10/24/2013 11:11AM

Jay Hovdey: Teddy's Promise letting owners enjoy a fairy-tale ride

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Benoit & Associates
Teddy's Promise wins the L.A. Woman Stakes at Santa Anita on Oct. 5 in her final Breeders' Cup prep race.

The fairy tale could have come true last year, and everyone would have written and raved about how the first Thoroughbred whom Ted and Judy Nichols ever sent to the races jumped up to win a Breeders’ Cup event. Clouds of flowers would have descended upon their horsey hideaway in the hills east of Oceanside, Calif. Their grouchy American bulldog, Boomer, would have let strangers approach to pay tribute. The avocado orchards would have brought forth unmatched bounty and vintage guacamole.

But that did not happen. Their Grade 1 stakes-winning filly Teddy’s Promise set the pace in the 2012 Filly and Mare Sprint to the top of the Santa Anita stretch and then gave way to finish eighth in the field of 10, far behind the victorious Groupie Doll. The fairy tale would have to wait for another day.

That day could be next Saturday, when Teddy’s Promise goes postward against a dozen or so of her quickest contemporaries in the $1 million Filly and Mare Sprint.

“Ron says she’s a different filly this year,” said Ted Nichols, echoing his trainer, Ron Ellis. “He’s brimming with confidence. And you know Ron – it’s unusual for him to act that way.”

True enough. The Ellis approach can be described as deeply conservative, characterized by an ability to wait with a horse, then take a deep breath and wait some more. When Ellis’s horses get good, though, they get on a rocking-good roll, as evidenced in recent years by his work with Rail Trip and Include Me Out, who both hit the board in Breeders’ Cup races last year.

Now in her third season with Ellis after learning the ropes from Dave Hofmans, Teddy’s Promise won the Santa Monica Stakes at Santa Anita and a minor stakes at Betfair Hollywood Park early in 2013, then got a midyear break before returning to win the minor L.A. Woman Stakes at Santa Anita on Oct. 5.

“I get to be a nervous wreck as a race gets near,” Judy Nichols said. “I remember driving to Santa Anita to see her in a terrible storm last winter. I couldn’t believe we were running. All the way there I was saying, ‘You’re going to kill my filly!’ ”

Ted Nichols just smiled.

“She won by five,” he said.

The Nicholses were sitting in the den of their hilltop home with Sam Nichols, Ted’s son from a previous marriage, surrounded by mementos of not only the career of Teddy’s Promise but their shared love for show dogs that brought them together 26 years ago. Their breed of choice was the Great Dane.

Judy is from Indiana, transplanted to the West Coast as a child, while Ted was born and raised in Pasadena, Calif., in the shadow of Santa Anita Park. His father took his son racing often.

“When he came through Ellis Island from Italy, they looked at his name, Frederick Nicholas Pontarelli, and made it Fred Nichols,” Ted said. “He kept it that way because in those days it was easier for a man to get work if his name didn’t sound like he was right off the boat.”

The first racing memories usually burn the deepest, and it was no different for Ted Nichols, who had a front-row seat at the historic 1950 Santa Anita meeting as a wide-eyed 12-year-old.

“Ponder was the horse I really liked,” he said, referring to Calumet Farm’s 1949 Kentucky Derby winner. “I watched him run against Citation and Two Lea. Then there was Noor, who beat them all.”

A Gleam, another Calumet ace, came along soon after.

“When we ran Teddy’s Promise in the A Gleam Handicap at Hollywood Park, I said to Ron Ellis that I bet I was the only one there who saw A Gleam run,” Nichols said. “Ron said, ‘Ted, you got that right.’ ”

Nichols was still in his teens when he had a fling with show business, singing with the Jack Fina Orchestra and later with Lionel Hampton’s All-Stars. But he got homesick for California, and that’s where he eventually made his mark with the multimillion-dollar sales and marketing company that bore his name.

It was just five years ago that the Nicholses sold their SunRun Kennels in Newport Beach and bought the Oceanside property, revitalizing its acres of neglected fruit trees and dilapidated residence into a boutique horse farm. At the same time, they bought the Capote mare Braids and Beads from the Mabee family’s Golden Eagle Farm, in foal to Salt Lake.

“I fell in love with her pedigree,” Ted said. “Seattle Slew on top and Alydar on the bottom. I had to have her.”

It didn’t hurt that Alydar, the damsire of Braids and Beads, was a grandson of the Calumet mare Plum Cake, a foal of 1958 by Ponder.

“That’s the great thing about talking breeding with my dad,” Sam Nichols said. “He’s been a student of the game for so long that when you talk about a horse in a pedigree, he can tell you what that horse looked like in the flesh.”

Teddy’s Promise hit the ground at Golden Eagle in 2008, sporting the dark brown coat of her dam. She’s now won more than $800,000, and with her major victories and sturdy pedigree, she’s already earned a date with Smart Strike next spring in Kentucky.

“We know how lucky we are with a small operation,” Ted Nichols said. “Everyone likes to point to us and say, ‘See, if it can happen to them ...’

“I think she’s going to run very well,” he added. “But then, we could never be disappointed with her.”