By Scott Taylor (@staylorsports)
Last September, Shelley Brown wasn’t given much hope. No hope at all, in fact.
The 47-year-old trainer at Assiniboia Downs, the first woman ever to win an ASD trainer’s championship back in 2012, had been diagnosed with cancer and given three-to-six months to live. That was it. She was dying.
But then and certainly not surprisingly — even in her darkest hour, it was a horse that gave her a light and hope.
The horse was Real Grace, a beautiful colt that had won the Manitoba Derby Trial but finished fifth in the Derby. He was sent to Brown’s old boss and mentor, Rod Cone, in Edmonton who ran him in a couple of stakes race where he finished second and fourth.
Then, in the Canadian Derby on Sept. 27, Real Grace was an 18-1 underdog heading into the $100,000 Canadian Derby at Century Mile and shocked the field. He led gate to post under apprentice jockey Mauricio Malvaez, put $54,000 into the pockets of Brown and her partners Jean McEwen, Bette Hoffman and Bernell Rhone and just might have saved a life.
“It’s a miracle,” Malvaez, told Curtis Stock at thehorses.com. “It’s a miracle I got to ride in the Derby. It’s a miracle that I won. I’m just so happy that I could win this race for Shelley.”
On Sept. 27, 2020, Shelley Brown believed she was near death. By her own admission, she was down and out. Back in Winnipeg, she was so sick, she didn’t expect to be awake for the race. However, she found a way to stay up to watch her horse shock the Canadian racing community and admits today that she probably got the boost she needed to return to the track this spring.
“Winning the Canadian Derby last year was just so huge for me because I was in a tough spot mentally,” she said, a day before her 48th birthday, a birthday she was not expected to celebrate. “It was right after I’d been diagnosed. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go for the Canadian Derby. It was such a long shot and I was so sick. I just physically couldn’t do it. I didn’t even think I could stay awake for the whole race because it was just so late. The race from Edmonton was going to off at 11 o’clock our time and I could barely stay up past 8 at that point I was so sick.”
She found a way to muster up enough energy to stay up and watch the race and will admit today that the outcome helped through “a really, really tough time.”
“I was in a really dark spot,” she said. “It plays with your head every day, being given this death sentence. You’re told you’ve only got months and if you respond to this medication, maybe you’ll get a year or two years. We all know we’re going to die, but to have someone look you in your face and say, ‘If this goes well, you’ll live for a little longer.’ I mean, I was told a month earlier that I had three-to-six months and here I was, a month later and I still hadn’t seen an oncologist yet. I’ve got two months to live and I’ve had no treatment.
“I was so depressed, so unhappy and so scared. I was terrified. But when that horse won, I can’t tell you how wonderful I felt. And his name was Real Grace, how fitting was that? He’s still in my barn. It really helped pick my spirits up, knowing that big underdog who wasn’t given much chance to win a race, just like I wasn’t given much chance to live much longer, didn’t give up. He dug deep and I had to dig deep just to keep going. I didn’t want to keep going because I was so sick and in so much pain
“But I’m glad I did. I’m glad I persevered and came out the other side. Now, I’m just doing so well and I can see myself being around for a while. I don’t feel like there’s a timeline anymore and I don’t look at it like that. Now, I just want to make the most of the time I have here.”
Brown has been in the thoroughbred racing business for 30 years. Born and raised in Saskatchewan, she moved to Alberta when she was 19 and started grooming horses there. That’s where she met Rod Cone, the man who got Real Grace ready for the 91st running of the Canadian Derby.
“She worked for me for a while about 20 years ago,” Cone told thehorses.com. “She’s a really hard worker. She’d show up at 3 a.m. and have 25 stalls cleaned before anybody else even showed up at the track. About 15 years ago she started training horses in Winnipeg on her own. She’s just a really good person. She would help anybody. And she was always happy. I’m just glad I could assist her with this win.”
These days Brown is back at the track. Her barn is a little smaller – she has 23 horse compared to the 45 she had last year – and the staff of eight still does a lot of the heavy lifting. But for someone who went from being a 15-20-hour-a-day trainer to a person so sick, she’ couldn’t muster the energy to get off the couch, it’s been a remarkable transformation.
Although to be clear, it’s already been a long road and the grind isn’t over. She is not in remission and admits that while most of her tumours have shrunk, cancer in her bones is not going away.
Still, she is a completely different person today than she was in late 2019.
“Just before Christmas of 2019, I went to Mexico with my brother, Dean, and while we were there, he made the comment, ‘I want my sister back,’ because I’m usually outgoing and lively and I like to explore and yet all I wanted to do was lay around the hotel room,” she recalled. “I just wasn’t myself. I kept thinking I’m tired and I don’t feel that great and then, when I got back from Mexico, I was really sick. I could barely breathe, I had a hard time going to see the horses I had in training. I thought, ‘Man, I’m really, really sick.
“Skipping forward a couple of months, when word of the coronavirus came out, my first thought was, ‘I got the coronavirus.’ That’s why I was so sick. I felt there was a lead weight on my chest and I had fever and the chills so I thought it was coronavirus. Still, things weren’t getting any better. I had to sit down and take breaks all the time and little things that I used to do without thinking, I couldn’t do, so I decided to go to the doctor.”
Her first trip to her personal physician didn’t tell her much.
“Well, the doctor just said, ‘Oh, no, you gained a little bit of weight and you just got out of shape.’” She said. “I thought, ‘Every winter I gain a bit of weight, but I’d never had this issue before.’ So, he gave me a puffer and sent me on my way.
“But things got worse. So, I went back and said, ‘I have a real problem with my back. My spine is killing me and I have some kind of indentation on my back near my spine,’ and he said, ‘Oh, it’s nothing, you’re just worried about nothing.’”
At that point, Brown just sucked it up and started the 2020 racing season at Assiniboia Downs. If the doctor says she’s fine, she must be fine, right?
“So off I go into the race season and I’m a go-getter,” she said. “I’m up at 2:30 every morning and at the barn at 3 o’clock and now, I’m at the point where I’m saying to myself, ‘C’mon Shelley, you have to get out of bed.’ All I could think about at work was heading home to have a nap.
“It’s so easy, when you’re dealing with horses to explain pain away. It’s like, ‘Well, I moved 350 bales of hay yesterday,’ or ‘That horse hit me into the wall,’ or ‘I got kicked this morning,’ Whatever. It’s easy to say to yourself, ‘Well this terrible pain I have in my shoulder is because a horse kicked me. She didn’t kick me that hard to have this much pain, but OK, maybe it tore something.’ So, for about four days in early September, I was just in agony. I couldn’t even sleep at night. Because of COVID, I was short staffed all year and I was doing the work of two or three people so I just attributed the fact that I was always really tired to that.”
Turns out, she wasn’t just tired, she was very, very sick. In Part II, Shelley gets a second opinion, an X-ray and a devastating diagnosis.