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John Slade

Raconteur, horseman par excellence, philanthropist

John Slade (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

John Slade (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

I felt very honoured when Maine Chance Farms asked me to do a write-up on John Slade.

It’s a rather human peculiarity that we often save our best accolades and compliments about someone, sharing those only after that person has gone, which doesn’t make any sense. It is therefore a huge privilege for me to be able to honour John Slade upon his leaving Maine Chance Farms, to retire to rocky pastures out in the Karoo.

Most professions are referred to as practice. One practices medicine, dentistry and even veterinary science. However, those that manage stud farms, are called stud masters. I can think of no-one more deserving of that title than John Slade.

I have tried to write about John before and I confess, I failed, because how on earth does one condense a man of his stature into just so many words ? How does one tie someone – particularly someone who means so much to so many people – to any particular word, story or description? He is funny, charming, hugely knowledgeable, a wonderful story teller and – one of my favourites – a genuine horse lover. It is the singular privilege of meeting people like John, that makes my involvement in the racing industry so thoroughly worthwhile and I can say without reservation that he is one of my all-time favourite people.

John has dedicated his entire life to the art of breeding and has worked with some of the biggest and best in the business, not least of which is the mighty Silvano. So it seems appropriate to start with a breeding quote.

It is said that “A stallion’s pedigree tells you what they could be, its performance tells you what it should be and its progeny tells you what it is.”

 

Pedigree

If we were to judge a stud master on the same terms, John’s pedigree would probably not be considered ‘fashionable’ in racing terms. He is from an entirely non-equestrian family. Bloodstock agent, Chris Smith, kindly handed me one of my favourite John Slade stories.

When John visited his offices one day, hoping to collect some reference material, he politely announced himself with the greeting, “Hello, I’m John Slade.” “Who are you?” Chris shot back. Unacquainted with the peculiarities that rule the industry, and somewhat puzzled, John repeated “I’m John Slade”. “Yes, yes,” came the rejoinder, “but WHO ARE YOU?” John’s response was fairly succinct and rounded off with ‘And I didn’t go to Michael House either’ before he swept out.

In actual fact, John found his way into the horse industry only through the generosity of an Arabian breeder named Betty Chapman. Showing great kindness (not something horsey ladies are generally best known for!), Mrs Chapman introduced the young boy to her horses and encouraged his interest, and he eventually progressed to being a National show judge.

 

Performance

If one were to judge John on his performance, then the first ‘act’ in his professional life was as a teacher. After being booted out of the army for refusing to carry a rifle (“I didn’t see the point,” he muses), he trained as a teacher and taught art, a subject he is passionate about. It is a little known fact that John has an unusual visual impairment in that he sees objects in negative space, judging the spaces around an object, rather than the object itself. It gives him a unique perspective on art, on horses and on life and is perhaps the reason he is so good at judging balance and symmetry as well as viewing life from a slightly different perspective than most.

In typical John fashion, having found traditional teaching methods wanting, he tried out new ones. Although his methods were deemed unorthodox by the school, his students produced such fine work, that it became part of a travelling exhibition. Unfortunately it was not enough to reconcile him with the school principal and his tenure as a teacher came to a premature end.

John then decided to head abroad, doing a season’s stud work at Newmarket’s Cheveley Park Stud. Eschewing traditional application methods, John simply walked up the driveway and knocked on the door, and got the job! He then travelled to America, breaking in ready-to-run horses for the Hialeah Sales and prepping yearlings for Lee Eaton for the Saratoga Sales. He had planned to round off the tour with a stint in Australia and New Zealand, but a bad fall curtailed his plans and he returned home.

Robin Scott

Robin Scott

Back in South Africa, John got a job prepping a small number of sales yearlings for a breeder named Mr Jackson and did such a good job of it, that he caught the eye of George Rowles. George mentioned him to Robin Scott, who liked what he saw so much that he promptly offered John the job of stud manager at Highdown. Given the fact that Scott Bros were at the height of their powers, it was no small compliment, but John says “Robin is exceptional that way. He has helped quite a few people by giving them chances like that.” Although he was there ‘after Jungle Cove, but before Foveros’, it was during John’s tenure that Scott Bros attained the unique achievement of being second on the owners’ as well as the breeders’ log.

Mick Goss

Mick Goss

After eight years at Highdown, John was head-hunted by another captain of the racing industry, Summerhill’s Mick Goss. Mick had just taken sole control of the operation and John helped grow and develop the stud into the institution it is today.

Having spent eight years at Summerhill (“eight years seems to be my standard”), John was lucky to escape with his life, after a life-threatening encounter with a groom left him with a scar down the right-hand side of his face.

John took his young family off to New Zealand’s South Island for a few years, where they raised deer and practiced general farming for several years. It was a taxing job, performed under challenging conditions, but John believes that those deprivations have stood them in good stead for their Karoo retirement project.

Dr Andreas Jacobs

Dr Andreas Jacobs

In 1999 John was winding up the deer farming operation and preparing to accept a job at Waikato Stud on the North Island. He’d been standing a mare belonging to Anthony Beck and contacted Anthony explaining that he was leaving and enquiring what he needed to do with the mare. Hearing that John was back on the market, Anthony promptly offered him the job at Maine Chance and John took up the reins in September 2000. John worked for the Beck family until Andreas Jacobs bought the farm lock, stock and barrel – including its stud master – in 2002.

Since then John has been in charge of the phenomenon that is Silvano, the triumphs and tragedy of Victory Moon, Black Minnaloushe’s triumph in producing South Africa’s second Triple Crown winner and of course the icing on the cake, the first three past the post in the 2015 Vodacom Durban July. On top of the Maine Chance Farm’s many achievements, John has produced Gr1 winners for his own account too. You bet, these days there aren’t too many people who need to ask who John Slade is.

Progeny

To judge John by his tangible achievements and weigh the rands and cents of sales results or the silverware in the racing trophy case, is to miss his real legacy, for John is respected as much for what he does as who he is.

So what of the man? Probably the best way to describe John would be to watch the whole of Neil Gaiman’s wonderful commencement speech ‘Make Good Art’ in which he encourages the students to, “go and make interesting mistakes. Make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules, leave the world more interesting for you being here. Make good art.”

In a nutshell, that’s what John has dedicated his life to. He is fearlessly curious about how things work and how to get them to work better and it is this insatiable curiosity that gives him such an active mind and makes him such fun to be around. He has a good idea of what works, as well as what doesn’t, without being married to either – or both. Which is remarkably liberating (“I’ve always been a hippy,” he shrugs). He is not afraid to ask questions or question the answers. It’s not anti-establishment, so much as anti-accepting things just because that’s the way they’ve always been done.

Flashback to VDJ 2013. Heavy Metal is preferred to Whiteline Fever

Heavy Metal

John is aware of, but remains wonderfully unperturbed by, convention and popular opinion, preferring the courage of his own convictions to the tepid opinions of others. He is not afraid to challenge the status quo, to experiment and try things out for himself and, above all, to fearlessly make mistakes – occasionally wonderful mistakes, which have produced the likes of Heavy Metal.

In an industry ruled by smoke and mirrors, John is wonderfully, ruthlessly honest. This is mainly because life is short and like most people, he doesn’t have time to waste, but also because in an industry which lives and dies by rumour and reputation, your name means everything. It is an attribute that has rightly earned him a reputation for absolute integrity and which makes his opinions sought by the best in the business.

After the July, he joked that he was getting quite a tan from all the limelight, which is typical John humour and also shows that he is a lot more comfortable behind the scenes than in the front row. John is one of the rarest of human beings who know that one leads best by serving.

Consummate stockman

Consummate stockman

In the same way that his deft touches can still be seen at Scott Bross and Summerhill, John has always focussed on leaving a legacy that will last long after he has moved on. Godfrey Gird left little to do in terms of the Maine Chance Farms’ aesthetics, so John has poured his energy into his colleagues and staff. John does not suffer fools gladly, but has infinite patience with anyone who wants to learn. Like the great Monty Roberts, he doesn’t want his students to be as good as him, he wants them to be better and John will tell you proudly that every single one of his stud staff can foal a mare better than 90% of the stud managers in the country.

On their part, the staff members are proud to say how Mr Slade always looks out for them and helps them plan for their futures. Maine Chance was one of the first stud farms to invest in courses for their staff and one of the first to initiate a grooms co-op. There is a bus to take the staff children to school and shiny new cars parked outside most of the neat staff houses.

Silvano

Silvano – a ‘friend and father’

John has spent his life serving his employers, his colleagues and more than anything, his horses. A good stockman knows his animals intimately and John’s horses are his friends, his industry and his greatest reward. He is unselfconscious in his affection for them, describing Silvano as “everyone’s friend and father and the sort of horse you tell your secrets to.” It’s a matter of pride for John that he is there for every covering as well as for every birth. “Every single one?”, I once asked incredulously. John looked vaguely affronted before answering, “No-one else opens my Christmas presents!”

It will be sad not to have him just up the road anymore, but the commemorative frame with those July saddle cloths in the Maine Chance Farms reception area stands silent sentry to the fact that John Slade was there. His association with Maine Chance Farms and his contribution to its many successes, will always form part of the proud history of the farm.

It is the closing of a chapter, but happily John now has the chance to move on to the promise of new adventures. And to borrow from the irrepressible Neil Gaiman again, I know that whatever he does going forward, John will make good art.

John Slade (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

John Slade (photo: hamishNIVENPhotography)

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10 comments on “John Slade

  1. One of the ‘true gentlemen’ in the South African bloodstock industry, I wish John all the very best in his new life in the Karroo.

    Retirement? I don’t think so! One can be absolutely certain that, in the years ahead, we will see some more damned god horses bred and raised by John in his own capacity.

    Maybe, in his spare (?!) time, or in those cold Karroo evenings, he may be tempted to put pen to paper and come up with a book that would enthrall all of us who know him, and those new to the industry – being sure to insert that measured ‘dry’ sense of humour that he is known for.

    ‘Fare thee Well’ on your new journey John!

  2. Michelle says:

    A true gentleman, a true horseman. I’m so privileged to know John Slade Fabulous article that describes a living legend in the horse world. Thank you John for everything you have contributed to the sport, but to our beautiful legends of the turf and our noble horses in General. All the very best to your new adventures and a little time to rest and reflect.
    Michelle Mazurkiewicz

  3. Toreador says:

    Fair words indeed. John Slade is a unicorn among his fellows. I wish him nothing but the best in his new ventures. I know there is certainly “art” to be made in the Karoo, and I for one will miss the banter, the good coffee, excellent rusks and more importantly the honest and insightful advice and discussion we have always shared.
    The racing industry is left a little poorer for his leaving but fortunate to have had him for so long…a Stud Master and a Master of Life

  4. Kassie Robbertze says:

    For shore one if not the greatest, good luck in the future o great one.

  5. Both Anna and I wish John a happy “retirement” ? a true gentleman and always a delight to meet. In our fifteen years attending the yearling sales in south Africa we always looked forward to inspecting the Maine Chance yearlings and in fact bought one of our best South African runners from their draft.
    Peter and Anna Doyle.

  6. Tina Rau says:

    I first heard about John Slade as an excellent horse man and very special human being in New Zealand where I was prepping yearlings many moons ago with a Kiwi friend who had gotten her passion for the thoroughbred largely through working with John…. When I got to meet him in person a few years ago, he lived up to expectations: dry wit, kindness, tons of knowledge and the willingness to share that knowledge define him. Refreshingly clear and positively different in an industry that tends to think within the box.
    The horses and staff he has produced and shaped do the talking and will continue to do him proud. ‘Retirement’ needs to watch out for John, because I shall think he’s going to give it a good run round the paddock ;o)

  7. Andre` Nel says:

    A True Horseman! Brilliant, kind, colourful, extremely funny and a Gentleman. SA thought they lost an great all-rounder when Kallis retired – we did now. A Legend.

  8. Pippa Mickleburgh says:

    The commercial breeding industry has lost a true legend,but his influence will reign for long time in HIS pedigrees!! His love for his horses is famous his kindness to his staff beyond compare and his wit well thats just John ……. Enjoy the rest and time with your family and mares…I sure will miss you as a neighbour at the JHB. Sales…thanks for all guidance,advice and support x x x x ooooh and great coffee!!

  9. pat schafer says:

    The racing and breeding industry has lost one of the greatest living legends. A true horseman an amazing friend with this dry and witty sense of humour. Maine Chance will never be the same without him! Thanx for all your help and advice over the years John…..I would never be where I am today without your help. I hope you find peace and happiness in your new venture. I am really going to miss you . love Pat Schafer xxx

  10. Lyn Slade says:

    A true gentleman, kind, generous and all round nice guy with a wicked sense of humour. So proud of you John,

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