Remembering Terry Silcock

Terry Silcock

Terry Silcock was not, by nature, a complainer. But when I interviewed him for a television documentary, at his beloved Starston Stud, on a bright summer’s morning, last January, at a time when the Karoo was looking as magnificent as it had ever looked in the 63 years of his lifetime, this son of the soil was definitely not his usual self.

There was undoubtedly something troubling him, as he looked back on a life devoted to breeding thoroughbreds.

“If I had to choose a career all over again it would probably be in something more financially rewarding than breeding racehorses”, he remarked ruefully, reflecting how circumstances had conspired to make survival for him and his fellow Karoo breeders a harsh reality.

I thought, at the time, that this was not the normal, positive, cheerful Terry Silcock, and that something must be troubling him. The interview was frequently interrupted by coughing spasms, seemingly caused by an excessively dry throat.

Later, in a quiet aside, his wife, Barbara, confided that Terry had been experiencing worrying physical difficulties; problems in simply walking normally and tiredness which would require a rest period in the early afternoon. The once long-legged, flaxen-haired young farmer was obviously entering that time of life when health becomes an ever growing concern.

Barbara took him to a specialist in Bloemfontein, a man who enjoyed the family’s fullest trust, having once seen them through a similar crisis. He diagnosed a deep-seated brain tumour, but it would take an exploratory operation to ascertain whether or not it was malignant.  That operation was carried out some three weeks ago and it was found that, whilst the tumour was benign, its size and position within the recesses of the brain made it virtually inoperable. An induced coma, to afford the brain the recovery time needed after the surgery, placed Terry in a twilight state from which he was destined never to recover. An infection set in, massive doses of antibiotics were used to counter it and finally his organs gave up.

All those who knew and loved Terry Silcock received the news of his passing with shock. For Terry represented one of the few remaining members of that remarkable coterie of Karoo breeders known for their courtesy, their honesty and their plain decency. He was the ultimate gentleman amongst racehorse breeders and belonged to an almost bygone age of chivalry.

He represented the third generation of Silcocks to breed racehorses in the Karoo. His grandfather, Syd, had been manager of the vast Henry Nourse breeding empire, around Colesburg and Middelburg, during the second quarter of the last century, whilst his father, Dennis, had bred the 1974 Durban July winner, Riboville, off the Knoffelfontein Stud, immediately adjacent to Starston.

It was Syd Silcock who founded Starston, about 20 kilometres from Colesburg, quite near to the Orange River, after leaving the service of the remarkable but highly fastidious Nourse, in around 1933. His son, Dennis, started his own farming career working for the astute Raymond Ellis, at Hartford Stud, which then occupied the land subsequently acquired by Gary Player. When Dennis Silcock, who became an expert on the soils and plants of the Karoo, returned from a lengthy period of incarceration, after World War II, he set up Knoffelfontein on Starston’s boundary, and Terry spent his childhood there.

Following school at Woodridge, and then, later, at Grey College, in Port Elizabeth, Terry served his compulsory period of military training with the Air Force, whereafter he enrolled at UCT, to study zoology and economics. Two years into his degree course he was presented with an opportunity to see the world and to advance his own ambition to become a racehorse breeder. And so he turned his back on university and set off for the USA, where he worked at Santa Anita Racecourse and later at Claiborne Farm, at a time when Bold Ruler and Round Table held sway.

On the demise of his grandfather Terry took over the Starston Stud, where he started breaking in and training young horses for clients, who included the late Arthur Fuller, his chief supporter. Eventually, he entered the breeding ranks, standing stallions like the French-bred Soyez Brave and the American-bred Audley End. For over three decades, Terry and his wife, Barbara, herself from KwaZulu Natal sugar farming stock, have successfully run Starston, and, latterly, Knoffelfontein, which Barbara purchased in her own right, after Dennis Silcock’s death.

Terry ran a highly resourceful enterprise which encompassed not only breeding horses for their own account and on behalf of clients, but also providing pre-training and spelling facilities and even a running a quarantine station. Notwithstanding the decline in the popularity of the Karoo as a breeding region, and a dwindling number of fashionable stallion, in recent years, he continued to achieve his fair measure of success as a breeder, selling one Starston colt for R600 000, a few years ago.

“There’s no real reason why you can’t breed top class horses in the Karoo any longer”, he told me, but added that you need to be prepared to travel the extra distance with your mares to reach the fashionable and successful stallions, which makes things tougher on Karoo breeders.

The best horse Terry and Barbara had bred, in recent years, was Hard Astern, who won a Listed race in South Africa and finished third in the Dingaans, before being exported to Hong Kong, where he became something of an ATM for his owners.

Terry had high hopes for the Karoo-bred progeny of London News, but this remarkable racecourse performer died of cancer, just a couple of years after taking up stallion duties at Starston. He was replaced by the Sadler’s Wells stallion, Casey Tibbs, who tasted his greatest success, as the sire of Vodacom Durban July winner, Big City Life, at round about the same time as he moved to the Karoo. It remains to be seen whether Terry will join the ranks of those who taste their biggest successes posthumously, but that could well be the case.

Despite his expressed regrets that he never ventured into a more lucrative field of endeavour, there’s no doubt that Terry Silcock loved life in the Karoo. Only the evening before the interview which was recorded on videotape, in January, he had proudly showed his then rain-soaked lands to cameraman. Adam Martin, patiently finding him the best vantage points from which to film the horses. The resulting shots perfectly illustrate why Terry Silcock remained so steadfast to this part of the world.

There were two rainbows in the stormy Karoo sky that evening. I have a feeling that the end of one of them dipped into the earth at a point somewhere on Knoffelfontein, hopefully at a place where there’s a koppie in the shape of a breadloaf. It’s where the ashes of Terrry Silcok’s parents, Dennis and Barbara, were interred, and where Terry’s own ashes will be buried, during the course of a quiet family gathering, a couple of weekends from now.

Barbara, Jason and Hayley, all those who knew and loved Terry will be thinking of you at that time.

Jimmy Lithgow

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