Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Grace Encourages Cancer-Stricken Trainer ‘To Keep On Fighting’

The odds were certainly stacked against trainer Shelley Brown last Sunday night at Century Mile in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. A sudden, devastating Stage 4 cancer diagnosis just a few weeks before the G3 Canadian Derby meant that Brown watched the races from her couch over 800 miles away in Winnipeg, exhausted after a weekend in the hospital for treatment.

Her entrant, the 3-year-old gelding Real Grace, had won just one race, the Derby Trial at Assiniboia Downs back in July. He’d not returned to the winner’s circle in three subsequent starts, making the running early and fading in the stretch, and was facing the longest race of his career in the 1 1/4-mile Canadian Derby.

The race’s post time, nearly 11 p.m. in Winnipeg, meant Brown had to fight through her exhaustion to stay awake if she wanted to watch it live.

Sent to post at 18-1 odds, Real Grace led the field from gate-to-wire for a gutsy neck victory that lifted his trainer’s spirits beyond what she’d even considered possible. It was her first graded stakes win, and it was also a win in the biggest race at her home track.

Brown watched via her smartphone as Real Grace entered the winner’s enclosure. Track announcer Shannon Doyle said: “Congratulations Shelley, we are all with you.”

Amazing Grace, indeed.

The weeks leading up to the Canadian Derby had been some of the darkest weeks of her life, Brown explained. The 47-year-old was diagnosed on Sept. 3 with cancer, Stage 4, learning that it was in her lungs, bones, stomach, ovaries, breasts, and lymph nodes. Doctors told her that left untreated, she had between three and six months to live.

Considering that Brown had only gone to the hospital that morning for what she’d thought was a torn rotator cuff in her shoulder, the diagnosis was a complete shock.

“For someone to look at you and tell you that, there’s a million emotions,” Brown said. “I thought, ‘What am I gonna do? I’ve got horses here, horses in the States, property, horse trailers. … I can’t even tell you. I just totally went numb.

“Your brain can be very hard on you. As soon as I got the diagnosis, I didn’t want to get out of bed. I felt helpless, overwhelmed, and I just wanted to shut down.”

Brown had 40 horses in training at Assiniboia Downs, and had sent several, including Real Grace, to her friend and former employer, trainer Rod Cone, at Century Mile. She was planning to ship the rest of the string to Century Mile after the Assiniboia meet ended.

Instead, Brown found herself in a downward spiral, researching treatments and treatment centers online, awaiting test results, and trying desperately to understand how the cancer had progressed so quickly without her knowledge.

“As a horse person, we make a lot of excuses,” Brown reasoned. “There’s always kind of a way you get banged here and bumped there. I was unbelievably tired, but I kept telling myself there were only three more weeks (until the meet ended at Assiniboia), so I was kind of begging myself to finish off the meet. Of course with COVID there wasn’t a ton of help, so I often had to pitch right in. I thought, ‘Well, I’m just working really hard and I’m tired from racing three nights a week, it’s just the amount of work and racing, and that’s why I’m so tired.’”

The days after her diagnosis were a blur. Her longtime assistant kept the barn running, and the news spread around the backside quickly. Just four days later, a friend on the backstretch set up a GoFundMe account to help cover Brown’s medical bills.


Assiniboia even helped to set up an auction for Brown’s tack, equipment, and several horses. She wanted to sell off everything, but other horsemen convinced her to keep a few things, some saddles and bridles and a few of the better horses, as a way of giving herself hope moving forward.

“I guess my whole life I’ve sort of felt like a lone wolf,” Brown said, her voice heavy with emotion. “It was never going to be easy for a woman to be in a male-dominated sport. I’ve held my own, but even in my personal life I’ve never really felt like I fit somewhere or belonged together. But, how the horsemen have come together for me through this, to see that, some of them I think we’ll be friends for life through this. They’ve been so amazing and so helpful and so assuring, and these are people that I never expected. I just realize now that I’m not alone and these people are so important to me.

“If there was any doubt before, the question has been answered. These are my family.”

Since her parents had already passed on after battling cancer, Brown reached out to her brother and sister for help with the day-to-day things, like transportation to her doctor’s appointments. Both responded immediately, but there wasn’t much to do besides wait.

As a lifelong, hard-working horsewoman, and the first female trainer to ever win a training title at Assiniboia (2017), Brown said sitting back and doing nothing was an especially difficult mental challenge.

“Horses are seven days a week; when you commit to this, you commit to a lifestyle,” Brown said. “I guess if I could change anything, I would have listened to my body sooner.

“Now I look back, and I think, ‘Oh my gosh, this started a long time ago.’”

She had seen her family doctor several times over the past few years. Last year, she felt a strange sensitivity on her spine, but he told her it was nothing. She asked to be sent for a mammogram, but he insisted she didn’t need one. Earlier this season, she’d gone to see him when she felt short of breath for no real reason, but he told her she was just out of shape after gaining weight over the winter.

Sadly, it’s not an unusual story for women’s symptoms to be overlooked by their doctors.

“I think had I really listened to my body, I would have seen more signs,” she said.

Fast-forward to the week of the Canadian Derby, and Brown was still struggling with her frustrations. Biopsies had been sent away to labs for testing, but she was still awaiting an appointment with an oncologist since the test results weren’t back yet.

Logically, she understood that doctors could not implement a treatment plan without understanding the exact kind of cancer ravaging her body. Emotionally, knowing that she had spent three weeks of what was possibly her final three months just waiting around for results was starting to get to her.

Brown had looked into the options, and knew the finances weren’t in her favor. She’d decided that a combination of conventional and holistic medicine was the way she wanted to fight the cancer, and treatment centers in Mexico and the United States were both quite expensive.

Mexico was cheaper, of course, but she’d have to drive herself there and wouldn’t have any sort of support system in place if things took a turn for the worse. And what if she got sick on the drive down to Mexico? Then she’d be in a U.S. hospital, and the bills would just keep rolling in.

Another trainer, Hazel Bochinski, happened to see Brown’s GoFundMe page and sent her a message on Facebook recommending a local treatment center in Winnipeg. It offered several of the holistic treatments that Brown hoped to try, as well as a pay-as-you-go plan.

Now Brown had part of a plan in place, at least, but she still had to wait for the test results before she could start any treatments.

On Thursday, Cone called to check in on her and ask if she’d be attending the race on Sunday night. Unfortunately, Brown had been admitted to the hospital once again, this time with a partially collapsed lung.

“They tried to drain the lung twice, which is so painful because they cut in between your ribs,” Brown explained. “They couldn’t drain it and so they weren’t able to get fluid off. The pain was intense.”

Brown insisted she be let out of the hospital over the weekend, and felt better Saturday, well enough to take a drive with her siblings.

“Sunday, I wasn’t well,” Brown said. “Of course, the race is so late, 11 p.m. at night local time. I don’t have a lot of energy. I told my brother, ‘The only way I’m going to stay awake is if I watch all the races, see how the track is playing.’ With each race I got more discouraged, because my horse is a frontrunner and the track was not playing speed at all.

“I was actually able to stay awake, and I can’t tell you the feeling I had to watch that race, watch that horse go to the front. I saw Synergy coming, the heavy favorite, and I thought he would blow right by us. My horse had to dig deep … Actually, the race was showing on a slight delay, because at the eighth pole my best friend’s text popped up on screen, ‘OMG you just won a Derby!’”

In fact, Real Grace held on through the wire to win by a neck over Something Natural and Rail Hugger. Cone was beyond thrilled as he led the Mineshaft gelding into the winner’s circle, the three-time Canadian Derby-winning trainer calling Brown’s victory the best win of his life.

Real Grace digs deep to win the G3 Canadian Derby

“No matter what happened, nothing could have made me happier than that race,” Cone told CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM. “We did everything for Shelley and we were just overwhelmed.”


“All credit to Rod Cone,” Brown said. “If I would have had it in me, I would have loved to have been there. I bought this horse because I believed in him. We were disappointed (when he finished fifth) in the Manitoba Derby, so to win this one was so meaningful. I was a groom in Alberta growing up, so to be able to go back there and win such a prestigious race, it really just put the wind back in my sails.

“When there’s no reason to get up in the morning, it was the one thing that made me go, ‘You know what? This horse was 18-1, and he showed me what you can do if you just fight.’

“The next day I was a whole different person. It made me feel like, ‘Don’t you dare give up.’ It was almost like a sign to say, ‘This is what you can do.’”

On Monday, Brown finally had her first appointment with the oncologist, and her renewed sense of hope led to a surprising development. There was a drug, Ibrance, developed to treat her type of cancer. It was designed for post-menopausal women, so she’d have to be sent through medically-induced menopause first, but the drug was showing promising results.

“They feel like it can buy me three years,” Brown explained. “I was so happy to hear that. I thought, ‘I can tie up loose ends, figure out how I want things done, instead of being in such a rush.’ Of course, it isn’t a guarantee, but now there’s a chance.”

According to Brown, Ibrance is designed as more of a blocker that stops the cancer’s progress, rather than killing the cancer outright. She plans to combine it with holistic treatments for the next three months, which the GoFundMe account will help pay for, and she has a backup plan in place to head to Mexico if the current plan doesn’t seem to be working.

“When someone virtually hands you a death sentence, I can’t imagine how, person to person, that would affect somebody,” Brown said. “Now I have possibly three years to work with, but the thought of the chance, maybe in that three years they can come up with something else, it at least that gives me hope to keep on fighting.”

The post Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Grace Encourages Cancer-Stricken Trainer ‘To Keep On Fighting’ appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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