03/29/2004 12:00AM

Lefty leaves behind a wealth


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Richard Mandella was leading a triumphant Pleasantly Perfect in the giddy aftermath of the Dubai World Cup last Saturday night when his son, Gary, called from California with congratulations . . . and bad news. Lefty was gone.

Just like that, some of the sweetness leaked out of the moment. The lights of Nad Al Sheba blurred. Mandella plowed ahead, dizzy now from the brew of joy and sadness, and did the only thing he could do. He dedicated Pleasantly Perfect's race to the memory of Lefty Nickerson.

"A great friend," said Mandella. "My best friend . . . the reason I'm here tonight."

It wasn't an exaggeration, but Mandella was not alone. Nickerson's quiet death at home in Smithtown, N.Y., marked the end of a life that touched generations of racetrackers in all the right ways. Anyone lucky enough to brush close to the Nickerson wit and wisdom knew the score. If horse racing could harbor a guy like Lefty, then racing must be okay.

"He was one of a kind," said Ron McAnally, Nickerson's running mate from their days on the leaky-roof New England circuit. "He'd tell people that he made it as far as the eighth grade before they certified him as stupid, and recommended he head for the racetrack to become a trainer."

McAnally had gone from a Kentucky orphanage to the track, while Nickerson had kicked around as a ballplayer before landing on the backstretch. They cracked each other up, learned the ropes, and even touched a piece of history before they knew anything at all.

"We worked for a guy from Chicago who had this great big Discovery mare," McAnally said. "Her name was Miss Disco."

That's right, folks. One false move from Nickerson or McAnally and there would have been no Bold Ruler - Miss Disco's transcendent son - which means no Secretariat and no Seattle Slew.

Thirty years later, Nickerson and McAnally collaborated again. Lefty was training John Henry, then an improving 4-year-old, on the deep-dish New York tracks. He was convinced, however, that the handy gelding longed for firm ground. He told owner Sam Rubin, "Send him to McAnally in California," and that was that. For McAnally, John Henry was twice voted Horse of the Year and retired as the sport's leading money-winner.

But the record will show that in 1981, the first of the two titles, both McAnally and Nickerson are given credit for training John Henry, even though it was a McAnally show from start to finish. Didn't matter. McAnally made sure his pal shared the billing (and the take) whenever Ol' John ran in New York. His math was simple.

"No Lefty, no John Henry," McAnally said.

Mandella worked for only one trainer before going out on his own at age 23 - Nickerson.

"Nobody taught me more than Lefty," Mandella said. "And not just about training horses, either. I learned a lot about life from him, too."

"Gratitude is nice," Nickerson said when he heard such praise. "But when is he going to send money?"

Mandella's debt to Nickerson deepened in 1979 when Lefty sent Martin Wygod his way. On the strength of Wygod's runners, the quality of the Mandella stable flourished and new patrons took notice.

But don't get the wrong idea. Nickerson managed to save some for himself. In addition to Wygod and Rubin, his clients included such cr?me de la cr?me as Elmendorf Farm, Walter Haefner, Harbor View Farm, and Nelson Bunker Hunt. Nickerson won a Coaching Club American Oaks with Magazine and took major stakes on both coasts with Big Spruce, beating champions Forego and Cougar II in the process.

"He was a great friend," said Allen Jerkens, who first encountered Nickerson when they were stabled at Tropical Park, more than 50 years ago.

"I remember Lefty would tell me that my problem was that I thought every horse could run," Jerkens said, laughing at the memory. "He said I couldn't get it through my thick head that some of them just weren't any good."

In February of 1996, Nickerson was preparing to take on a new role training at Wygod's California farm when he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. He went through a trough of depression, then started to fight back, eventually gaining enough physical confidence to reappear as a trainer of record with the help of his daughter, Barbara Smalley.

"It's rough," Nickerson said at the time. "But my spirits have been good. You're never down for the count as long as you can breathe."

A couple of hours after the World Cup, as the events of the evening began to soak in, Mandella was riding back to his Dubai hotel, still clutching the golden whip awarded to the trainer of the World Cup winner, and thinking about Lefty.

"We talked all the time by phone," Mandella said. "And he was sounding real good. I guess he went in his sleep.

"I kind of wish he'd been able to share this night with me, though," Mandella added. "I wonder what he would have said."

Probably something like, "What next - Mandella on Mars?" or "Make them pay you in oil." Or, more likely:

"Nice going, kid. Now do it again."