Despite retiring, longtime trainer Hal Wiggins could not stay away from the racetrack so he returned to the traveling lifestyle with sojourns all the way back to his roots.
In his 33 years as a trainer, Wiggins won nearly 900 races, highlighted by the 2009 Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks with Rachel Alexandra for Dolphus Morrison, his client for more than three decades. That triumph was a turning point for Wiggins and his wife of 53 years, Renee, when the filly was sold and transferred to another trainer for her Hall of Fame legacy.
“I never had a bunch of really good horses,” Wiggins said. “You work your whole career and you get one and then she gets sold but they couldn't turn down the offer. That morning before daylight when she walked out of the barn was a feeling you never want to have. It gets to you.”
The moment was softened by the generous bonus the seller gave Wiggins that inspired him to close shop.
“It was time,” he said. “I was able to do it financially. Like most trainers, I thought I would train until they buried me. I loved it. There were tough times and there were good times. I Ioved being with the horses and the horse people.”
By the end of 2009, the couple retired and sent barn equipment and many of their owners to their son Lon, a trainer since 1997. While Hal Wiggins had focused on caring for the Thoroughbreds, Renee was an integral part of the operation as bookkeeper and social coordinator while enjoying the races with clients (more accurately described as friends) they met at their many stops. During his training career, Wiggins was a regular at tracks such as Fair Grounds, Louisiana Downs, Churchill Downs, Oaklawn Park and Remington Park. His name has appeared on programs as far north as Minnesota's Canterbury Park, at Florida's Calder Race Course, as far east as Saratoga Race Course and out west at Albuquerque Downs. If there was a track in America's eastern two-thirds, Hal Wiggins probably made a stop including closed venues like Birmingham Turf Club, Jefferson Downs and Trinity Meadows.
With memories of the racing stable in the rearview mirror, Wiggins and his wife opted to leave their Louisville home of 16 years and return to their native Texas to be near their other son and his children. Wiggins realized that Houston — in his words spoken like someone who has logged many miles — is “only 12 hours” from Ruidoso, N.M., where Wiggins became enchanted with racing. As a young teenager, he lived in a camper in the barn area with the leading trainer for whom he worked. He had not returned since those formative days so they made that 12-hour drive.
The initial visit back to Ruidoso evolved into long weekends with the couple renting a condo during the summers while spending time with friends. As the grandchildren got older, Wiggins and his wife returned to Louisville but his vagabond shoes were not happy standing still for long. When a call came asking him to fill the newly created position of Racing Integrity Officer at Oaklawn Park, he readily agreed and the couple was on the road again for the winter.
Wiggins is scheduled to be a steward at the upcoming Oaklawn meeting that begins January 24 after working previously as a steward at Fair Grounds and Kentucky Downs.
“Going to the barn, I never felt like I was going to work,” he said. “Renee and I always talk about the wonderful friends and wonderful people we met at all the tracks. You have to be about half gypsy to be a horse trainer because you travel so much. I keep working so I can stay connected to the horse business.”
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