Upset victory in Canadian Derby inspires horse trainer battling cancer

Shelley Brown wasn’t sure if she felt well enough to stay awake on Sunday night and watch her horse compete in one of Canada’s most prestigious derbies.

But the Winnipeg-based horse trainer, who was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, felt it was important she stay up to watch the 91st running of the Canadian Derby, an annual race held at the Century Mile racetrack just south of Edmonton.

From her phone at home, Brown observed as her horse, Real Grace, pulled off an 18-1 long-shot triumph.

Brown, who was diagnosed with cancer at the beginning of September, said she felt inspired by the underdog victory.

“I was mentally defeated and emotionally defeated. I just was really struggling, I can’t lie. And I found after that race a renewed hope,” said Brown.

Brown had been told by doctors she had cancer in her breasts, lungs, stomach and several bones. Doctors warned her she didn’t have much time, and before Sunday’s race she said she was having a hard time staying positive and even getting out of bed each day.

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Sunday’s derby marked one of the most memorable victories in her career.

“I needed this for myself to help me continue to keep my spirits up,” she said.

“I really feel that I needed something to give me some hope.”

Moving from Edmonton to Regina in 2008 after her father was diagnosed with cancer, Brown began training racehorses in Winnipeg the next year to stay close to her family. She later became the first woman to be crowned the champion trainer in the more than half-century history of horse racing at the Assiniboia Downs racetrack in Winnipeg.

This summer she sent Real Grace to Rod Cone, an Alberta trainer she’d worked with in the past and known for around 20 years.

She said she did this in Real Grace’s best interests to get the horse more experience competing against opponents of the same age.

When Cone called Brown to talk about the horse, he found out about her diagnosis and said it was devastating to hear. Cone said he wanted to win the Canadian Derby in Brown’s honour.

“We just made our mind up we were going to do everything we could to help her,” said Cone, who spoke with CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM about the race on Tuesday morning.

The derby-winning jockey on Sunday was apprentice rider Mauricio Malvaez, who had never won a stakes race before. Malvaez was chosen to ride Real Grace after another jockey who had been working with the horse chose to ride a different horse in the derby.

The win was like nothing Cone had ever seen, as people at the track who knew about Brown’s condition applauded the victory.

He and his team at Century Mile raised some money to help with Brown’s medical expenses. Part of the $55,000 winner’s purse from the Canadian Derby will also go toward paying for Brown’s treatment.

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