Updated on 09/16/2011 7:43AM

Long journey reaches Ground Zero

Mandy Minger
Les Nichols arrives at Ground Zero on July 4 after riding his two Thoroughbreds, J.J.'s Cowboy and Sandtrack (left), 1800 miles from the Alamo in San Antonio to New York.

NEW YORK - Les Nichols, surrounded by four mounted New York City policemen, was riding the 11-year-old Thoroughbred the wrong way down Church Street in lower Manhattan Thursday when he got his first full-on look at Ground Zero.

"There are no words to describe the kind of destruction that went on here," Nichols said.

For Nichols, a 41-year-old trainer from Celeste, Texas, Ground Zero was the end of an 1,800-mile trip on horseback that started Nov. 1 at the Alamo in San Antonio. Nichols made the ride to raise money for victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and on July 4 he and his entourage crossed New York Harbor on the Staten Island Ferry and rode a half-mile through the city streets from the tip of Manhattan to what used to be the plaza in front of the World Trade Center.

"I've thought about this since the day I started riding," said Nichols, who wore a white straw cowboy hat, leather chaps over jeans, and a white T-shirt with "NYPD" on one sleeve, "FDNY" on the other sleeve and a drawing of a scene at Ground Zero on the back. "Two-thousand souls gone, people hurt. How do you pull it together and go on with life?"

Nichols said he was inspired to make the ride by "the big cowboy upstairs." He had hoped, through donations and a raffle of his custom-tooled saddle, 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, but on Thursday said he did not know how much money had been raised.

Nichols alternated riding two Thoroughbreds during the trip, J.J.'s Cowboy and . They covered 15 to 20 miles a day, except on Sunday, when they rested, and during inclement weather. For most of the trip he was accompanied only by his dog, Posse, a gray and white collie-shepherd mix. Every five weeks or so, the farrier Matt Riley, from Leonard, Texas, would meet Nichols and reshoe the horses. In York, Penn., Nichols was joined by Colinda Fritts, of Georgetown, Ky., who rode with and assisted him for the rest of the trip.

Nichols's route took him through Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia (where he had to turn around because of the mountainous terrain), Ohio, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Nichols said he passed through more than 150 towns, staying in parks, barns, or wherever he was invited by the people he met. Nichols said "the daily grind" was the hardest part of the ride, and that at one point J.J.'s Cowboy flipped off a railroad embankment and injured a hock, putting the horse off the trail for six weeks.

Nichols plans to train J.J.'s Cowboy, a winner of seven races and $64,000, at Monmouth Park, race him one more time, and retire him. Needless to say, J.J.'s Cowboy is fit.

"He needs a few breezes," Nichols said. "But his muscle tone is fine."

On Saturday, Nichols and J.J.'s Cowboy are scheduled to lead the post parade for the fourth race at Belmont Park, named the "Les Nichols and J.J.'s Cowboy Walk for America."

Nichols, who appeared on "Good Morning America" on Wednesday, isn't sure when he's going back to Texas or how. But one thing is for sure: It won't be on the back of a horse.

"I may float back," he said.