08/17/2009 12:00AM

Wiggins makes plans to retire from training

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Barbara D. Livingston
Hal Wiggins, 66, said he will retire from training at the end of the Churchill meeting in November.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Hal Wiggins, whose career hit its peak earlier this year when he sent out Rachel Alexandra to a record victory in the 135th Kentucky Oaks, announced Monday that he intends to retire from training, effective with the end of the Churchill Downs fall meet in November.

Wiggins, 66, said he and his wife, Renee, "had been beating around the idea of retirement for the last year or so" and the financial windfall they received with the sale of Rachel Alexandra in May had provided the wherewithal for him to retire.

Rachel Alexandra, owned at the time by Mike Lauffer and her breeder, Dolphus Morrison, won the May 1 Oaks by a record 20 1/4 lengths, then was sold privately several days later to the Stonestreet Stables of Jess Jackson and his partner, Harold T. McCormick. The sale amount was never publicly disclosed but has been reported to be in the $10 million range. Trainers typically receive about 5 percent of sale proceeds in such cases.

"Mike and Mr. Morrison were very generous to us," Wiggins said.

Wiggins, who moved to the Kentucky circuit from Louisiana in 1993, has about 15 horses in his care at Churchill. He said the few horses owned by Morrison, his client for more than 30 years, would be sent to his son, Lon Wiggins, who trains on the Chicago and Oaklawn Park circuits, while he will recommend several other trainers to the balance of his clientele.

Wiggins began training Quarter Horses in the early 1970s before switching to Thoroughbreds full time in 1980, when his stable went 1 for 78. Things got a lot better from there: from 1981 through this past weekend, Wiggins has won 854 races for stable earnings of just more than $20 million.

Besides Rachel Alexandra, who won 7 of 10 starts under his care, his other top horses have included Morris Code, Chorwon, Kumhwa, Yukon Robbery, Leo's Gypsy Dancer, and the dam of Rachel Alexandra, Lotta Kim. In 1998, Wiggins was the leading training at the Keeneland fall meet.

The sale of Rachel Alexandra on May 7 "affected me even more than I thought it would," Wiggins said. "I just hated for her to walk out of our barn that morning, but you get up the next day and go on with your life. Renee and I are still her biggest supporters. We watched her win the [Aug. 2] Haskell together, and Renee had these big tears in her eyes. The filly was just great to us."

Rachel Alexandra, now trained by Steve Asmussen, has emerged as a superstar, having won the Preakness, Mother Goose, and Haskell in her three starts under the Stonestreet silks. She is in training at Saratoga and under consideration to race next in the Aug. 29 Travers.

Wiggins said he and his wife likely will "end up in the Houston area," where both he and Renee grew up and where their other son, Whitney, lives with his wife and two children.

"Given my druthers, I'd rather not completely retire," Wiggins said. "I'd welcome the opportunity to work with a racetrack in some capacity during their live meet, maybe three or four months a year. I love the game so much, and it's been very, very good to us, even before Rachel."

Whirlie Bertie eyes Ky. Cup Distaff

Whirlie Bertie earned an 87 Beyer Speed Figure and her first stakes win by speeding gate to wire under Larry Melancon in the 28th running of the Grade 3, $100,000 Gardenia at Ellis Park on Saturday.

Whirlie Bertie, bred and owned by Richard, Bert, and Elaine Klein, won the one-mile Gardenia by 3 1/2 lengths over Chicago invader Abby's Angel, a Darley filly who entered with a three-race win streak. Abby's Angel, ridden by Jon Court, pressed the winner throughout before holding on for second.

"She ran the race of her life and showed a lot of determination turning that other filly back," said Steve Margolis, trainer of Whirlie Bertie.

While Margolis is based primarily at Delaware Park this summer, he said Whirlie Bertie will remain with his other string at Churchill in Louisville and probably will race next in the Grade 3, $100,000 Kentucky Cup Distaff on Sept. 26 at Turfway.

Lebron escapes spill without injury

Victor Lebron was walking out of Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky., following the Gardenia Stakes program on Saturday with his wife and two children when he stopped to show an inquisitor a photograph that depicted Lebron flying off his mount, Chess Master, when the horse swerved suddenly during the stretch run of the second race of the day.

"Got lucky and didn't get hurt this time," Lebron said.

Lebron wasn't so fortunate on March 21, Lane's End Stakes Day at Turfway Park, where he was easily the leading rider at the winter-spring meet. Aboard Belle's Beamer in the third race that day, Lebron was thrown just a few strides out of the starting gate when the filly ducked sharply into a gap leaving the six-furlong chute. Lebron, 25, suffered two fractures and tissue damage in his right ankle and was expected to miss up to six months, although he made a swift recovery and returned to riding at Indiana Downs just three months after the spill.

No other horses or jockeys were involved in the Saturday incident at Ellis.

Lebron was the star of Gardenia Day 2008 when sweeping all three stakes run that afternoon, including the Gardenia aboard Swift Temper.

* Ellis Park officials did not release business statistics from Saturday but did say that all-sources handle on the Gardenia itself exceeded 2008 figures. However, with a shorter program (10 races instead of 12) and two fewer stakes (the Ellis Juvenile and Fisher Debutante were cancelled this year), the all-sources handle on the entire card was down, according to Ellis spokesman Mark Geary. Estimated ontrack attendance was 4,000.

* Kentucky first lady Jane Beshear, wife of Gov. Steve Beshear, was among those in attendance Saturday at Ellis. Jane Beshear is spearheading the statewide Horses and Hope campaign for breast-cancer awareness and fundraising. Runners in the third race Saturday all wore pink saddletowels in honor of Horses and Hope.

* Only one more stakes remains at the Ellis meet: the $50,000 Cliff Guilliams Memorial, a 1 1/16-mile turf race for older horses on closing day, Sept. 7.