“The last of the great owners,” said Chris Snaith yesterday as he paid tribute to Jack Mitchell who finally lost his long battle with leukaemia on Sunday night. He was 72.
The flags at Kenilworth flew at half mast, the jockeys wore black armbands and at the racecourse on Friday there will be a celebration of his life at 3.30pm.
Mitchell was the owner, or part-owner, of a string of stars that included Horse of the Years Legislate and Futura as well as last year’s Durban July winner Do It Again, Snowdance, Jackson and Ivory Trail.
But his contribution to the South African turf went way beyond that. In the days when the National Horseracing Authority was the Jockey Club he served as a steward for some 21 years. “There were stipes but we on the local executive would make the decisions,” he later recalled. “I did it for nothing and I felt very privileged to do so.”
Educated at Bishops, William Jack Campbell Mitchell was a stockbroker before joining the Old Mutual and for two decades he was an investment manager with Allan Grey. He inherited his passion for racing from his father Wally and his uncle Jack Winshaw who between them owned the 1968 Met winner William Penn.
He was extremely successful in picking the right horses at the sales and this was the result of careful planning. “I tried to buy horses that had the potential to win big races and I tended to pay quite a lot of money for them.”
Asked what excited him about racing, he replied: “When it’s a big race you are always on edge and that is half the fun of it but, that apart, it’s the unknown that appeals – and that it is an extremely competitive game. “
But breeding held relatively little appeal: “I found it too difficult and it is not one of my missions in life. Also you put yourself in a horrible situation – nobody wants the bad ones so you can only sell the good ones that you would like to race yourself. You have to sell them otherwise breeding is meaningless. I would much rather go to the sales and buy one.”
Betting was not for him either: “I might have R20 on if I am bored but I never bet on my own horses. I can’t really see the point. If I have R100 on what difference is it going to make?”
Most of his horses he bought after taking the advice of John Freeman (“a confidant and a good friend”) and the bloodstock agent has returned the compliment with a lengthy tribute emailed to clients and friends speaking of Mitchell’s “straight talk, good manners, generosity and friendliness.”
It was these characteristics that impressed everyone he had anything to do with on the racecourse and it was typical of him that he made a point of shaking hands with owners of rival horses when he was beaten into second. The fact that he had only one arm – the result of a motor accident – fazed him not one iota.
Mitchell and wife Helga had two children, commercial property developer Jerome and Nancy who followed her father into investment management and racehorse ownership. She owned many horses in partnership with her father including their latest star General Franco who runs on Saturday. There won’t be a dry eye in the house if, as expected, he wins.
By Michael Clower