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Victor J. Nickerson, 75; Horse Trainer

March 28, 2004|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

Victor J. "Lefty" Nickerson, the New York horse trainer who was instrumental in sending John Henry to California, where the ageless gelding won two horse-of-the-year titles in the early 1980s, died Friday at his home in Smithtown, N.Y. He was 75.

Nickerson, who had a stroke in 1996, also tutored Richard Mandella, a future Hall of Fame trainer who won Saturday's $6-million Dubai World Cup.

In Dubai, Mandella learned of his former mentor's death only minutes after his Pleasantly Perfect won the world's richest race. At 21, Mandella took a job with Nickerson as an exercise rider in 1972 and worked with him for a year and a half.

"Lefty is my best friend," Mandella said last October at Santa Anita, after saddling a record four winners in the Breeders' Cup. "I can't praise him enough for the education he gave me in a very short time. It was just one of those magnetic or magical things that happen when you meet somebody and a light goes on. The man told you everything, the answer to every question you ever had in your life, without you even asking it. I think the world of him. He's been like a second father."

In 1979, Sam Rubin, a New York bicycle importer who had bought John Henry for $25,000, sent the struggling horse to Nickerson. John Henry, then a 4-year-old, had won nine of 30 starts.

Under Nickerson for eight races, John Henry was unable to win any stakes races, but on the grass at Belmont Park in September, he won an allowance race that encouraged the trainer.

"I was told he was tough," Nickerson said, "but he came to me very docile, easy to handle. Waya, a champion grass mare, was third in that allowance he won, and that was the signal of what kind of horse John Henry was developing into."

There was little grass racing in New York during the winter, so Nickerson called trainer Ron McAnally at Santa Anita, and asked if he'd like to have John Henry. In October, John Henry got off a plane at 2 a.m., and that afternoon he won the Carleton F. Burke Handicap at Santa Anita. John Henry, who ran his last race in 1984, was voted national titles in 1981 and 1984 and earned almost $6.6 million, which was then a record.

From Santa Anita, John Henry occasionally returned to New York to win several races, and though Nickerson was listed as the trainer, McAnally was still in charge. Nickerson and McAnally had been friends since they started out as grooms on the New England circuit. After McAnally got John Henry, he shared his training commissions with Nickerson for the rest of the horse's career. Nickerson's cut was about $300,000.

"What a super guy Lefty was," McAnally said Saturday. "Besides being a great horseman, he had a great personality, a terrific sense of humor. And he was always reading. He was as well-rounded a guy as you could find on the backstretch."

After a long career in New York, Nickerson trained in California in the late 1980s and later worked for Marty and Pam Wygod at their Santa Ynez Valley farm. In 1974, Nickerson sent out Big Spruce -- a horse Mandella galloped -- to beat the great Forego twice at Belmont Park. Among Nickerson's other stakes winners were Staunchness, Verbatim, High Tribute, Manta, Magazine and Sprout.

"The highlight was the part I played in John Henry's career," Nickerson once said of his career. "That's about as exciting as you can get."

Nickerson is survived by his daughter, Barbara Smalley, and three grandsons.

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