From Scarborough, Ontario to Europe and back, Shelley Fitzgerald has followed horses around the world. These days, Shelley is firmly settled at Woodbine racetrack where she has built a reputation as an exceptional horseperson. Her small stable, made up of horses owned by her and business partner Martin Wickins, is coming off its best season in more than a decade and all signs say 2023 could be even better.
The exciting mare Stormy Silence, a stakes placed daughter of Silent Name (Jpn) from the Fitzgerald-bred mare Endless Approval was one of five horses Shelley shipped into Woodbine on Feb. 22, the opening day of the backstretch for this year.
Horses and riding came into Shelley’s world as a teenager. Her parents, who came from England in the 1950s, weren’t into horses but a trail ride with a friend put Shelley on a path to a career in equestrian sport. But she would have to pursue jobs with horses back in England when her parents decided to move to the county of Cornwall. Shelley found work with a local stable, caring for horses and teaching riding lessons. And then, while her Dad was still in Ontario selling their house, he suffered a heart attack and her mother went back to care for him. That left Shelley by herself in a creaky old house atop Bodmin Moor. “I was alone and I was terrified,” said Shelley. “One day the woman, Lynn, who ran the riding stable asked me what was wrong and I told her about living alone. She took me in to live with her family for a few months. We’re still friends today.”
Once her parents returned to Cornwall, Shelley moved around and tested many jobs. She moved to the county of Dorset and was working for a pony club commissioner until that barn shut down. She ended up in Rome where she worked with horses and then for an animal hospital. She was also the travelling groom for international dressage rider Fausto Puccini, who had ridden in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Working for Fausto, Shelley visited countries such as Switzerland, Yugoslavia and France.
She later moved to Milan where she found a higher paying job with a young champion Italian rider, but when that rider suddenly quit the sport, Shelley was out of a job. It was then that Shelley decided to move back to Canada. She found her way to Woodbine racetrack and got to learn about the world of Thoroughbred racing grooming for Danny O’Callaghan, She took an assistant trainer’s job with trainer Debbie England followed and she saddled her first winner, Say Beautiful, during her three years with that trainer.
Shelley decided to go out on her own as a trainer in 1993 and the first horse she claimed provided quite a story that she loves to tell. “It was a horse that I had worked with when I was with Debbie but he was with now with another trainer,” said Shelley about a gelding named Almighty Buck. “When I claimed him he collapsed after the race,” said Shelley. “He was a mess, but he was so beautiful and I loved him. I figured, if he couldn’t race anymore I would just keep him to ride.” Shelley had paid $7,500 for Almighty Buck and was pretty sure the gelding had soured from racing. For several weeks she simply rode the horse around the backstretch from barn to barn, visiting people. And sitting outside his stall with a coffee just playing with him.
Before the racing season came to an end, Shelley decided to try him in race to see if he was still interested in running. It was a seven furlong race at Greenwood and not long out of the gate, Almighty Buck and jockey Ricky Griffith were almost a dozen lengths behind the field. Shelley was just about to give up hope when the gelding roared past all the runners head of him and won by a long neck at 25-to-1. “I was in total shock,” she said. Almighty Buck went on to a wonderful career with Shelley, earning some $100,000 and scaling up the class ladder. On one October afternoon, he even finished third to eventual champion Langfuhr.
In 1999, Shelley met Martin Wickens. an accountant and young racehorse owner looking for a new trainer. The first horse she sent out for Wickens was a winner and they have shred horse ownership ever since. One of their claims, Semester’s End, was a multiple winner and Shelley elected to breed her. Marty bowed out at that point. Shelley was determined to breed Semester’s end to her favourite horse, Canadian Triple Crown winner With Approval, who was at stud in Kentucky. She got her mare to With Approval, but the mare was not catching. Then, the stallion was sold to England. “I asked the farm if they could just breed one more time and then just ship her back up here to me. When she got here, I found out she was in foal.”
That foal was Endless Approval, who won over $130,000 for Shelley. Wickens came back on board to share in the cost of breeding Endless Approval and Stormy Silence, her third foal, was the first one to make it to the races. It took some time, though. Stormy Silence was unraced at 2 and when close to making her debut at 3, was found one morning with an injured hind leg. Shelley believes commotion from power washing on the other side of the barn upset the filly. Later in the year, Stormy Silence bucked her shins. Shelley finally got a chance to start Stormy Silence in a maiden special weight race in June 2022 and while the filly’s impressive workout times had the backstretch buzzing, the public let her go off at 26 to 1, the longest shot on the board. The race was over soon after the gates opened. Showing blinding speed, Stormy Silence zipped through an opening two furlongs in the five furlong turf dash in 21.21 and led to the finish in 56.25, putting more than $73,000 in the bank.
The filly nicknamed ‘Fiona’ came right back and won an allowance race before getting caught in the final strides of the $100,000 Zadracarta Stakes to multiple stakes winner Lorena. “I was thrilled and so proud of her,” said Shelley. “My exercise rider Ruben Peralta had always said she was going to be a good one.”
Stormy Silence is back at Woodbine and just one of several exciting horses Shelley and Wickens are looking forward to racing in 2023. Shelley also gets some help from her partner and fellow trainer Warren Wilcox, also an accomplished horseman. “I’m a hands-on trainer, I love to groom them and do their stalls,” said said. “That way I can stay on top of everything. They tell me when they are ready to run.” The patience and care Shelley shows her horses has certainly paid off throughout her career.