Filly Peggy Jean Brings Breast Cancer Survivors That All-Important Winning Feeling – And A Bond

By Chris Roots
The Sydney Morning Herald

Beautiful distraction: Filly Peggy Jean with owners Liz Barnes (centre) and Patricia Nicholls after winning the Sires’ Produce Stakes in April. Photo: Bradley Photographers

For Liz Barnes, Peggy Jean has been there through the fight of her life. The filly has been a distraction from breast cancer and a positive influence when she was at her lowest ebb.

When Barnes’ cancer battle was at its most crucial point earlier in the year, Peggy Jean delivered a Group 1 victory in the Sires’ Produce Stakes. Barnes and fellow cancer survivor Trish Nicholls led her into the winners’ circle.

“I still had two ‘chemos’ to go,” Barnes recalls. “Peggy [Jean] was my light relief and focus. She was something to look forward to every other week.

“That was almost the lowest point of the whole scenario [around April, when the Sires’ was run]. By that point I had been through radiation and I was coming out the other end. But that [win] was a huge boost in a bad week and we walked on air for days after it.”

Barnes and Nicholls met through the Triple Crown syndication that had bought Peggy Jean. However, shared experiences made them friends and on Sires’ day they shared a special moment.

“Our husbands were up in the stand and I said to Liz, ‘Let’s lead Peggy back, we have both had breast cancer and we deserve this'”, Nicholls remembers. “No else said a word to us – it was like it was meant to be.”

Barnes and Nicholls were owning the moment, as Barnes had done with her cancer. She sported the clearest signs of cancer with her hair all but gone in photos taken on the day.

“I had to own it, and it was my way of doing it,” Barnes said of not wearing a wig. “I thought, ‘I’ve got it and it is nothing to be ashamed of’, and I felt more comfortable going bald. I don’t even like scarfs.”

They will be back together again as Peggy Jean returns in the Group 2, 1200-metre Furious Stakes at Randwick on Saturday as she begins her spring campaign.

Barnes, who is a year on from her diagnosis, says she and her fellow owners have “gentle expectations”.

“I think our main competition is Earthquake,” Barnes says. “She was the best two-year-old last year.

“It would be nice to win again and, of course, we are hoping for another Group 1 – that would be a dream.

“But for us it is just great to see everyone [involved in the syndicate] again. The racing is a great reason to put your glad rags on and get dressed up, which makes it more exciting.”

Nicholls will travel from Brisbane for Saturday’s Furious.

“Getting to see everyone again will be good and hopefully Peggy can win,” Nicholls said. “It is just exciting to have a filly like her going to the big races.”

The little filly that Nicholls told her husband not to buy into and that Barnes’ husband invested in to fulfil a lifelong dream has brought the two women much more than her achievements on the racetrack.

She brought Barnes someone to talk to about cancer, although Nicholls says their first meeting was confronting.

“We kind of bonded over it immediately,” Nicholls said. “I felt a bit awkward when we first met because she had had the chemo and had [lost] the hair. I just thought, ‘Oh my God, I wonder what is happening to her?’

“I went up and asked her. A lot of people who haven’t been through cancer tend not to want to address it with a person unless you know the person well.

“I didn’t know her at all but I went straight up to her asked what she had chemo for and she said breast cancer. I told her straight away I had it myself, in 2007-2008.

“I have never been close to anyone else with cancer and it’s good for both of us, and exciting to be involved in Peggy Jean together.”

Nicholls has been given the all-clear when it comes to the cancer itself but has ongoing problems, while Barnes, in her typical fashion, is confident she has won the battle.

“I’m good at the moment and I act as if I have beaten it, but it takes for four or five years for the doctors to tell you that,” Barnes said.

Peggy Jean has been a big part of this and meeting Trish was important because she had been through it [cancer].

“You’re not effectively alone. Other people can’t understand where you are at if you’re a bit flat. She would say to me, ‘You’re allowed to be and you will be better tomorrow’.

“It has been like a fairytale … everything … Peggy Jean winning the Group 1, and hopefully there is more to come.”