Having one of the top pacing mares at Saratoga Casino Hotel is nothing new for trainer Jim Nickerson. Nickerson ran his stable along with wife Heidi Rohr for years and when the tandem came to Saratoga about a decade ago, they immediately thrived. Rohr won the Peerless McGrath Award for top breakthrough trainer at the Spa in 2009 and has finished among the top five in the standings annually. In 2014, Rohr won the local trainer’s title for the first time after finishing second in the previous two seasons. After Nickerson and Rohr welcomed their first child last year, Heidi stepped away from day-to-day barn life and subsequently turned over the full-time training duties to Jim in’ 18.
The Rohr/Nickerson stable, which is comprised almost exclusively of pacers, seems to be bolstered every year by a group of top-flight pacing mares. Back in 2013, their barn featured the track’s top distaffer as Let’s Go Higher dominated the competition among the Spa’s top ladies. Let’s Go Higher was named Filly and Mare Pacer of the Year in ’13 in a season in which she earned just shy of $200,000 by way of fourteen wins while competing primarily at the Spa.
The classy mare followed up her award-winning season with another terrific campaign in 2014 when she earned over $200,000 once again and wound up finishing second in the voting for Filly and Mare Pacer of the Year, coming up just a few votes shy of being the first lady pacer to win that award in back-to-back seasons in nearly a decade. The ’15 campaign brought about much of the same for Let’s Go Higher who in fourteen seasonal starts, won six times and hit the board in all but two of her starts as she displayed a longevity that can only be categorized as rare for any horse competing at the top level.
In the years since Let’s Go Higher’s retirement, the Rohr-Nickerson stable has featured several other top-flight mares that have made an impact in the local Open. None, though, has come close to matching the success of Let’s Go Higher. In 2016, Nickerson’s crew produced a pair of Filly and Mare Open victories with Bazooka Terror and last season, their Milky Way Rae registered two Open scores of her own. In addition, while not having won a local Open, Nickerson’s Keene Olivia has grappled with the track’s top flight mares with some success in the past few years, including several second-place finishes in Opens.
The latest in the long line of top pacing mares for Nickerson is Tempus Seelster. Bought privately as a three year old out of Canada by the Holland Racing Stable, Tempus Seelster was sent to Nickerson midway through the 2016 season and the filly enjoyed immediate success. Tempus Seelster won her local debut but following just three starts at Saratoga, Nickerson didn’t think the half-mile track was the best thing for the young distaffer. He went on to race her a total of four times at Pocono, Plainridge and Vernon, a stretch that saw her secure three wins and a second place finish. Tempus Seelster then went back to Canada to compete in a series north of the border and wound up under the guidance of three different trainers in 2017, a year in which she would earn almost $75,000 behind eight victories though none of her starts came at Saratoga.
Tempus Seelster returned to the Spa and to the Nickerson stable at the start of ’18. With intentions of racing primarily at Plainridge when they opened this spring, Nickerson qualified the now five year old mare twice at Saratoga in February. After she won both times, seeming to handle the turns of the half-mile track a bit better now, Nickerson decided to give Tempus Seelster a shot in the local Open. Fast forward a month and the up-and-coming local star recorded two wins and two seconds in four tries in the Friday night feature. Tempus Seelster assumed the role as regular favorite among the bettors as she was establishing herself as a staple at the Spa. One problem though. Star pacer Spreester made her return to town two months ago and upon returning, the veteran mare appeared to be better than ever. The Paul Zabielski-trained Spreester proved dominant though the betting public still supported Tempus Seelster who actually wound up being a beaten favorite in four of her last five tries heading into Friday’s night start in the $14,500 Open.
Tempus Seelster drew post position two on Friday and with Spreester assigned post seven in the seven-horse feature, it seemed as if maybe this was Tempus’ chance to get back into the win column. Leading driver Billy Dobson has been the regular pilot behind Tempus Seelster all year long and last weekend, set sail on the front-end with the Nickerson stable’s top lady. After getting a first half of 57.3, Dobson knew Spreester’s move was coming and he stepped on the accelerator. Tempus Seelster cruised through a third quarter of 27.3 and made it look easy. Spreester, predictably, came motoring home in the final quarter but she was too late to catch Tempus Seelster who stopped the timer in an impressive 1:53.1 for her third Open win of the season.
“She’s been a major overachiever,” Nickerson told me. “We knew she had ability but just didn’t think she would handle the turns here well enough to compete against top notch competition.” “She likes to be up close. She’s got plenty of early speed but she can grind too. She isn’t the easiest horse to drive. Billy has done a great job with her,” Nickerson, who also won Saturday night’s Open Pace with his Deetzy, explained.
“We really didn’t expect her to have as much success here and figured we’d take her to a big track. She may go out of town from time to time but she’s been so greatly improved on a half that we’ll be keeping her here.”
Nickerson admitted that while she isn’t as good as rival Spreester when she’s at her best, Tempus Seelster has been as good (and really better) than any of the other local mares thus far in 2018. And with three wins and four seconds in just ten starts in the Fillies and Mares Open this year, I would say that that’s a more than fair assessment. Tempus Seelster, a bit of an unexpected force for her connections, is just the most recent in the long line of lady pacing stars at Saratoga for the Nickerson-Rohr stable and is certainly on track to be yet another nominee for Pacing Mare of the Year to come out of that barn in the last several years.
Live racing takes place every Thursday and Sunday afternoon at Saratoga and on Friday and Saturday evenings. Next week will feature a Memorial Day matinee that will take the place of the regular Thursday card. All matinees begin at 12:15pm while nighttime racing begins at 6:45pm. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!