03/27/2004 12:00AM

Lefty Nickerson, 75, dead

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On the day before Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella won the richest race of his career, he lost his mentor and "second father."

Victor Jethro "Lefty" Nickerson, who trained horses for nearly four decades and supervised the legendary John Henry's East Coast campaigns, died Friday in his sleep at his Smithtown, N.Y., home. He was 75.

Mandella, who saddled Pleasantly Perfect to victory in Saturday's $6 million Dubai World Cup, always spoke glowingly of Nickerson, for whom Mandella briefly worked in the 1970's. At last fall's Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita, when Mandella won four of the eight Cup races, Mandella called Nickerson after Halfbridled won the Juvenile Fillies. He told reporters that Nickerson was like "a second father" to him.

Nickerson began working with Thoroughbreds in 1944 and worked as a groom and hotwalker for six years before entering the U.S. Army to serve in the Korean War. Following his discharge, Nickerson opened up a public stable in 1953. Three years later, he claimed a filly named Scampering for $6,000 and would later win the Gazelle Handicap with her.

Nickerson began training John Henry before his 4-year-old season for owner Sam Rubin. John Henry won three of eight starts with Nickerson before John Henry was shipped west to Ron McAnally. When John Henry would run on the East Coast, Nickerson was the listed trainer. In 1981, Nickerson saddled John Henry to victory in the Sword Dancer and Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Nickerson trained 37 stakes winners during his career, including Staunchness, Magazine, Go Forth, and Big Spruce. In 1974, Big Spruce twice defeated the mighty Forego in the Marlboro Cup and Governor Stakes at Belmont Park.

Nickerson retired from training in 1996 after suffering a stroke. In 2002, Nickerson made a brief attempt at a comeback, saddling one horse, Ah Wilderness, for longtime client Sugartown Stable.

Nickerson is survived by his daughter, Barbara Smalley, and three grandsons: Brian, Victor, and Kevin.

The family is planning a memorial service for him at a future date.