Sports Outside the Beltway

It’s in the blood

From the Richmond Times-Dispatch-

NEW KENT Once you know who her father is, it’s no wonder that Brooke Nickells has become something of a rarity in the world of harness racing.

In addition to being an owner and a trainer, the daughter of future Hall of Famer Bruce Nickells does what relatively few women do in this sport: She participates as a driver, too.

“When I was going to school, I would work on the weekends and then in the summers,” Nickells said yesterday. “When my friends were at the beach, I’d be at the barn. I always wanted to drive.”

Nickells and her boyfriend, Joe Essig Jr., have a stable of nine horses (they own two) at Colonial Downs for the annual harness meet at the New Kent County facility. While Essig does most of the driving, Nickells has driven in four races during the first 12 days of the meet, winning once and finishing third, fifth and sixth.

“I get a great sense of enjoyment out of it,” she said. “I really like my job. I enjoy working with the horses and having them race and do good. You feel like you’ve accomplished something.”

While her father was riding and training winning entries around the country, Nickells was able to become acquainted with all aspects of the sport.

“I learned everything from him,” she said. “I like to talk to other people, too, and I’ve learned things from other top trainers, but my dad is very knowledgeable. He should be in the [Harness Racing] Hall of Fame.”

At 78, the elder Nickells is still training winners and was working with a 2-year-old filly, Me and My Baby, which raced yesterday in one of the pacing events on the Little Brown Jug card in Delaware, Ohio.

“He’s still pretty lively these days,” Nickells said. “He’s at the barn at 5:30 every morning. You can’t beat him to the barn. He’s always been like that.”

There are a number of women who own pacers and trotters, as well as those who train, but not many who do the driving.

“You see a lot of women on the back side, grooms and trainers,” said the 33-year-old. “I don’t know if they don’t want to drive, but it’s the way I was pointed my whole life. I was trained for driving. I’m not scared of it. It doesn’t bother me to be out there.”

Back in the 80′s there was Bea Farber a prominent driver at Pompano Park here in Florida. Her husband Charles(?) did the training while Bea did all the driving. If I remember correctly they were the leading driver and trainer recordwise at the track one year.

I have to confess knowing Brooke Nickells. We haven’t met in about 30 years, she was a little girl the last time we saw one another. My father was partners with Bruce Nickells, co-owning BruBill farm that raced some 20 or so horses in the 1970s. So I knew the Nickells family well, including Brooke’s mother Joanne Nickells and her brother Sep. There is no mention of Sep in the article, I wonder what he is doing today?

Because of my father’s business partnership, I was a frequent visitor at the Nickells home in Lighthouse Point Florida in the 1970′s. Bruce came to Florida to train his stable of horses during the winter.

Recently I found this news about Joanne Nickells.

The best horse raced by Brubill Farms was Fast Clip. The pacer won a little under a quarter million from 1971-1974. A very small horse, one driver compared driving Clip to being behind the wheel of a small sportscar. My father said he was the fastest horse at the time for an 1/8th of a mile.

This may well be proved by Fast Clip’s 2nd place finish in the 2nd heat of the 1972 Little Brown Jug with Bruce Nickells in the sulky.(Bruce was usually at the reins of Fast Clip, but Max Lynch and Ted Taylor also regularly drove the horse) The Jug is harness pacers’ version of the Kentucky Derby, the most prestigious race for that breed of horses. At the turn for home, Clip was in 2nd place right behind a horse named Strike Out. Till then Clip had been both covered up and not been used for the race, when Clip came out from behind Strike Out, my father said “We have this race won.” Well Clip came second, as the race went 1:56 3/5 a world record then for a 3-year-old pacer on a half mile track. The record before the race was 1:57 flat. Clip went 156 4/5 but still lost. That says alot for Strike Out.

Brubill Farms broke up in the late 70′s as Bruce and my father had a falling out. Despite this, my father called Bruce the best trainer of two-year-olds in the business. The reasoning, Bruce knew how to get a horse to race their best without pushing them too hard. Horses pulling up lame while training was not an uncommon happening with some of the sports legends like Stanley Dancer and Billy Haughton.(Look what happened to a Fast Clip rival named Silent Majority trained by Haughton. If you go to that link you’ll read a brief mention of Bruce Nickells and Fast Clip) Bruce had big stables in Chicago and Columbus Ohio in the 70′s but then fell off for a while. More recently he has become famous for training and driving fillies. With her father as her teacher, I’m sure this talent has passed from father to daughter.

Good luck Brooke, and get well Joanne Nickells.

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