His family was rocked by the doctor’s news. Husband, father and grandfather, Laurie Silvera was not likely to come out of his 17-day unconsciousness, suffering from complications from the digestive disease diverticulitis.
It was early in 2009 and Silvera, then 78-years-old and one of Canada’s most successful and respected horsemen, had never been away from his Thoroughbreds for that long.
So it was not all that surprising to those who knew him when he battled back and made a full recovery, returning to the track in six months.
“Well, you know, I had 2-year-olds waiting in the barn to train, I couldn’t go anywhere,” Silvera quips.
Six years later, as Woodbine’s 2015 racing season came to a close at the end of November, ‘Sir’ Laurie, as he is affectionately known at the track, completed a remarkable 40th year of training in Ontario at the age of 85.
It was a good year, too as his horses earned over $620,000 from 16 wins, the 38th time in those 40 years that he have double-digit victories.
But that was last year and for Silvera, his passion for racing comes from the young horses, the raw Thoroughbred awaiting the lessons of racing from one of the masters of horse training.
Silvera has had brushes with mortality before. Born Lawrence Silvera in Jamaica to Owen and Angele Silvera, one of two boys of five children lived minutes from Knutsford Park Race Course in New Kingston. Owen was a successful horse trainer in a country that had a long history of horse racing and Laurie worked with his father before setting out with his own stable of horses.
In the early 1970s, Silvera, now married, (he met his wife Claudia at a house party when she was still in school) and raising a family of six children, remember the unrest in his country.
“The killing was rife in Jamiaca at that time,” said Silvera, who had already risen to the top of the trainer ranks at the new Caymanas Park.
“I remember one morning being at the track and bullets were flying over my head. It was a gang war. Another time I was in the middle of one fellow chasing another with a gun, it was pointed right at me.”
Silvera packed up his family and moved to Canada, setting up shop at Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack.
Ontario racing fans began to see the Silvera magic early when he won 20 races in his first full year of training. Horses such as Solo Guy, owned by Gord Hall, and, Jamaican Gigolo, won multiple sprinting stakes races in the 1980s. The ‘Gigolo’ was owned by a partnership of Silvera and fellow Jamaicans Phil and Cary Brooks which they named Silverbook Stable.
Silverbrook horses were in the winner’s circle frequently for decades. Many horses showed promise early in their careers and then were sold for big money to American interests.
Arthur Silvera, one of two boys of Silvera’s six children and the only one to embark on his own training career, said November Snow was most memorable.
“I remember when Dad bought her as a yearling [for $30,000 at a Kentucky sale in 1990] but she did not get more than a $15,000 bid when he tried to sell her the next year,” said Arthur. “He told me he was not going to sell her for peanuts, he believed in her.”
November Snow not only won the My Dear Stakes in her first ever start on a track, but she was soon bought by American owner Earle Mack and went on to win huge events in New York such as the Grade 1 Alabama and Test Stakes.
“November Snow was a daughter of Storm Cat and her success helped put him on the map as one of the world’s greatest sires” said Arthur.
Free at Last, also purchased in ’90 by Laurie Silvera, won the important, Grade 3 Summer Stakes, and was sold to the large American syndicate Team Valor before being named Champion Two-Year-Old in Canada.
Silvera’s ability to pick out a potential star from a sale without spending a lot of money is well known.
“I look at a horse at a sale critically,” said Silvera. “I have always asked myself, ‘is there a common denominator in a good horse?’ I have it down to what I like to see in a horse.”
One of the most popular horses of the late 90s was Hawk in Flight, a $9,000 buy who won 22 races for Silvera, over $400,000 and raced until the age of 11.
“I like to think that I am pretty good at it, not because of any special gift, just experience.”
On a sunny, spring Sunday in early April 2014, the grey horse Sorry About That was a popular winner as a heavy favourite at Woodbine. Owned and bred by Pat O’Grady, Sorry About That was also Silvera’s 1000th career winner in North America, an impressive mark considering his stable is nowhere near the size of the game’s big names such as Mark Casse, Roger Attfield or Reade Baker.
“Training racehorses is observation,” said Silvera. “It is more the study of animal husbandry, the well-being of a horse based on scientific findings, and was you have learned from years before.”
Devon Boreland, who has worked with Silvera as his assistant for 34 years and also trains on his own, is like family to the horseman.
“He is a very good horseman,” said Boreland. “He knows what he is looking for to find a good horse. He’s also a very good boss.”
While most people his age are not walking a shedrow and inspecting his horses at 7 a.m. every morning, or watching them race all afternoon, sometimes as late as 10 p.m., Silvera is not your average octogenarian.
A week after the Woodbine season wrapped up this year, Silvera was already stall-walking, “bored to tears” but daily visiting his horses on winter rest at a nearby farm. He was counting the days when, following a Christmas celebration at his Aberfoyle, ON home with his large family, he and Claudia could ship to Ocala, Fla. where they have a home. About 10 of his horses will train at nearby Classic Mile Centre for the new Woodbine season.
It is when he begins discusses his prospects for the new year when Silvera becomes most animated.
“I am excited about Pretty Fair, the way she won her only race of 2015,” said Silvera in his infectious Jamaican accent. “She had a bad start, rushed up and then had the lead but then she was passed At that point I was just hoping she would hit the frame. She ended up winning going away.”
You can easily spot Silvera at the track: he’s tall and has an aura of class, not to mention his 14-gallon cowboy hat that completes the popular man. He won’t retire from training, he loves it too much and insists that even after decades in the game, he is still learning.
“Oddly enough, training is one calling where time improves your ability to do better. You learn from experience because really, it’s a guessing game unless you can talk to horses.”
With his years of success, some may say that Silvera does have a special way of communicating with his racing stars.