“A bible takes pride of place on the desk of Michael Tillett. It contains the rules of the Jockey Club of South Africa and is studied as religiously as any clergyman would peruse the scriptures.” So ran an article on former Chairman of the Western Cape Stipendiary Board, Mike Tillett, who we are sad to report passed away recently at his home in Knysna.
It is rare for regulatory officials to be remembered with fondness by turf goers, but Mike certainly proved the exception to the rule. Firm, but fair, he was respected by all who knew him. As someone who dedicated his life to racing and racing control, it would be remiss not to doff our hat at his passing.
Michael Edward Tillett was born in Johannesburg on 14 April 1939 and grew up in Swaziland where his father worked as the Chief Electrician at Havelock Asbestos Mines.
Mike fell in love with horses after befriending a local horsey family, learning to ride at the age of 6 and dreaming of becoming a professional jockey. Unfortunately a car accident at the age of 14 damaged his right leg very badly and despite numerous surgeries, it was finally amputated above the knee when he was 18. However, he adapted to his prosthesis resolutely and without complaint and courageously refused to let it compromise or slow him down one bit.
Horses remained Mike’s passion. He spent many years on Trevor Tatham’s Springfield Stud in Mooi River, learning about breeding. However, racing was his real passion, so he left Mooi River for Zimbabwe to work for Bill Wakefield and gain training experience under Major Jack Perry. It was in Zimbabwe that he met Beryl and the couple were later married in Johannesburg.
Mike then spent a stint working for Havelock Mines but, desperately unhappy being away from his horses, took up a Stud Manager position at Hector Lawrence’s Devon Stud back in Mooi River. He persuaded Hector to let him apply for a Trainer’s license and for four years the pair were a successful team, enjoying particular success with a horse named Thunderball.
Intending to apply for a private trainer’s license, Mike approached Jock Sproule, but because training offers an insecure income, he chose responsibility to his family over his love of training and did not go through with it. Instead, Jock Sproule offered Mike the position of Stipendiary Steward, and thus started his career of 25 years with the Jockey Club of South Africa.
When one cares deeply for something, you want to see it done properly and it is here that Mike truly found his calling. His diligence and dedication saw Mike promoted to Chairman of the Johannesburg Stipendiary Board in 1976, the youngest Chairman ever appointed. He was transferred to Cape Town in 1983 as Chairman of the Western Cape Stipendiary Board, where he worked for 13 years before being medically boarded after a serious heart attack in 1996.
Mike and his wife Beryl retired to Knysna, where Mike spent his time fishing and playing golf. After a long struggle with cancer, Mike passed away on 14 April 2018, his 79th birthday.
Survived by Beryl, his beloved wife of 57 years and two daughters, Kim and son-in-law Shaun; Kelly and son-in-law Ivan and 4 grandchildren, Tyrone, Courtney, Tanna & Cameron, who are based in Florida, USA, Mike’s family describe him as ‘a true gentleman’. “He was very much an outdoorsman, loved the country, and was a farmer at heart. He loved animals, and particularly his dog of 15 years (a Weimeraner x Poodle) called Pavlova whom he said could read and write. He didn’t enjoy cities and hated too much noise. He loved just sitting quietly in the garden looking at the view.”
“He was an avid golfer, playing 3 times a week. He insisted on walking the full 18 holes, never allowing him or his party to be left behind other players, and had a great saying when he hit a good shot, it was “straight like a frozen snake”. He also loved his fishing and he and his fishing partner, George, would go through the Knysna Heads, the most dangerous harbour entrance in the world, in a tiny boat in which George had a balance problem and Mike had one leg and they never wore life jackets. He always said he had 9 lives but we think he used most of them on that tiny boat!”
“As a father, he was very strict but we knew how proud he was of his daughters and never failed to express his love for us. Because of his dedication to racing, he missed a lot of the school and sporting events which he was always very sad about, but towards the end of his life, had some of the best holidays with his children and grandchildren in Florida, to make up for lost time.”
For 25 years, Mike gave unstintingly of his time, energy and focus to racing and is universally remembered by colleagues and peers as a Stipendiary Steward par excellence.
Long-time secretary Brenda Bouwer remembers ‘He had such all round knowledge and really understood racing. On race days, he knew the card inside out, he used to walk the course and if he had any worries, he would chat to the jockeys.”
One of the things Mike is remembered for is watching racing from the head-on tower. “Even though it was a climb, he never missed going up the head on tower and watching the race through his binoculars and would then come back and watch the patrol film.” He did this on every race day, for every race.
“He always came to races smartly dressed and always wore his jockey club badge and insisted that all of us had to wear ours, even though the racecourse staff knew us all. He was a stickler for all things being done properly.”
“The rule book was his bible, but he was very fair as well in dealing with matters. He had a very good relationship with the club and all the stewards and executives. He would always ask people’s opinions before making decisions – he was very thorough. He absolutely loved his job and everything he did was for racing.”
David McGillivray first met Mike in 1987 while cutting his teeth as a young Stipe in PE. Mike took David under his wing, teaching and mentoring him and remaining a lifelong support. If you wanted to know anything in racing, if you were concerned about a rule or anything you wanted an opinion on, he was the ‘go to’ man. We had such good guys in those days, Mike Tillett, Dudley Feldman and people like that, but Mike was just a star. An absolute star.”
Dudley Feldman was one of Mike’s closest friends and worked with him since the 70’s. “In my opinion, he is, was,” he corrects himself, “the best Stipendiary Steward I ever worked with. I’ve never come across a man who was as fair as he was and his integrity was full to the brim. There are few people in the world like that and I’ve been fortunate to work with a number of them. Rudy Diener was another one,” he notes.
“Mike’s heart was totally in horse racing and the regulation of it. He was one of those that did his best and succeeded in giving everyone a fair run for their money. He was a giant of a man in the racing industry. I certainly am going to miss him.”
Gavin Hunter, former Deputy Chairman in Cape Town and who worked side by side with Mike since 1994, paid tribute by saying, “I think it would be generally agreed by anybody who knew him and worked with him, that he was probably the number one chairman of the Stipendiary board there has ever been. He was a champion of equine rights, a champion of the rules of the Jockey Club, and a champion of management in general. Unlike a lot of people, he would inspect the course prior to racing, especially on big race days. He was meticulous. He was incredibly fair and made sure that any malpractice was stamped out, but at the same time never bore grudges. I don’t think there will ever be anybody like him.”
Gavin issued the following statement on behalf of the NHA: “Mike Tillett was one of the great servants to horse racing and his commitment, integrity, due diligence and fairness with regard to his handling of all matters are remembered by all who worked with him over the many years where he was a tireless representative of the industry that he loved. He will always be regarded by those who knew him with the total respect that he deserved.”