Real Grace wins Free Press Stakes, has bright future at Downs


Real Grace wins Free Press Stakes, has bright future at Downs

“I got the horse right here, The name is…” ~ Fugue for Tinhorns, Guys and Dolls (1955)

Real Grace.

If you’re looking for a horse that “can do” this summer at Assiniboia Downs, this guy might be your ticket. Think of a young Brett Favre, tough as nails, but faster.

Real Grace won the 62nd running of the $35,000 Free Press Stakes on Tuesday evening at the Downs after a dream trip inside trip under jockey Renaldo Cumberbatch, but he actually had to do what many horses and jockeys won’t — drive through along the rail in the stretch to win.

Conditioned by Shelley Brown, the first and only woman to ever win the training title outright at Assiniboia Downs in 2012, Real Grace is owned by Brown, Jean McEwen, and Jean’s daughter Bette Holtman.

Originally sold as a yearling at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Select Yearling Sale in 2018 for $100,000, Brown was somehow able to steal Real Grace for $38,000 in the Ocala Winter Mixed Sale as a 3-year-old for $38,000.

His first lifetime start at Tampa Bay Downs as a 3-year-old was an 11th place nightmare after bobbling at the break and finishing 21 ¼-lengths behind the winner at 77-1. Four starts later he scored his first lifetime victory in his first-ever start at Assiniboia Downs in the Derby Trial. Sent off as the second choice in the Manitoba Derby in his next start, Real Grace dueled and faded to finish fifth beaten 4 ¾-lengths. Three starts later he wired his field in the $100,000 Canadian Derby (G3) going 1 1/4-miles at Century Mile in Alberta and the game was on.

Real Grace crosses the finish line in the Free Press Stakes Tuesday night. (Jason Halstead Photo)

The strapping bay gelding now looks like he may be turning into a “good” horse at the age of five, which is about 20 in human years. Not that the four-time stakes winner wasn’t pretty darn good already, but something was different about him on Tuesday.

He’s grown up and filled out. He knows where the wire is and he wants to get there first, but he seems more patient now, willing to wait for his cue to fire. He showed signs of turning pro last year, and he may now be ready to take the next step. Could be good karma time for Brown and her partners. Real Grace is the first stakes winner for the 80-year-old McEwen, who has owned race horses for five decades, and both Holtman and Brown are cancer survivors.

Brown was diagnosed with cancer in the fall of 2020 and it’s been an uphill battle ever since, including two lung operations, numerous additional procedures, 52 pills a day and now chemotherapy every three weeks.

“Chemo is hard,” said Brown. “I’ve got no hair, and almost no eyebrows left. The week after chemo is pretty rough. And some days all those pills can be literally hard to swallow. But it’s what I have to do to stay alive. The doctor says the cancer is ‘stable’ right now, which means it’s either the same size or has decreased and some spots have disappeared, but at the end of the day, I still have a lot of cancer in my body. We’ll do this until it stops working. Then we’ll try something else.”

Brown said she was in rough shape mentally a few months ago after an extra strong dose of chemotherapy, but they have since dropped her dosage down, and she was even able to joke about the fact that she can eat whatever she wants and sometimes wears a wig.

“I have no special diet,” said Brown. “Because they want you to keep your weight up. Losing my hair was hard, but I do have some really cool wigs, which is nice if you’re in a rush. You just decide which one you want to put on and go.”

Brown still gets to the barn at 5 a.m. to tend to her 30 horses, with help from an excellent team of grooms that includes assistant trainer and Real Grace’s groom Scott Creighton, Colleen Garrett, Tyler Anderson and Roy Fedee. “I’m really thankful for the crew that I have,” said Brown. “They’ve all been with me for years. Without them I couldn’t do this.”

Having a horse like Real Grace in the barn also provides a mental boost, and there might be another reason he looks like an improved horse this year. “He had throat surgery last fall,” said Brown. Will it be enough to get him a Gold Cup this fall?

“Can do.”

Credit: Real Grace wins Free Press Stakes, has bright future at Downs