The news arrived black. Hard as coal and as unexpected as a knock on the door at two in the morning.
Early last September, thoroughbred trainer Shelley Brown had gone to Winnipeg’s Grace Hospital because of a piercing pain in her shoulder that hadn’t let her sleep in three days.
“I thought maybe I had torn something,” she said after one of the horses she trains had knocked her into a stall wall.
“Maybe a rotator cuff injury. Something along those lines.”
Routinely, X-rays were ordered which Brown felt were a waste of time.
“I knew my shoulder wasn’t broken. I was convinced it was a soft tissue injury which the X-rays wouldn’t detect. I almost said forget it; I’m going home.”
The X-rays, however, revealed something much more sinister than a shoulder issue: a baseball-sized mass and a copious amount of fluid in her left lung.
Not sure exactly what the mass was, Brown was quickly transported by ambulance to the Health Science Centre where, immediately, a CT scan was performed.
Two hours later, three grim-faced doctors entered her hospital room. Ominously, one of them closed her curtain.
“We need to talk, Shelley. What we have to tell you is life-changing,” one of the doctors began.
“What is it? Don’t sugar coat it. I’m a horse trainer and I have to deal with clients whose horses have been injured all the time,” Brown demanded.
“You have stage 4 cancer,” soberly answered another of the doctors.
“What? Cancer? I came in here for a sore shoulder and now you are telling me I have cancer? There must be a mistake.”
“I’m sorry Shelley.”
“So what does that mean?” asked Brown, shaken, trembling and terrified.
“Untreated, you have three to six months to live. At best,” came the cold reply.
Petrified, Brown naturally started to cry. So did one of the doctors.
“I didn’t know what to do. I had just been told I was going to die. I can’t even describe how I felt when someone looks at you and says you are going to die. And in a short time.
“I just sat there puzzled, numb, and in panic and disbelief. I was floored. I had a zillion things going though my mind. I was a wreck.
“One of the doctors looked to be about 50 years old. He told me in all his years he had never seen someone with as much cancer as I had,” Brown recalled.
On a CT scan, cancer shows up as dense, gray-to-black areas called ‘hot spots.’ Brown’s images were like a checkerboard. There were black ‘hot spots’ everywhere.
The cancer was in both lungs, her stomach, liver, ovaries, lymph nodes, right breast, femur, pelvis, hips, spine, shoulder, sternum and neck. “Pretty much everywhere,” said Brown, 48.
Because of its pervasiveness, surgery was quickly ruled out as being futile. “Most people with this much cancer can’t get out of bed,” one of the doctors told her. “How is it that you can do so much work?”
Brown just shrugged. “I get up at three a.m. every day. Sometimes on late race nights I’m still at the track until close to midnight. I’ve been doing this for a long time,” said Brown, who came to Alberta at the age of 19 to work as a groom and who, in 2009, started training on her own operating a small six-horse stable which, because of her success, shortly became a barn of 45.
After the doctors left, the first thing Brown did was call her best friend. Then she called her brother Dean, who lives in Montreal.
Her best friend met Brown immediately. Dean arrived the next day. He stayed for seven months.
“What am I going to do?” she asked both of them. “What am I going to do with the horses? What am I going to do with what is left of my life?
“I’m so scared.”
Fast-forward three weeks to the Saturday evening of September 27. It is late – just before 11 p.m. Manitoba time.
Brown has a dark bay three-year-old longshot named Real Grace entered in the $100,000 Canadian Derby at Edmonton’s Century Mile racetrack. It is Alberta’s biggest race.
Too sick to travel, Brown, who had just been released from hospital the previous day, is unable to come to Edmonton and has to watch the race at home on her cell phone.
Originally sold as a yearling for $100,000, Brown picked out Real Grace from the Ocala, Florida, January mixed sale for Jean McEwan and her daughter Bette Holtman, whom she has trained for in the past. They wanted a three-year-old that potentially could run in a race just like this one.
McEwan told Brown to go as high as $35,000 but when the spirited bidding went to $37,000 Brown, who had watched the colt breeze and loved the way he travelled, his presence, his body and his breeding, decided to make one last offer of $38,000.
It was the final bid.
After making two starts in Florida and then a third at Canterbury Park in Minnesota, Real Grace is sent to Winnipeg where he wins the Manitoba Derby Trial by five lengths.
But in the August 3 Manitoba Derby itself, Real Grace finishes a tired fifth in a race that was contested at a mile and an eighth – shorter than the gruelling mile-and-a-quarter Canadian Derby.
The horse is then shipped to Alberta and put in the capable hands of Rod Cone, who has won three previous Derbies and is well known for getting horses to run longer than expected.
Real Grace runs twice at Century Mile before the Derby, just missing in the August 16 Count Lathum and then finishing a solid fourth against older horses in the Arctic Laur on September 4.
Two good races. But good enough to win the Canadian Derby?
“If you don’t think he belongs, be honest with me,” Brown tells Cone.
“I looked and there isn’t a lot of speed in the race,” Cone responds.
“If he makes the lead, I actually think he has a good chance; he’s been training great.”
At one point that late September night Brown wearily tells her brother “I’m so tired. I don’t know if I can stay awake.”
“Sure you can,” answers Dean. “This is the race you’ve been looking forward to for months.”
To pass the time, Brown watches the first nine Century Mile races on her phone. As she does, she gets more and more despondent.
Real Grace is a front-runner. But all the races are being won by horses coming from off the pace. “There isn’t one race where the front-runner has gone wire-to-wire,” she says. “It’s not looking good for me.”
But sometimes magic happens. And it does this day when the 18-1 longshot goes to the top and never looks back under apprentice jockey Mauricio Malvaez, who only got the first win of his career just three months previously.
“It looked like they were going to run him down. I was begging for the wire, but he gave it all he had,” Brown says of Real Grace’s neck victory over a hard-charging Something Natural, who is trained by Robertino Diodoro, a former Alberta trainer now one of the top conditioners in North America.
“It’s a miracle,” says Malvaez. “It’s a miracle I got to ride in the Derby. It’s a miracle that I won,” he says.
“If you had told me last year that I would even ride in the Canadian Derby, let alone win it, I would have said you were crazy. Last year I never won a single race. That’s why I love this sport so much: anything can happen.
“I’m just so happy that I could win this race for Shelley.”
“Best race I’ve ever won,” says Cone. “This was all about Shelley. I told her we were going to win this race for her. Somehow we did. She needed a boost and I’m sure this win did that for her.
“It was very emotional. A lot of tears were shed, including my own.
“Shelley sent this horse to me in good shape. She’s the one who deserves all the credit. If anybody deserves to win a race like this, it’s Shelley,” Cone says of Brown, who, in 2012, became the first female to win the trainer standings at Winnipeg’s Assiniboia Downs.
“She worked for me for a while about 20 years ago. She’s a really hard worker. She’d show up at three a.m. and have 25 stalls cleaned before anybody else even showed up at the track.”
Just after the horses cross the finish line, Brown’s phone starts to ring. And ring. And ring. People from everywhere are calling to extend their congratulations.
That night Brown doesn’t sleep; she is too excited. She goes from not being able to stay awake to not being able to close her eyes. “It’s amazing how something like that can boost your spirits so much and want to keep going.”
Fast forward again. This time to the present.
Because of his Derby victory, Real Grace was named Alberta’s Horse of the Year at Thursday’s Night of Champions – an annual event that celebrates the achievements of the leading horses and people in the Thoroughbred industry.
“That Derby race was a huge contributor for me to dig in and keep going. He dug in and so have I,” said Brown this week who, miraculously, is back training full-time in Winnipeg looking after 20 horses.
“Before the Derby I was mentally defeated and emotionally defeated. I just was really struggling, I can’t lie. But Real Grace gave me a renewed hope.
“Until then it was hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel. I was only given a few months to live. There was no hope.
“It shows you just how important mental wellness is,” said Brown, who grew up in Regina and got her love of horses from her parents, who would often take Shelley to the racetrack.
“I still get tired easily, but I’m feeling pretty good,” she said while driving to pick up a load of hay. “The baseball-sized lump in my lung is now 80 per cent gone.”
It’s been a long road back, though. Since the original diagnosis, between doctor appointments, homeopathy treatments and twice-a-week peptide (short strings of amino acids) injections, Brown has had 15 CT Scans.
She also takes IBRANCE, a form of chemotherapy, which is said to stop the growth of both healthy and cancerous cells.
But what she feels has helped the most is Fenbendazol, better known as a dog dewormer.
“When word of my cancer got out, I got calls from two horse people who both had been diagnosed with cancer. They both told me to get on this dog dewormer right away.
“One of them was given two months to live. Both of them are now in remission.
“I don’t know how much time I have left. A day. A week. A month. A year. Ten years. It’s for as long as God gives me,” said Brown, who also eats shiitake mushrooms three times a day.
Brown will learn more next month when she has a bone scan and another CT scan.
“Those will tell me how it’s working – if the cancer is growing, staying the same or shrinking.
“I’m very lucky to still be able to get up in the morning. It shows once again that you don’t appreciate things until they have been taken away. It also shows you that if there is fight in you there is a lot you can do. If you wave the white flag and say you are done you will go downhill.
“Attitude will get you more than medicine.”
The medicine and the treatments are expensive. Brown estimates she has already spent about $45,000. “Life is all about making memories – not money,” she says.
“I had a lot of friends begging me to want to keep going and that really helped.
“But what helped as much as anything was Real Grace winning that Derby. It was like a sign not to give up.
“That horse saved my life.”