Retired New York trainer V.J. "Lefty" Nickerson, a huge influence on the career of Hall of Fame conditioner Richard Mandella, died March 26 in his sleep at his Smithtown, N.Y., home. Nickerson had suffered a stroke about seven years ago.
Mandella worked as an exercise rider while in his early 20s for Nickerson for 18 months in the early 1970s, and a bond was formed right away. "Very few times do you meet someone where there's that kind of connection," Mandella told The Blood-Horse
shortly after his charge, Pleasantly Perfect, won last year's Breeders' Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I).
"Lefty could say one sentence and answer all the things I wondered about all my life. I didn't even have to ask. He just knew what to say all the time. I wanted to learn so badly, and he's such an intelligent guy, and not only as a horseman. I'd never been around anyone like him. He knew so much."
Nickerson trained the great John Henry for a time. He had taken over the conditioning of the future Hall of Famer in 1979, and when owner Sam Rubin decided to send the gelding to California, Nickerson recommended Ron McAnally. But on John Henry's trips back to New York to race, Nickerson would be the trainer of record. Nickerson saddled John Henry to big victories in 1980-81 in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), Sword Dancer Stakes (gr. IIIT), and Brighton Beach Handicap (gr. IIIT).
A Boston native, Nickerson took out his trainer's license in 1953 and saddled his first stakes winner 11 years later. In 1966, he sent out Staunchness to win the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga over a field that included Bold Bidder for Joseph Brunetti's Red Oak Stable,
Nickerson trained for numerous owners, but none was more mercurial than Maxwell Gluck, owner of Elmendorf Farm. Nickerson trained such good runners as Big Spruce, Verbatim, High Tribute, Manta, Magazine, and Spout for him.
"He loved to fire trainers. He sacked me four times, but he'd always hire me back six months later." Nickerson said. "I won the Alabama (gr. I) with Spout, and he fired me three weeks later. I won the Bahamas with Verbatim, and he fired me that same night."
In 1974, Big Spruce scored upset victories over Forego in the Governor Stakes (gr. I) and the second running of the Marlboro Cup. Magazine won the 1973 Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. I). During his career, Nickerson sent out 36 stakes winners.
Nickerson, a master of the one-liners, is survived by a daughter, Barbara, and her husband and two sons.