John Brown rolled his wheelchair up to Dreymore’s horse stall and unwrapped a mint. He fed it to the horse he called his "wife," as he visited her one last time.
Brown, 60, is a lifelong horseman, working as a trainer and a groom — and in any other capacity he could find around horses — since he was a child. For decades he worked at Fairmount Racetrack in Collinsville, caring for and training racehorses, including Dreymore.
Now he is a patient at Unity Hospice in Belleville, with lung cancer that has spread to his brain. Brown can no longer walk, and wears a kerchief to cover his head.
His wish was to see his horses one more time, especially Dreymore. So the team at Unity Hospice arranged a rare behind-the-scenes visit Thursday to the secured racehorse barn at Fairmount Racetrack, accompanied by hospice medical staff and a few friends and family. He was chauffeured in a white stretch limousine, and then wheeled to the barn where he spent so much of his life.
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He greeted Dreymore once again, feeding her the mints she liked so much. John has worked with many horses in his time, but Dreymore was special. He wasn't the only one who called her his "wife" — that was the term everyone else used for her as well.
"If she loved you, she loved you," John said. "But if she didn’t, she wouldn’t do nothing for you … She’s a keeper."
Cheri James, chaplain at Unity Hospice, said fulfilling the final wishes of people in end-stage care is very important to them and to others.
"It’s a spiritual thing to be connected to the things they really loved,” she said, watching John as he greeted the horses waiting in the barn. "It’s good for the families, too, to have memories to cherish."
The horses each pushed their heads out of their stalls, all turning to watch John in his wheelchair, being pushed from stall to stall. He was bundled into a jacket against the light breeze — his Breeder’s Cup winner’s jacket, hard-won in 2010 with a horse he helped train named Big Drama.
John Brown is a man of few words, preferring “a low profile,” as he put it. And yet everyone at Fairmount Racetrack knew him, called out to him, hugged and greeted him as he returned to the track where he lived and spent so much of his life.
“Speedy!” Brown called as a jockey came up to hug him.
“This is his life,” said Phyllis Brown, John’s sister, as she watched him greet both horses and humans. “This was something he enjoyed for 30-plus years.”
John was born in Florida and grew up in Chicago and later in Medora, Illinois. It was there that an uncle “threw him up on a horse,” Phyllis said.
“That was all it took,” she said. “He never looked back. Sometimes I’d tell him, ‘John, you need to get a real job.’ And he’d just say, ‘This is the real job.’”
He served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, which he said he believed everyone should have to do. But after he got out, it was right back to the horses, training racehorses in Florida and Illinois. He won more than 300 trophies as a young man, Phyllis said.
John never married, never had children. He had no objections to either, he said, but never wanted it himself.
“I’d just as soon be doing this,” he said, gesturing to the racetrack.
But it wouldn’t be fair to say he had no family besides his sister. Everywhere he went at Fairmount, someone came up to him for a hug or a handshake. Jockeys and grooms and other workers all stopped by the barn, hearing that John was there, wanting to ask after him and wish him well.
“This is family to him,” Phyllis said. “They’re very close-knit (at the track), like family. The grooms and families stay on site — he lived here.”
After the fourth or fifth person, John said quietly, “Think I know a few people around here?”
He reminisced about living on the track, caring for the horses that were his passion.
“One thing you can count on here, you will not go hungry,” he said. “If you didn’t have the money for it, they’d give it to you.”
After the barn visit, the team brought John to a wooden platform where he could watch the horses run the track, including Dreymore, galloping at full speed.
“She looks good, better than she did last year,” John said, shading his eyes against the sun.
He was surprised she was running one more time, he said — at 12 years old, he thought last season was her last.
But she’s not quite done, it seems, and owner/trainers Teddy Randazzo and Christine Ellis-Randazzo will be racing her this season. They’re part of his family, too. Ellis-Randazzo said that John has "horses in his heart," calling him a "phenomenal horseman."
She teared up as she watched John visit with Dreymore. “It’s not the same without John,” she said.
The diagnosis came in August: lung cancer of a very aggressive type, according to Phyllis. John went through multiple treatments, but then he caught the flu this winter, and barely survived two bouts of pneumonia. The doctors have since found spots on his brain, and he entered hospice care a week ago.
“It’s been difficult,” Phyllis said. “This was everything to him … he needed this (visit) to lift his spirits. He’s good at what he does. I’ve watched him; he knows what he’s doing. It’s always been all about the horses.”
John confessed to being a little surprised at all the attention. They had gone to a lot of trouble to bring him there, he said.
“It’s more than I’d have done for myself,” he said. “It feels good to get back here among my friends. People holler my name; it’s a good feeling.”
Dreymore ran by one more time, and John’s eyes followed her all the way around the track, picking her out easily among three or four similarly-colored racehorses as she ran full-tilt.
A jockey called out from the track, “Hang in there, John!”
John replied, “I’m here.”
Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald