Trainer Shelley Brown was writing a list of longtime employees on the trunk of her car Wednesday morning when a Canada Goose flew over and dropped a bomb on her hood.
"That’s good luck!" she said. The genuine glow in her smile outshone the darkness inside.
The only woman ever to lead the trainer standings at Assiniboia Downs outright in 2012, the 47-year-old Brown was diagnosed with cancer last fall. The insidious disease attacked her lungs and bones without notice, taking up residence in her right femur, both hips, her spine, pelvis, shoulders and neck. She had two lung surgeries this winter and the first did not go well.
"We actually called my family and friends, and they were there," said Brown. "I didn't think I was going to make it, but I did. And then the doctor said, ‘Guess what? You get to do this all over again.’
"There was a point when just the thought of getting up to walk to the couch would blow my mind. I would literally lay there for an hour thinking ‘You can do this. You just have to.’ Who would have thought that could be such a huge task, that walking 30 feet could be so taxing. I just couldn’t do the things I could normally do."
Through a combination of Palbociclib therapy and hyperthermia treatments over the winter, some tumor shrinkage occurred in her lungs and Brown was able to breathe and walk again. Her longtime clients never let her lose hope, telling her to wait until spring regarding any decisions about training again, and that the horses might help keep her going.
They did. They all did.
"Honestly, I didn’t even know if I would be alive, let alone training," said Brown.
Brown’s owners and staff stuck with her as she got better and she now has 27 horses in training, rather than the 40-45 she’s had in the past. She can no longer do the physical work, so she depends on her staff including longtime assistant Scott Creighton, loyal grooms Roy Fedee, Anthony Nelson and Jeff Carter, exercise rider Sydney Blackwood, and jockeys Antonio Whitehall, Kayla Pizarro and Shamaree Muir.
"These guys have been through thick and thin with me," said Brown. "I’m very thankful to have them."
While the physical part of the game has escaped her, Brown has more time now for the mental aspect of training horses. She has always been one of the top trainers at the Downs, and perhaps now she has a chance to get even better, to watch her charges for the tiniest clues that might turn a plodder into a powerhouse.
A flick of the ears, a prance or a buck, a chomp of the bit, a paw in the muck, anything that signals a horse is doing good or might do better with this or that. Imagination and the ability to spot key changes in attitude and behaviour have always been the real secret to training racehorses. A blessing in disguise for Brown?
"I don't take anything for granted anymore," she said. "I want to live every day, every minute that I'm up and able to do things, I want to be active and enjoy life as much as I can. I don't know what tomorrow will bring. There’s uncertainty that comes with a severe health issue. I feel like I have a second chance to live again and I'm running with it as much as I can.
"I’m enjoying every second, because I know what it's like, and I know how fast I can go back to not feeling well. I think sometimes we feel a little bit invincible until something like this happens. You're only healthy until the doctor says you're not healthy. And it can happen fast. I think it's really important for people to be happy doing what they’re doing."
Brown, whose next set of medical scans is in early June, got herself a cockapoo puppy this winter to help her get through the tough times.
"He’s sitting next to me now giving me kisses… mm mm mm," she said on a call from her truck an hour later to confirm her good-luck-goose theory. "He’s the cutest thing on earth, he’s my co-pilot. His name’s Riley. I got him four months ago when I was struggling with my diagnosis. I needed something to get up to. I didn’t have the horses yet and I couldn’t really do anything. He made me laugh every day. He brings so much joy to my life."
Brown looks forward to just waking up in the morning now.
"Everything after that is gravy," she said. "This has really changed my outlook on life, and it means a lot to me. Just coming to the barn to see the horses and hearing them nicker when they see me. Seeing the expression on their faces when I’m handing out their treats in the morning. That just makes me really, really, happy.
"God I love the horses."