Renee Wiggins said. "When he was getting closer to announcing (his retirement), I kept asking 'Are you sure?' because I wanted him to be happy. It is bittersweet but, now that we are saying goodbye, I'm overwhelmed with joy for him that he's getting the recognition for all his hard work."

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