07/23/2009 11:00PM

Sweet Nellie Brown one of the family

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AUBURN, Wash. - The phone started ringing shortly after Sweet Nellie Brown's rollicking debut, and by the following morning, June 14, bidders from across the nation were lining up with offers for the 2-year-old filly. Word of a 17-length victory in a 4 1/2-furlong maiden race travels fast.

Those were heady days for Jim Proffitt, who owns Sweet Nellie Brown with his father, Zola Proffitt, and stepmother, Joanne Covert. Proffitt tossed and turned at night, agonizing over his decision. Should he take the money, perhaps as much as $200,000, or hold onto the dream? By Day 3, Sweet Nellie Brown was off the market and safely bedded down in trainer Jim Penney's barn on the Emerald backside.

"We got quite a few offers, some very good offers," said Jim Proffitt, 49, a retired Army engineer and Iraq combat veteran. "But the thing is, my dad loves that horse, and my stepmom is in the early stages of Alzheimer's and she's progressively getting worse. That horse has been one of the biggest pieces of therapy for both of them, and you can't put a price on that. The joy and happiness the horse has given them . . . that was the deciding factor."

With that piece of business behind them, the owners and trainer began mapping a course for the rest of Sweet Nellie Brown's 2-year-old season, and last Sunday she returned to the races with a less spectacular but still satisfying result. Matched against colts and geldings in an allowance race, she rallied to finish second, nine lengths behind the unbeaten Forener, who zipped five furlongs in 1:03 and earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 82, the fastest by a 2-year-old at Emerald this year.

Kay Cooper, who runs the day-to-day operations in Penney's barn, said Sweet Nellie Brown came out of the race well and would run next in the $50,000 Angie C Stakes for fillies on Aug. 9. How she does in her first stakes appearance will dictate plans for the rest of the season. Cooper mentioned the 6 1/2-furlong Diane Kem Stakes on Sept. 13 as a possibility.

It took several twists of fate for Sweet Nellie Brown to end up with the Proffitts, relative newcomers who purchased their first horse less than three years ago, a claimer named Nautical Candy who went the 2007 meeting without winning a race. When Nautical Candy got claimed away at summer's end, the Proffitts decided to look at yearlings, eventually buying a Slewdledo colt out of the Demons Begone mare Brown at the 2007 Washington summer yearling sale.

Born with only one descended testicle, the colt underwent gelding surgery. He died on the operating table.

"He never woke up from the anesthesia," Jim Proffitt said. "It was a big blow, devastating."

The Proffitts finally won a race the following summer, with the claimer Lady Yodeler. Soon thereafter, they discovered a half-sister to their ill-fated yearling, a filly by Cape Canaveral, in the summer sales catalog. They worked out a deal with breeder Rick Pabst, Jim Proffitt said, and when the filly failed to reach a $14,000 reserve, they bought her privately and named her Sweet Nellie Brown.

They sent her to Penney's Homestretch Farms in Edgewood, Wash., less than a mile from Zola Proffitt's home. Under the direction of farm manager Jill Fabulich, Sweet Nellie Brown took her first steps toward becoming a racehorse. Zola Proffitt and his wife were regular visitors on their daily walks.

"My dad, after we bought the filly, he went up there every day," Jim Proffitt said. "Jill was so kind with my dad and my stepmom. . . . They welcomed them in, and my dad was just giddy, like a little schoolkid."

It didn't take long for Sweet Nellie Brown to reveal her talents. Those in her inner circle sensed she might be special, and their feelings were confirmed when the filly arrived at Emerald Downs in mid-May for her first official workout.

"The exercise rider didn't let anyone else on her in the mornings," Proffitt said. "She said she had a gear, you press a little bit on the back of her neck, and she gives you this gear that is unbelievable. She's a horse that wants the lead, that doesn't want to be behind horses. She's got that thing, you know?"

Zola Proffitt is 77, a retired steelworker from Arkansas who has lived in the Northwest since the 1950s. He and his son "are like best buddies," Jim Proffitt said. They talk every day. Zola was there for his son when Jim's wife, Gerlinde, died of kidney disease in 2006. Jim has been there for his father and stepmother during her battle with Alzheimer's.

"One constant is, when we go to the track, she knows she's got a horse out there somewhere, and that's a good thing," Jim Proffitt said of his stepmother. "And it's such an escape for my dad, such a positive to get his mind on other things."

Proffitt said he has no regrets about turning down the money.

"No, none at all," he said. "I think she's going to be a very productive, useful horse for us. I think she's as good as any filly on the grounds."