09/13/2012 11:07AM

Arlington: Wiggins faces uncertain future despite Lassie win

Four-Footed Fotos
Gold Edge, winning the Arlington-Washington Lassie, will be put up for sale in November. She is trainer Lon Wiggins's first graded stakes winner.

Lon Wiggins won the first graded stakes of his training career at Arlington last Saturday, when Gold Edge captured the Grade 3 Arlington-Washington Lassie by a neck, her third win from three starts this summer. The win was satisfying for Wiggins. Gold Edge is a 2-year-old filly with more than her fair share of quirks. Wiggins and his barn patiently have helped Gold Edge through them, and the filly has prospered.

But just as Wiggins, 43, has developed the most talented horse he’s ever trained, she is on the verge of leaving him.

Dolphus Morrison bred and owns Gold Edge, and after about 35 years in racing, Morrison is dispersing all his equine holdings at Keeneland’s horse auction in November. Gold Edge and three other Morrison horses will exit Wiggins’s stable, and as things stand, Wiggins would have just two racehorses left under his care.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do yet,” Wiggins said, drinking a diet Coke while champagne flowed all around him in Arlington’s post-stakes winner’s room after the Lassie.

Granted, he was still flush with victory, but Wiggins outlined his dire situation smiling all the way through. For as long as he can remember, Wiggins has wanted to work around horses. His father, Hal, trained until 2010, when he retired not long after his horse of a lifetime, Rachel Alexandra, passed through his care. Dolph Morrison bred and owned Rachel Alexandra, too, and just like he will do with Gold Edge in November, he sold her when the time was ripe.

Morrison is, first and foremost, a businessman. Similarly, Wiggins is a horseman. His lone sibling, a brother named Whitney, is a high-end clothier in Houston. Lon was the one following Hal around the stables when he was only waist-high, trying to take in all the horsiness, waiting for the day when he could work on his own.

“I always loved being around the horses, getting up in the morning with Dad,” Wiggins said.

Wiggins never has had a large stable, but times never were quite so lean as now. He galloped horses until three years ago, and before striking out on his own in 1997 he served as an exercise rider for Steve Asmussen and Bill Mott. His first year training was 1997: Wiggins went 4 for 63 that season and 2 for 19 the next, but things appeared to be building through the early 2000’s. Racing at Arlington and Hawthorne with a little Oaklawn thrown in to start the calendar year, Wiggins got up to 112 starters in 2003, but he has never run that many horses since. His 15 wins in 2008 were a career-best, and the most his runners earned in a season was $271,527 in 2010. In 2012, Gold Edge has accounted for three of Wiggins’s five victories.

“I think it’s a reflection of the game,” Hal Wiggins said, reached by phone in Houston, where he and his wife have retired.

Hal Wiggins said he never encouraged either of his sons to gravitate toward the horse trade.

“It’s a tough, tough game, and these are tough times, too,” he said. “It’s going to be hard on him to lose Dolph’s horses.”

Morrison, reached at his home in Colombia, Mo., declined to cite his motivation for selling his horses, but he is 78 now and hit a grand slam when he sold Rachel Alexandra to Jess Jackson after the filly won the Kentucky Oaks in 2009. Morrison bred Rachel Alexandra and bought her dam, Lotta Kim, at the end of her racing career on the advice of Lon Wiggins. That’s also what came to pass with Gold Edge, whose dam, Gold Spike, Wiggins trained for most of her racing career. Gold Spike’s ownership group wasn’t interested in keeping her as a broodmare, and Morrison took up Wiggins’s suggestion to buy her. She and her Pure Prize foal will sell along with Gold Edge and 17 other horses in November. Gold Edge’s graded stakes win in the Lassie, Morrison estimated, could net him at least an extra half-million dollars at the sale.

“That was a very good day for us,” he said.

Two trainers have been employed by Morrison in his 3 1/2 decades of ownership: Hal and Lon Wiggins. Morrison picks his personnel carefully, in the steel business that made him wealthy and with horses.

“Lon is a good trainer,” Morrison said. “He’s very experienced, very knowledgeable, very intelligent, and he really studies what the very successful trainers do and copies it.”

It seems reasonable to take Morrison at his word. Wiggins’s understanding of Thoroughbreds is as organic as it gets, and he knows the animals from ground level and in the saddle. Talk to him for a few minutes, though, and what comes through is a man nearly devoid of ego. Wiggins possesses a dry wit he often directs at himself, but the quality that shines brightest is his kindness. Humility and a kind heart, sadly, do not go a long way toward attracting horse owners.

“He’s kind of a quiet-type person, and frankly, he’s not quite enough of a b.s. artist to get a lot of new clients,” Morrison said.

Wiggins comes by his personality honestly: Hal Wiggins has a similar personality, though his social tendencies have been further distilled in his son.

“Lon’s probably even a little quieter even than me, and that might have something to do with where he is right now,” Hal Wiggins said. “It’s kind of hard to explain how you wind up with owners. It takes a lot of luck. You’ve got to be a good horseman, but you’ve got to get some breaks, too. Just like with the filly he has now.”

Gold Edge, a daughter of Eddington, was reported by pre-racetrack evaluators to play second fiddle in terms of ability to another Wiggins-trained, Morrison-owned 2-year-old filly, Shesakitty. But while Shesakitty has yet to win a maiden race, Gold Edge has won the Lisa M Stakes and the Lassie to go along with a debut win in a $50,000 maiden claimer. That she ran for a claiming price, however, didn’t mean her connections regarded her lightly. Rather, her savvy owner felt he could get away with running her for a price.

“We were kind of stealing there,” Morrison said.

Gold Edge has succeeded despite regularly challenging the patience of her caregivers. She has been prone to tantrums that can erupt without warning. Like the parents of an autistic child, her handlers have learned to emphasize routine, making the filly as comfortable as possible in everything she’s asked to do.

“Before she trains we tie her to the front of the stall,” Wiggins said, outlining one detail of the Gold Edge-management protocol he has developed. “Her rider has to get up on her in the stall, and the pony has to be right there in front of the stall in the shed row before she comes out.

“Before you get her turned around on the track and ready to train, anything can happen,” he said. “But once you turn her around to gallop, she’s perfect.”

Chris Emigh, Gold Edge’s jockey her last two races, said Gold Edge puts forth tremendous effort when she races. At the end of her first half-mile breeze, an event that generally fatigues an inexperienced 2-year-old, Gold Edge kept galloping and galloping, not wanting to stop. Whatever nervous energy pushes the horse to unpredictable behavior she has learned to funnel into the sheer act of running.

“She just loves to run,” Wiggins said. “She’s never been beaten in the morning, either, and she never gets tired.”

That is what gives Wiggins hope that Gold Edge will stretch out to two-turn racing in the fall. Her next start could come in the Grade 1 Alcibiades at Keeneland, though Wiggins worries that because of Keeneland’s massive September yearling sale he won’t be able to get Gold Edge settled into a new day-to-day routine there in time to make her fully comfortable. The main reason Wiggins even brought his small string to Chicago this summer was because he believed Gold Edge had the goods to win the Lassie, and that to accommodate her foibles, she needed to reside in the same place as long as possible.

Wiggins, of course, downplays the work he’s done with the filly.

“With the number of horses I have, I’ve got plenty of time to devote to her,” he said. “I still get up at 4 o’clock, like always, and go the barn. I have to stare at them an hour or two before I get to work.”

That last remark was a joke, and probably, Wiggins’s cheerful perspective on his uncertain career is colored by matters more grave. Three years ago, his wife, Robin, whom Wiggins met when she was galloping horses for Steve Asmussen, and who has always worked by his side in the stable, nearly died because of a heart problem. The couple has no children: Wiggins said he didn’t want to subject kids to the constant moves required of a trainer attempting to gain a foothold in the game. It was when his wife took ill that Lon stopped riding every morning. He got out of the habit and discovered, going back to it, that his body hurt too much the day after galloping to make it worthwhile. His wife still helps around the barn as much as she can, but her role is diminished because of her heart.

Wiggins found out in June that Morrison planned to disperse his stock. He has had plenty of time to contemplate the future, and he’ll be doing so even as he prepares Gold Edge for what could be the first Grade 1 race of Wiggins’s career. It may not be until sometime in November that Wiggins knows what his life will look like next year.

“We’re going to have to wait until the last horse goes through the sale before we can really see where things stand,” he said. “This is what I want to keep doing. But I’ll do whatever I have to do when the time comes.”