Mick and Cheryl Goss with Graham Beck and Laurie Jaffee in Dubai
(Photo : Summerhill Archives)
1929 - 2010
The word “legend” is a much abused word in racing, or anywhere else for that matter. But in Graham Beck, here was the real life embodiment of the coinage.
What else can one say about a man whose passing has made all of the national news headlines, that hasn’t already been said. Descriptions that race to mind are “bigger than life”; overt generosity; an infectious, guttural sense of humour; a streetwiseness of uncanny proportions, and an enormous capacity for making others feel warm, wanted and, critically, worthy.
South African racing in general and the Jewry of Johannesburg in particular were once blessed with the “Three Musketeers”, Graham Beck, Cyril Hurwitz and Laurie Jaffee, now all passed on, and presumably, in the Elysian Fields. We say “presumably”, because they could at times be wickedly naughty, all three of them, and we’re not quite sure what the test is for entry to this apparent paradise. What we do know though, is that whatever the verdict on the first to go, (Cyril), it would’ve been the same for the other two, so the one assurance we do have is that they’re now together, and they’re probably looking down on us wondering whether we’ll see their like again. For my money, that’s c’est non possible. And you’d have to ask yourself, whether the makers of J&B have a factory big enough up there.
How do we place this man into perspective? In racing terms, he was a colossus, one of the greatest and most benevolent owners the game has ever known. Three things stand out for me in particular, not that they were necessarily, by any stretch, momentous in his life. The first involved the purchase of my first filly off the track from Graham, in a private transaction in his office. Given his stature and my own relative insignificance at 27, he couldn’t have been more accommodating, in what could’ve been frighteningly intimidating.
The second involved his purchase of Gainesway Farm. I happened to be representing the TBA on a trip to Kentucky, when I attended the Breeders Cup meeting. Just the day before, I made the acquaintance of a fellow solicitor, a Mr. Bishop who was counsel to one of the two greatest stallion stations in the world, Claiborne Farm; the grapevine, he said, was that a South African had purchased Gainesway, the other of the two great stallion stations. This was astounding news given that it was 1989, and that no South African had ever made such a splash in the bloodstock world.
The following day, Graham asked me to join him at his table at the Breeders Cup itself, there beside us was the founder, John Gaines himself, as cultured and intelligent a man as I’ve had the pleasure to know in racing. In that instant, Graham Beck had acquired the gigantic likes of Lyphard, Blushing Groom, Riverman, Vaguely Noble, Irish River etc, some of the noblest names of all thoroughbred breeding, and South Africa had “arrived”.
Henceforth, and for some time, Graham Beck would be Kentucky’s most favoured dinner guest, and his legacy at Gainesway today is one of the most beautiful farms on the planet. As a farmer myself, I should use this moment to applaud his stewardship of the land. That is his, and his lovely lady, Rhona’s signature, wherever they have invested.
The third instant reflected his own international standing in the thoroughbred world. I was in Dubai for the inaugural World Cup, and I received a distressed message from Graham’s office in Johannesburg, enquiring whether I could intervene in getting his private aircraft which was already in flight into Dubai. His sin was that he was Jewish himself, and that his aircraft had been to Israel on its journey to Dubai. Given the difficulties Israel and its Middle Eastern neighbours have experienced over the decades, aircraft emanating from there were not always welcome.
There was no one bigger in the thoroughbred world at that time than Sheikh Mohammed, and there was no-one more capable of influencing events in the Middle East than him. Within an hour, the big plane was not only welcome, but Sheikh Mohammed attended personally at the airport to fetch Graham.
In every material respect, Graham Beck was an enormous man, big in personality, big in generosity, massive in his contributions to our game, and in the lives he touched. At Summerhill, his Highlands Farm was our biggest competitor, and no-one competed “better” than he did.
Rest in peace, old pal. Your life has been hectic, and you deserve it.