Iron Will

Betterlatethnnever battles multiple injuries to successfully return to the track

story by Hope Ellis-Ashurn

Jimmy Nickerson can’t help but get emotional when he talks about Betterlatethnnever. After all, the horse not only lost an eye in a pasture accident, but he has also overcome multiple leg fractures and continues to perform at a high level.

“He’s a pretty special horse,” Nickerson said.

Betterlatethnnever, then named Graceful Terror, was purchased at the 2010 Lexington Selected Yearling Sale for $120,000. By Western Terror and out of Lady Graceful—who banked $938,164 and was third in the 2002 Breeders Crown final and Jugette final—Betterlatethnnever is a half-sibling to Allamerican Laser (Artsplace, $141,427) and a full brother to Harry Terror ($192,094).

“He was out of a very good family,” Nickerson said. “The horse ended up going to Ben Wallace to train as a 2-year-old where he looked to be spectacular.”

The high hopes for the horse’s future, however, waned when he fractured a hind cannon bone before making his career debut.

“The vets determined that they could perform surgery and maybe he could come back,” Nickerson said.

But when his owners heard the news, they developed a different plan.

“[The owners] are the type that if the horse isn’t going to be a Grand Circuit type, they just opted to give the horse a good life,” Nickerson said.

One of Wallace’s grooms decided she would like to take Betterlatethnnever. So, he went home with her after it was stipulated that he would never race again and would only be used as a riding horse.

Four years later, Betterlatethnnever’s owners received the shocking news he was racing, and he was returned to them. He was sent to trainer Mike Dowdall in Ohio, but when the gelding was brought in to ship, his right eye was missing.

“So, the guys were a little irate,” Nickerson said. “I think if the girl had done things right and said, ‘Look, I’ve had him in the field for four years. Do you mind if I try him?’ they probably would have said, ‘Go ahead.’

“The girl told them he lost his eye in the field. So here he is with one good eye and I had already broken his leg. He was also 7 at this point and had less than a dozen starts.”

Clearly this was not a recipe for success, but Betterlatethnnever trained well. However, he struggled to acclimate to life on the backside and sustained yet another serious injury.

“He was kind of rambunctious because he was cooped up in a stall and he was racing again,” Nickerson said. “He kicked the stall wall and broke his left hind pastern.”

While the gelding recovered, Dowdall worked out an arrangement in which he would own a piece of the horse by training Betterlatethnnever for free. It was fortuitous for all parties involved as the gelding continued to work his way up the class ladder at Northfield Park when he returned to the track. By this time, Dowdall had too many horses in the same classes at Northfield and the decision was made to send Betterlatethnnever to New York. After the horse had gone through several different owners and trainers, Nickerson and his wife, Heidi Rohr, became responsible for him in 2017 after claiming him with a partner.

“I kept thinking I had to have the horse for myself,” Nickerson said. “So, I and one of my partners, David Glazer, prepared to claim him as soon as the opportunity presented itself. We tried several times to get him and we were beat out, but we finally got him.”

Betterlatethnnever continued to race well. In fact, at one point he won five consecutive races in the Open and allowance ranks, but he was struck by bad luck again when scoring down at Saratoga Casino Hotel on July 15, 2017. It was discovered the gelding had another fracture in his right hind cannon bone. Nickerson took the horse in for surgery, which was supposed to be a simple procedure, merely requiring the insertion of a screw.

Except things didn’t quite go according to plan. Nickerson never received a phone call providing him with an update on Betterlatethnnever, or information on when he could pick the horse up, or instructions for his aftercare. When he called, he was told the veterinarian was not in and the gelding would have to remain at the facility for another night.

The next day, Nickerson was again forced to call the veterinarian. He learned Betterlatethnnever could come home but there had been complications during the surgery and a second screw had to be inserted. Not thinking it was significant, Nickerson didn’t ask for an X-ray.

After several months of stall rest and then swimming, Betterlatethnnever was returned to training. Unfortunately, another problem arose when the gelding refused to pace.

Nickerson thought Betterlatethnnever’s hocks might be bothering him and his veterinary examination revealed so much torque had been placed on the first screw that the top of it had broken off in the bone. Not only was it impossible to remove, but the drill bit used to insert it had also broken off. That was why the second surgery and the second screw were required.

The veterinarian felt the top screw was backing out of the bone and pinching the skin. It was removed, but the metal debris could not be. Betterlatethnnever, however, has not experienced any issues from the procedure.

Nickerson qualified him on July 20, 2018, at Saratoga. He qualified on two more occasions before he was placed in a claiming race, despite Nickerson not wanting to lose him. He also placed him for sale on onGait.com because he had a plan.

“I’m going to put pictures of his X-rays [on the site],” he said. “Maybe it will scare somebody from claiming him. I’m never selling him, but he’s going on there for sale.

“We go over to Plainridge Park. The first start he finishes fifth, then here he goes. He starts winning.”

When he returned yet again, Betterlatethnnever had been off for a year. Although he was performing well, Nickerson still wasn’t really expecting anyone to claim him. Eventually, his luck ran out and Betterlatethnnever was claimed on June 10, 2019, at Plainridge Park. It was at this point that Nickerson’s wife Rohr stepped in. A voice of reason, she suggested it might be time to let Betterlatethnnever go.

“My wife is a horse trainer,” Nickerson said. “She has more than 1,500 wins. She felt it was time to turn the page on the horse.”

Betterlatethnnever captured his first race for his new connections the following week.

“I tell you, it crushed me to watch,” Nickerson said. “I was happy for the horse, but I had to get him back.”

Which was exactly what he did on June 24. The gelding was removed from claiming races after his first start for Nickerson on July 1. Betterlatethnnever continued to remain sound and race well. But then the tables turned, and this time it was Nickerson who was battling to return to work.

“In August, I was in a horrific car accident,” he said. “I almost died. I was in the hospital for more than 30 days. Our barn continued to race. I have a memory of when I came to and learned the horse had won in [1]:52[.1] The following week he won in [1]:50[.3] in the Open for us at Plainridge. I started getting text messages from everybody and then watching replays in the hospital.”

The duo of Betterlatethnnever and Nickerson has continued to be successful. In fact, the gelding won his last start at Saratoga on June 21. Now 11, he shows no signs of slowing down and appears to have no lasting complications from his injuries. Although he will occasionally spook on his blind side, Nickerson describes him as gentle and deeply competitive.

“I tell people the only way you are going to beat him is if he can’t see you,” he said. “He acts like he’s a 4-year-old. There’s no doubt in my mind that he would have been a world champion [if not for his injuries], but I would never have been able to own him if it wasn’t for how banged up he has been. He’s bailed us out of pickles, and he loves his work. He is such a special horse.

“I think he’s the best he’s ever been right now. He is really cool and beautiful although he’s an old warhorse. He’s got 115 lifetime starts with 43 wins, 17 second-place finishes, and 15 third-place finishes. He’s made $370,760 for a horse that was given away and didn’t race for six years. He’s my daughter’s favorite. With everything he’s overcome, he puts tears in my eyes when I talk about him.”

Hope Ellis-Ashburn is a freelance writer living in Tennessee. To comment on this story, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.

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