As happy as trainer Dick Mandella was after winning the $6 million Dubai World Cup (UAE-I), that's how crushed he was moments after the race when he was told on the phone by his son, Gary, in California, that his longtime friend and mentor, V.J. "Lefty" Nickerson, had died in his sleep just hours earlier.
Mandella was noticably upset while being interviewed after the race by Charlsie Cantey. "I brought him back to earth about two minutes after they crossed the wire," Gary said. "There were so many people around at the time, it was hard to tell his reaction, but I'm glad I waited to tell him, because this way he didn't have to think about it for three or four hours before the horse ran. He got off the phone with me quickly, and when I looked up, Charlsie had him, and I said, 'Oh, no, I told him just before Charlsie's going to interview him?'
"It's a terrible thing to throw on someone on a day like this. I called Lefty's daughter, Barbara, and we talked about it, and she told me she would rather I called him after the race, because she didn't want him to worry about it. We both knew that's all he'd think about once he knew. So, I waited until after the race, but then when the horse won, it dawned on me that there were a couple of American journalists there that maybe were going to ask him something about it. I didn't want him to hear it from them, so I called him right away. It made for a sour spot on the day, because we're all going to miss Lefty an awful lot."
Nickerson was thrilled for Mandella and felt like a proud father when he won four Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championship races last fall, including Pleasantly Perfect's dramatic score in the Breeders' Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I). But he missed by one day seeing him finally win a Dubai World Cup after three second-place finishes.
"Well, Lefty would have just called asking for more money," Gary said about the quick-witted Nickerson, who always seemed to have a dead-pan response to any question.
Nickerson had suffered a stroke several years ago and had been confined to a wheel chair, but that didn't stop him from attempting a training comeback in the fall of 2002.
After Mandella won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) last year with Halfbridled, one of the first things he did was call Nickerson. It was Nickerson who turned Mandella into a racing history buff. In 2002, when Mandella came to Monmouth Park for the Haskell Invitational Handicap (gr. I) with Dixie Union, he visited what remained of the old Rancocas Stud, which had been built by the legendary Sam Hildreth for the Lorillard brothers, then owned by Harry Sinclair. Mandella, who had read Hildreth's biography twice, was like a kid in a candy store, and the morning after winning the Haskell, he drove to Long Island to tell Nickerson all about his trip through history.
Gary called his father back about an hour after the race to talk in more depth, but he was still at the racetrack, and it was too hectic for them to have a conversation. "Right now, his main problem is that his plane leaves in two hours and he's still at the track," Gary said.
Mandella once said, if he were told he was going to lose his memory, except for one year of his life, and was given the choice of what year he'd want to remember, it would be the year he spent working for Nickerson.