The applause began in the paddock and continued out on the track, as the majority of the 8,611 in attendance at Belmont Park on July 6 saluted Les Nichols and his 11-year-old Thoroughbred J.J.'s Cowboy, who were concluding their eight-month, 1,850-mile odyssey from San Antonio, Texas to New York City to raise money for the families who lost loved ones in the World Trade Center tragedy on Sept. 11.Nichols, as he has done so often in so many towns, waved to the people in appreciation, as he and J.J.'s Cowboy led the post parade for the fourth race. His goal when he departed San Antonio last Oct. 27 was to raise $2 million for the New York Firefighters 9-11 Disaster Relief Fund and the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association Widows and Children's Fund. He was also accompanied on the trip by his dog Posse, after whom he named his quest, and the 10-year-old horse Sand Track, who was brought in as a backup after he subbed for J.J.'s Cowboy during the six weeks it took "J.J." to recuperate after falling off a railroad embankment just before crossing the Arkansas border.Nichols had a custom saddle made up by noted saddlemaker Jim Taylor of Greenville, Texas, which was valued at more than $4,000. On the saddle was printed "Posse America Relief Ride 2001." The saddle also depicted the images of the Alamo and the Twin Towers. It will be auctioned off, along with all of the gear worn by Nichols during the trip. "Jim Taylor is the man," Nichols said. "You're talking the Rolex of the saddle business."So, Nichols set off on his journey, averaging 20 to 30 miles a day, with his horse and his then seven-month old dog. "I wanted to do something to help bring the country together and do one good deed in my life," he said. "I had no road maps. I was able to ride along the interstate in Texas, but after that I had to look for side roads that paralleled the interstate. If it was thundering and lightning I didn't come out. But neither rain nor freezing temperatures stopped us. One time we did get get snowed in."Nichols realized the hazards he likely would face, but was determined to succeed, especially after the warm receptions he received wherever he went. "After I saw the way people came out to greet us, nothing short of death would have stopped us us from getting there," Nichols said. "My eyes were wide open when I started. I knew there was a chance I wouldn't make it, but I had buddies at home who were willing to take my place if I didn't. It would have been finished one way or another."
Nichols owes a great deal to his and the animals' fitness to the fire departments of the towns he visited. "The firefighters made sure we all got here in good shape," he said. "I actually gained 15 pounds. Every town, every fire department, and every individual were great to us, with each fire chief passing the word from town to town about what we were doing. Mounted patrol units and police departments gave us escorts and blocks throughout the trip."Nichols feels the real star of the journey turned out to be Posse, the border collie (seven-eighths)-Australian shepherd (one-eighth) mix who grew from a puppy to a full-grown dog on the trip. "He literally walked across America on Kibbles and Bits," Nichols said. "He don't like anything else. He quit being my dog a long time ago. He's America's dog. All I do is feed him. He's the politician. He shook hands with every mayor, state senator, representative, and a couple of governors' wives." Posse didn't attend the races on July 6, remaining back at the nearby Floral Park Motor Lodge. "He's probably back there right now answering his fan mail," Nichols said.All the parties stayed wherever they could. "If a volunteer fire department didn't have a place for me to stay they'd go get a room for me down the road," Nichols said. "Or the police would help. J.J. and Sand Track would stay with people who had a couple of stalls, or in paddocks, softball fields, auction barns, vet clinics, backyards of fire departments, mounted patrol stations, and lots of fairgrounds."Throughout the trip, many cities and counties named days in honor of one of the police officers or firefighters who perished on Sept. 11. "The firefighers and the police picked the names of the people they wanted to honor," Nichols said. "In one town, we had to wait four days before we were able to get a certificate signed by the mayor."At 10 a.m. on July 4, Nichols, Posse, and J.J.'s Cowboy boarded the Staten Island Ferry to Manhattan, where they were then escorted by the New York City Police Department to Ground Zero. It was there that Nichols read a letter written by the governor of Texas. "Maybe I'll get a chance to read it to the President," he said.Nichols' journey may be over, but his quest still continues. "Just because we're finished with the trip doesn't mean we're finished with the fundraising," he said.His next stop is on July 14 when he takes part in a benefit trail ride in Colt's Neck, N.J. with the Colt's Neck Trail Riders Club. The president of the club, Lisa Singer, lost her fiance at the World Trade Center. Ironically, his name was J.J. "You wouldn't believe the number of coincidences we've experienced throughout the trip," Nichols said.Nichols also has notified trail clubs across the country that if they pay his expenses, he'll be happy to take part in their trail ride. By traveling across the country, his main line of communication has been his website www.americanposse.org and his e-mail address email@example.com.One of his main goals now is to help form a pony camp in Texas for the children who lost parents on Sept. 11.Because of the events still to come, and the fact that many of the promised donations have not been received yet, there is no tabulation of how much has actually been raised.To Nichols, it's all come down to expenses. "To tell you the truth, I'm down to my last two nickels," he said. "If my name weren't Nichols I'd be broke."Nichols said he may take J.J.'s Cowboy to Monmouth when it's all over and race him once. "He's plenty fit, and he ran some big races in Texas before we left," he said.After the fourth race was run, Nichols was in the tunnel leading to the paddock, walking J.J.'s Cowboy and keeping him settled down while they waited to partake in the winner's circle presentation. A woman on the other side of the rail called to him and gave him her winning ticket on the race. In the final coincidence, the name of the winner was Safely at Home.