05/17/2005 11:00PM

After beating cancer, a sweet victory for Girten


Shirley Girten is back.

After winning the most important race of her life - a 2 1/2-year battle with ovarian cancer - Thistledown's all-time winningest female trainer visited the winner's circle last Thursday with Jazz Combo, the first horse she has started since May 5, 2003.

"When my doctor diagnosed my illness as cancer, I was scared to death," Girten said. "Ironically, it was on the same day that my longtime friend Pam Barnes died of cancer and less than a year before Pam's boyfriend was also taken with the same disease. They were both owners and trainers here, and I was convinced I would complete the three-death-cycle."

After getting past the initial shock, Girten dealt with her condition with the same tenacity and perseverance that enabled her to be North America's leading female trainer by wins for three consecutive years, from 1992 to 1994. Girten decided she would beat the odds and make a full recovery - and she did just that.

Following a three-hour surgery, Girten underwent 18 sessions of chemotherapy. Four months ago, her doctor told her that the cancer was in remission.

"It was the happiest day of my life, and I decided that I would get back to training horses when I was physically able," she said. "Last fall I was feeling really good and had most of my strength back. I decided it was time to see if I could resume training and made plans to go to Florida with my son, Tim, who is a trainer. Tim took 12 head to Ocala, and I was in charge of four horses at Tampa Bay Downs."

Girten, a 58-year old native of Hillsdale, Mich., also has a daughter, Karol, and two grandchildren. She began her career in racing as an assistant trainer to Harmon Drake at Detroit Race Course in 1979 and came to Thistledown in 1984 with Drake and one horse, a mare named Unbridled Queen. Drake and Girten liked what they saw and came back the next year with 18 head, with Drake listed as trainer. Drake won two of the four meetings that made up the Thistledown season and was the leading trainer for the year from 1987 to 1990.

Girten took over the training duties in 1991 and kept the streak going for the next six seasons, from 1991 to 1996. Drake and Girten were married in November 2003.

"I really love and enjoy training horses and would like to have a string of eight or 10 - not the 30 and 40 that I used to deal with," she said. "I hope God allows me to do so."