04/08/2016 11:50AM

Fornatale: Clocker Nichols clicking in tourneys

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The monster is out of the cage. John Nichols, fourth on the NHC Tour last year, had been quiet for the first two months of 2016. But thanks to a third on NHCQualify.com, he’s headed back to the National Handicapping Championship.

As a clocker at Churchill Downs, Nichols understands the game like a horseman, but his roots in the game go back to handicapping.

“I was taking the Racing Form to school with me every day when I was in middle school,” he said. “I’d like to see how many absences I had in high school during the Keeneland meet.”

His mom worked for the state of Kentucky in Frankfort. “I was between Louisville and Lexington,” he said. “I’d spend weekends with my dad"  -- jockey John Nichols Sr. -- "in Louisville, then I’d go to Keeneland."

It was a 25-minute drive from the parking lot of Nichols’s high school to the Keeneland grandstand. Churchill was farther away, 45 minutes or an hour, but one afternoon Nichols and his friends set the land-speed record from Frankfort to Central Ave. when they made it in just over 30 minutes. “Obviously, we had something to bet on,” Nichols explained.

These were the bad old days, B.F., before Formulator. When Nichols’s mom moved from that house in Frankfort, there were stacks of Racing Forms and Racing Times piled six-feet tall. “I’d go back and read articles and read charts,” Nichols said. “You can never stop learning in this game.”

[After high school, Nichols would still go the track but he wasn’t as involved until he started working there. “My brother got a job on the starting gate at Turfway and I stayed with him for a fall meet up there,” he said.

He walked hots for a week – it didn’t take – so he got a job on the frontside as what might be called a sanitation engineer. He cleaned up losing tickets at the party tent. After a year of that he got into bartending and waiting tables because of the schedule those jobs allow – he could still go to the racetrack. “My shifts would start at 6 and on dark days I’d work doubles,” he said.

Doug Bredar, now Florent Geroux’s jockey agent and an accomplished tournament player himself, gave him his first clocking job at Churhcill Downs. “I took it and went right with it,” he said of the position he took in 2003, right before Funny Cide’s Derby.

He had some experience from helping out at Keeneland, where Tom Bridges taught him how to identify horses, but he learned a lot that first year at Churchill. “After a year it got to the point where I really had confidence in what I was doing,” he said.

Another clocker Nichols met at Keeneland who had a real impact on him was Joe Petrucione. “He taught me a lot about how horses travel, what to look for in the paddock, things like that,” Nichols said.

A mutual friend and fellow clocker, Steven “Rainman” Skaggs, once told Nichols that he learned more from him and Petrucione than anybody else in his life.

“Well, you’ve got no shot then,” Nichols quipped.]

One story stands out from his high school days. Nichols grew up near Danny Gargan, who is just a few years older than 40-year-old Nichols. “Danny and I grew up together,” Nichols said. “He tells people he babysat me but I don’t remember that part. My dad was good friends with his family and we used to hang out."

In November of 1992, Gargan was rubbing horses for trainer Tony Reinstedler. “He tells me about a horse running that I might want to make a bet on,” Nichols said. “Back then you had to have a bookie, or you had to go to the track. I told a friend about the horse and we left school at noon.”

How did Nichols and his friends get away with all these extended absences? “I had a couple of teachers that covered for me,” he said, before explaining the quid-pro-quo arrangement. “I’d make bets for them. There were three teachers in the school that went to the track. I still see them to this day occasionally. I told my teacher I wasn’t going to be in class and I told him why and he said, ‘Okay, bet 20 and 20 on him for me.’ That was it.

A few hours later, Gargan’s tip horse won and paid $10.80. Nichols and his friend keyed him in a small pick six and hit that as well. “It might have paid $7,000 but that was a ton of money to a 17-year old kid,” he said.

The horse turned out to be Prairie Bayou, who would go on to be second in the Derby and win the Preakness on the way to being named champion three-year-old colt of 1993. Reflecting on the story, Nichols said, “And people wonder how you can get hooked on this game.”