Jack Mitchell: The man who built Allan Gray keeps winning big

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Horse-mad Robyn Louw – a wonderful writer spreading her wings. Photo by Hamish Niven

JOHANNESBURG — Jack Mitchell was a role model to hundreds of South African money managers. First, as the wise head at Old Mutual, during his reign the country’s largest asset manager. Then subsequently with Allan Gray, which be led into the pre-eminent position it now occupies – alongside Coronation the largest, best performing and most admired of the local fund management shops. As Mitchell has a keen interest in horse racing, he offered an ideal opportunity for Robyn Louw (right) to spread her wings. I’ve been a long-time admirer of Robyn’s talent, I believe it deserves a wider audience than the racing community where she currently focuses her attention. The Biznews community loved the first piece of Robyn’s that we published. Have a feeling this one will be even more popular. Looking forward to more contributions from this horse-mad star writer. – Alec Hogg     

By Robyn Louw

It was a beautiful blue sky day as I made my way across Cape Town for my meeting with Jack Mitchell. While Biznews readers will be most familiar with that name in the context of the business world, Mitchell has long been a doyen of South African racing and is the part-owner of no less than two runners in this weekend’s Queen’s Plate – current horse of the year Legislate, trained by current trainer of the year Justin Snaith, as well as Champions Cup winner Futura, trained by Brett Crawford. It is a rare privilege to have the opportunity to get to know him better. Being early summer, the south-easter was out with a vengeance and cheerfully speeded my journey up the M3. As I pulled into the driveway of the beautiful Constantia homestead, I noticed it was situated in a sheltered spot and protected from the ravages of the wind. It was my first inkling that in Jack Mitchell’s world, things are carefully planned and arranged just so.

Of course, not everything in life can be managed, and while he solicitously met me at the door, two Jack Russells and two German Shepherds formed a gleeful advance party, checking to see whether I’d brought any news or smells of interest. ‘New puppy,’ he shrugged apologetically, as I made my way through the pack.

The sitting room, with large windows overlooking Cape Town, had been carefully prepared, with a tray of homemade lemonade with mint, and two chairs arranged for my visit. Just after we’d sat down and got comfortable, a telephone started ringing somewhere in the house. “Will someone take care of that, please?” he calls. Somewhere in the house, someone does.

Jack’s grandfather, William Charles Winshaw, was an American medical doctor who came to South Africa during the Anglo Boer War. He founded Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery in 1924, and remained the MD until 1962, when he retired at the age of 92. Jack’s father, Wally Mitchell, who also served as the MD at SFW, married William’s daughter Nancy. Accordingly Jack grew up in Stellenbosch.

After completing his schooling at Paul Roos and at Bishops, he went to UCT and studied “an ordinary BComm”.  From there he got into investments and stockbroking and one of his first jobs was with the investment management group, Fergusson Bros. “Our offices were in the same building as Allan Gray and he would often come over and chat to us.  Allan originally asked me to join him back in 1976, but I’d already accepted at Old Mutual, so I had to say no.” He then spent 11 years with Old Mutual, becoming Assistant General Manager, before Allan Gray asked again in 1988. This time he accepted.

“Allan Gray’s real success with Unit Trusts came in the late 90’s and was born out of the tech boom era.  We didn’t have any investments in IT, so we got good publicity when the 1998 crash arrived.” Jack retired mid-way through 2006 and his parting shot in the Allan Gray annual report proved prescient. Titled ‘Watch Out for White Ants’ he predicted that the market’s bull phase would not last much longer. Seven years on, it makes for interesting reading.

Why did he retire? “I was 61. I’d had enough and I wanted to do other things. Forty years is enough and frankly, I didn’t want to die behind a desk,” he says candidly. “It’s given me the freedom to do other things.” He enjoys deep sea fishing and likes visiting Bazaruto. He shares a passion for fly fishing with his son Jerome, a pastime they enjoy together on his farm in the Little Berg in Natal – a haven for birds and wildlife. He still has a few properties, but says he is careful not to get too tied down. “Properties soak up resources and they require constant attention and maintenance.” Given South Africa’s recent problems with the declining Rand, load shedding and strong words by Johann Rupert at Remgro’s recent AGM, how does he feel about our future prospects? “South Africa is a beautiful country and it offers an incredible lifestyle, but there’s an expression along the lines that ‘living here is a little like having a luxury suite on the Titanic’. I’d have to agree with that.”

Horse racing is his other passion and one he shares with his daughter, Nancy. A couple of Nancy’s horses are stabled with a neighbour, and occasionally come and graze on their lawn. “It’s an enormous commitment, so we’re very lucky to be able have them next door.  We simply couldn’t have them here full-time.” The Winshaw family are synonymous with racing in South Africa, but the Mitchells aren’t too far behind and fittingly, the families were partners in one of South Africa’s most extraordinary horses, William Penn (who incidentally won the Met in 1968 and the Queen’s Plate in 1969 as well as finishing second in the Durban July). “A horse like that pulls a family into racing,” Jack reflects.

Horses are a funny thing. You either have the bug or you don’t. Jack has the bug and discusses his racing exploits with a wry, gentle humour. Characteristically, he waited until 1977 to purchase his first horse. It was called Young Captain, and he bought it at the National Yearling Sale in the days when it was still held at Milner Park. “He was by nothing and out of nothing and cost R5,000, but he won 14 races, including a Grade 1.”

And so he has continued to buy horses. “John (Freeman) has helped a lot. He’s very thorough and is a good friend. I am not really interested in precociousness or early speed and if I do end up with something that shows early, I tend not to run them often as two-year-olds. I prefer the classic types who come a bit later and are suited to distances of a mile and more.”

Pictures of the more decent ones adorn the private box at Kenilworth racecourse that he shares with John Freeman. In a game of more downs than ups he says, “The mass of poorer ones I’ve forgotten long ago.” One of the ‘more useful’ ones, was the beautiful son of Dynasty, Jackson, who ran in the red, blue and white colours of Ian Longmore. “I was the under bidder on him at the sales, so afterwards Ian offered me a share.  I’d never had horses with Brett Crawford until that point, but Ian has his horses there and I have to say, Brett has tremendous patience in bringing on a horse. Unfortunately people remember Jackson more for his failures than his successes. He did have problems, but on a good day, he was a very, very good horse.” Jackson has been sold to stud and stands at Highlands, the farm where he was born.  Jack doesn’t do a great deal of breeding, but has retained a small interest “five shares – that’s all John will let me keep!” Does he think Jackson will make it as a sire?  “I’m sending him a mare, but stallions have odds of around 25/1 against them being successful. I’m not going to bet against that,” he says pragmatically.

When Jack purchased Futura at the 2012 National Sales, Ian Longmore was the under bidder and so Jack returned the favour, offered him a share and Futura is also in training with Brett Crawford.

Jack served on the Cape division of the Jockey Club for 21 years, sitting alongside men like Abe Bloomberg, Arnold Galombik, Abe Swersky, Judge van Huyssteen and Judge Banks. “I learnt a lot,” he states firmly. “These were legal statesmen and it was a privilege to listen to them debate and deliberate.  I became a bit of a sea lawyer,” he jokes. It was a grounding that stood him in good stead during the drama of the 2014 Vodacom Durban July, when the dramatic finish between Wylie Hall and Legislate had to be decided in the boardroom. Emotions must have been running very high, but Jack says, “Having debated similar situations during my time in the Jockey Club, I was pretty confident it would go our way, particularly after I watched the head on. There really wasn’t any other way the ruling could have gone, frankly.  It goes with the game, but it must have been terribly disappointing for Michael Leaf (owner of Wylie Hall), who I must say was an absolute gentleman about it. I didn’t know him at the time, but I’ve got to know him since then and I may well end up owning a horse with him one day. That’s just how racing works. It’s all about relationships and it’s like a big family.  Mind you, family sometimes don’t speak to each other for years and racing isn’t all that different,” he says mischievously.

Futura finished 3rd in the July, less than half a length off Legislate and then went on to win the Gr1 Champions Cup on Gold Cup day. Legislate was crowned Horse of the Year and was subsequently found to have sustained a leg fracture in that tough July result and his 4yo season hung in the balance. The team have worked tirelessly to get him back on track and he gave evidence of his well-being by winning the November Green Point Stakes in track record time. “It is a special honour to be involved with a colt of his calibre,” says Jack, who now faces the happy dilemma of having both Legislate and Futura entered for the L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate, as well as being early entries for the 2015 J&B Met.

The Snaiths, who he describes as ‘in a class of their own’ when it comes to training, have made no secret that they believe Legislate can win the Queen’s Plate and the Met, but how are Jack’s nerves holding up? “I have no nerves left! The betting has been crazy, but the betting isn’t really a reflection of a horse’s chances. Horses can’t talk and so you never really know what’s going on. I’m looking forward to it, but I don’t have any expectations and if neither of them wins, I’m pretty sure I’ll get over it.”

“Legislate is probably at his most comfortable over 1600m (the Queen’s Plate distance), although class carries him further. I suspect Futura might be happiest over the Met distance, but so much will depend on pace. If the Met is run at a slow pace, I think it will suit Legislate, but if the pace is on, I think it might suit Futura. It’s a nice position to be in,” he says modestly.

I finish my lemonade, which is delicious with its sprig of mint, and Jack and the dogs see me out to my car. As one might expect from someone who has dealt in risk management all his life, he waves me off with the admonishment: “Don’t forget your seatbelt!” I smile and buckle up.