Nickerson Navigating His Way Through Opens

While Jimmy Nickerson’s name is a somewhat new addition to race programs at Saratoga Casino Hotel, the veteran trainer is certainly not new to the sport of harness racing. A native of the State of Maine, the avid golf enthusiast came to New York a little over a decade ago when he and his current wife Heidi Rohr relocated their stable to a farm in Middletown.

From that farm, Nickerson and Rohr’s horses competed at a host of tracks and the Rohr trainees could regularly be found racing at Yonkers with others making the trek to Pennsylvania or the much closer trip to Monticello.

Though they raced members of their stable at several tracks, Rohr and Nickerson often came to Saratoga Casino Hotel and have always enjoyed success here. In fact, back in 2009, Rohr was named the Peerless McGrath Award winner at Saratoga, an award that recognizes the track’s top breakthrough trainer for that season. That wouldn’t be the last honor bestowed to Rohr either. After a move to Saratoga and a few more solid local seasons, Rohr was ready to take over the top spot.

In 2013, she was named Trainer of the Year just one season before winning her first training title at Saratoga. Rohr finished up the ’14 campaign with the most wins among local conditioners despite still racing at multiple tracks in the northeast. Rohr was named Horsewoman of the Year in ’13 and ’14 as well after establishing herself as a force at the Spa.

Rohr and Nickerson managed their stable together for more than a decade before Rohr backed out of the day-to-day activities of the barn following the birth of their daughter Emery. At that point, Nickerson officially took over the reins and has continued to enjoy success. After finishing last season in a tie for eighth place among local trainers, Nickerson is having a terrific 2019 campaign thus far.

Despite the fact that he brings numerous trainees to Massachusetts to compete at Plainridge during the week, Nickerson came into last week’s action at the Spa in a tie for second among local trainers in ’19. Thriving with a stable that is notably pacer-heavy, Nickerson has done his damage this season despite not necessarily having one or two standouts do the majority of his barn’s winning.

One level where we have seen Nickerson and Rohr trainees thrive in their now decade-plus at Saratoga is in the Opens, mostly for pacers. Rohr’s Bell On Wheels was named Filly and Mare Pacer of the Year back in 2013 and ever since then, the husband-wife led stable has featured numerous top distaffers who have thrived against the track’s top lady pacers throughout the years.

The most recent Nickerson trainee to compete and thrive in the Fillies and Mares Open is Sandy Sue. The four year old mare came to town last month out of the stable of the top trainer in North America. Ron Burke has been the winningest trainer in harness racing the last several years and sent Sandy Sue to Nickerson following a stint in the Midwest.

In her local debut, Sandy Sue finished second after getting a pocket trip in the $15,000 Open for the ladies. After two straight ho-hum tries, she started from the rail in final feature in the month of May. Leading driver Billy Dobson, who has sat behind the speedy mare in each of her local starts, secured a journey on the front end in that race. Sandy Sue went coast-to-coast and added her name to the lengthy list of distaffers to score Open wins for Nickerson and Rohr in the last decade at Saratoga.

Last Thursday afternoon, the up-and-comer was assigned the outside post in a field of seven in the Fillies and Mares Open as she looked to prove her first feature victory was no fluke. Dobson was again aggressive in the early going and Sandy Sue overcame her outside post to settle in on the lead in a fast first quarter paced in 27 seconds flat.

While racing with odds of 5-1 attached to her, Sandy Sue led every step of the way on Thursday and held off late surges in the stretch by two rivals before stopping the timer in 1:53.3. The win was one of three on the afternoon for Nickerson-trained mares each of which had Dobson piloting.

The three-win afternoon for Nickerson was enough to vault him into second in the trainer standings and while his stable has thrived with mares this year, Jimmy has enjoyed plenty of success in the Saturday Open Pace as well. In 2017, Rohr and Nickerson won the regular Saturday feature five times with four different horses.

Veteran pacer Deetzy was the only two-time winner out of the stable in the Open, scoring once in a lifetime best 1:50 flat and subsequently was a nominee for Pacer of the Year in ’17. And it wasn’t the last we’d see Deetzy thrive among the track’s top pacers. Last season, Deetzy accounted for three of the four Open Pace wins for Nickerson at Saratoga as the then six year old utilized a blend of early speed and closing ability to put together another six-figure campaign, his second straight.

Still one of his stable’s top stars in ‘19, the well-traveled Deetzy returned to the Spa to compete in the final Open Pace in the month of May. He finished third in a 1:50.2 mile and thus was the favorite in the $15,000 feature contested the following week. Driver Shawn Gray powered the seven year old out to the early lead, a lead the classy pacer would never relinquish before stopping the timer in 1:51.3.

It was just another win in an Open for Nickerson who has rattled off such victories for more than the last decade at the Spa. Though his stable does send out some trotters from time to time, the barn seems to be very pacer-heavy spanning the levels from occasionally the bottom to more commonly the top.

And though his stable splits its starts between Saratoga and other tracks, with Open Pacers like Sandy Sue and Deetzy leading the way, Jimmy Nickerson could well wind up back at the top of the trainer standings at the Spa just as his wife Heidi Rohr was just a few years ago.

Live racing takes place every Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday starting at 12 Noon and on Saturday evening beginning 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!

Saratoga Casino Hotel | Saratoga Springs, New York

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