By Scott Taylor (@staylorsports)
Back in the fall of 2020, even Shelley Brown expected that Canadian racing fans might be reading her obituary by now.
After all, it was three full years ago that she was diagnosed with cancer. And not just any cancer. She had it everywhere.
The 49-year-old trainer at Assiniboia Downs, the first woman ever to win an ASD trainer’s championship back in 2012, had been given three-to-six months to live. That was it. She was dying: “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.’ It shakes you.”
It was September of 2020 and Brown had never been sicker. Not at any point in her life. Despite the fact she was going to work every day, she could barely finish a full shift at the barn. Her shoulder hurt so much, she could barely breathe.
“My first thought was, ‘He’s going to tell me I’ve punctured a lung and I’m going to need surgery and there are still two weeks of racing left.’” She said back in 2020. “He said, ‘Listen, I’ve been an emergency physician for a lot of years and I’ve never seen somebody walk in with as much cancer as you’ve got. You just don’t have cancer in your lungs. You have cancer everywhere. We’re seeing cancer in your chest, your lungs, your stomach, your ovaries, your pelvis, your hips, your spine, your shoulders, your sternum, your ribs and your liver.’ It would have been easier to name the parts of my body that didn’t have cancer. I was at a loss for words and I was scared as heck.”
Fast forward to last Wednesday night. Shelley Brown appeared in the winner’s circle at Assiniboia Downs not once, but twice. It was a monumental evening in so many ways.
“I just made three years, I’m so lucky,” she said. “My goal was to hit 400 wins and I kind of set myself up for that. I got it on the final night of racing – I got No. 399 with Finalize in Race 2 and then in Race 5, I got No. 400 with Lucky Chuckee. I was really happy.”
Shelley Brown, who wasn’t expected to get out of 2021, was the fourth leading trainer at Assiniboia Downs in 2023. She had 25 wins, 34 seconds and 29 third-place finishes in 206 starts. She had a huge barn and worked it hard all summer. It was an incredible accomplishment for any trainer let alone a woman who was not supposed to be with us.
“My horses ran OK, I had kind of an average year, but I was happy the horses ran pretty decent,” she said modestly. “I had a lot of horses. I took on too much this year, I took on too many horses this year and had too much on my plate.
“I’m going to scale way back next summer and angle into pinhooking racehorses. My plan is to be back next year with some horses, but I will only carry about a quarter of the horses I did this year.”
Browns says she’ll eventually transition over to pinhooking – buying a horse as a yearling, getting them broken and in training and selling them as in-training two-year-olds.
“I can tell you that my health has been a rollercoaster with big ups and big downs,” she said. “When you’re doing good, you have to look forward to something on your bucket list. I’m looking seriously at pinhooking because the sales aspect of the business is something I really get exuberant over. To me, there is nothing more exciting than going to the horse sales. I’m like a kid going to Disneyland surrounded by these magnificent animals. I just get caught up in the atmosphere. I’ve always enjoyed it.
“About six years ago, I pin-hooked three horses and made money. I came out ahead and, in my opinion, did well. When it’s your first time doing business and you come out ahead, you should feel accomplished. I’ve always wanted to try that aspect of the horse business again.”
She’s been a hugely successful trainer in Western Canada, but admits that the anxiety of every race and the success of every horse is starting to wear on her.
“I find I get a lot of anxiety with the racing,” she said. “It gets to be too much with the late-night racing and then being back in the barn at dawn, it’s hard for me. With the pinhooking, if you buy them, train them and sell them you’ll do good. Then, if you don’t sell them, you race them, so it’s a win-win. I think it will be a lot of fun.”
When it comes to her health, Brown is not out of the woods. She drove some horses to Calgary on Saturday and then flew back on Sunday night. Monday morning she had her CT and bone scans so in about a week the doctor will call her and let her know about her scans. Regardless, she expects to be back at ASD in 2024.
“I’ll be back in 2024 on a way smaller scale,” she said. “I’m racing in Calgary until the end of October and then I’ll head down to Ocala (Florida).
“This is a bit of an anxious time for me. Scans are always the time when it’s emotional waiting for those results. It’s nerve-wracking because you’re always just one scan away from having the doctors say, ‘OK, no more chemo, it’s not working, there is nothing we can do.’ It’s not the scans themselves, it’s waiting for the results. And all I can do is wait.”