Two years ago, Debbie Francis had to have unexpected heart surgery after a tumour was found on the left side of her heart.
It was a shock. She didn’t feel sick or experience any symptoms.
“I went in to have myself checked out because my mom and dad had heart issues and they just wanted to do an echocardiogram just to see if there was anything hereditary there,” Francis said.
Before she knew it, she was on the operating table. The tumour had to be removed right away.
Luckily, the tumour was benign and Francis remains cancer free.
But she’s thankful for her family, her racing horses and the wider horse-racing community for giving her mind something to focus on during that tough time.
“Just to hear the words that it wasn’t cancerous was huge.”
Horse racing gave her something to look forward to.
“By the time March came around and I was allowed to drive and (was) walking more, it was a great therapy. Barn work is my thinking time,” she said.
“Horses have a soothing aspect about them.”
She wipes Jazzmo’s dark, brown coat with a wet cloth after his ride around the track at Saulsbrook Stables, just outside Windsor.
The 13-year-old veteran still has some spirit in him. He won’t be winning any major races but is a great practice racer and companion for her son, Gregory, who also has a passion for the sport. It runs in the family.
Steam emanates from the animal as an unusual April snow sprinkles outside. Gregory busies himself with unravelling the tack, before moving on to the next chore.
“I’ve been in the harness racing industry now for over 20 years. My dad was involved in the Sackville Downs days,” Debbie says. “I used to tag along when he’d go as a small child.”
The Sackville Downs was a major horse racing track in Lower Sackville that saw large crowds and revenues, especially in the 1970s. But that began to dwindle in the 1980s, eventually ceasing operations in 1986.
But the local industry continues on, thanks largely to racetracks in Truro, Cape Breton and P.E.I.
“Seventeen years ago my dad purchased a filly to race in the Sires Stakes Program, racing at age two and three,” she said. “When she was done racing, I took her home and bred her, and she’s still there. That’s what really got me involved.”
Her involvement in the industry has slowly grown since then, breeding and racing horses across Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and Ontario and this year, she’s, pardon the pun, taking the reins of the Atlantic Standardbred Breeders Association (ASBA).
She starts training for the executive role soon, with a start date in late April.
“I love the industry; it’s been in my blood and my son is a part of it now,” she said, adding that horse racing is hard to walk away from.
Part of that is because of the strong bonds built with the animals.
The last horse her father ever owned before he died is the broodmare she now has at her home in Sweets Corner.
The first horse that was born at Francis’ childhood home was named, J.F. Money, named after her parents Joan and Fred Lowthers.
Her dad told her not to get too attached to the horse, as it would likely be sold following the racing season.
“He was a tough horse, raced as a three-year-old, came off really good and Dad said we had to sell him,” she said. “We had him on (P.E.I.) training…and I had to take the paperwork over, and I remember sitting at the kitchen table crying, thinking I can’t do it.”
“It’s so hard because you feed them every day and they become like your kids. They’re part of your family. We’ve only had (Jazzmo) for a year now, but I can guarantee he’s not going anywhere.”
Her son is in the thick of it, too, and hasn’t had much choice.
“I’ve had him at the track basically since he was born,” she said.
In the past four or five years, Gregory has been jogging and training the horses. He’s hoping to be in the driver’s seat in the next couple of years.
But there aren’t that many young people like Gregory who are as enthusiastic about the sport. One thing preventing that is a lack of exposure.
“Not a lot of young people wake up one day and think ‘I want to race horses.’ Things like dirt bikes or hockey are way more front and centre,” she said.
“It’s a passion and it has to be. You’re not in it for the money, it’s about the love of the game.”
UPS AND DOWNS
The industry has seen some highs and lows, and it’s something Francis is keeping an eye on as she readies for her new role as executive director for Atlantic Canada.
She says it’s important to foster a love of the sport in the next generation, people like her son.
“We need people like Gregory and others to come through now, the folks who are predominantly there now are from an older generation,” she said.
The Truro Raceway separated from the Nova Scotia Provincial Exhibition in 2018, which lead to layoffs as the Truro Horse Owners Association took over operation of the facility.
A feasibility study is expected at the end of May, which will evaluate the sustainability of the racetrack, and Francis is hopeful the government will support the industry.
“The Northside Downs in North Sydney continues to be very strong and in Inverness, they have a nice little track,” she said. “There is support, but we need the government behind us to keep it going.”
The main reason the industry continues to stay healthy is the tight-knit community of breeders and racers in Atlantic Canada, Francis said.
“It’s like a family,” she added.
It’s not just horses keeping her busy, Francis is also a councillor for West Hants, representing District 5, along with other roles in the community. She was also recently elected as the vice president of the Truro Harness Horse Owners Association.
But she likes to keep busy.
“I enjoy it and I’m confident I’ll be able to balance it all,” she said.