- Published: Monday, 06 July 2020 13:07
Bobby Lillis, a longtime fixture in Maryland horse racing known as the “Mayor of the Backstretch,” is retiring after a career in the industry that has spanned six decades.
For the past 21 years, Lillis, 66, has served as Benefits and Benevolence Director for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. His focus has been on those who ensure that racehorses receive proper care seven days a week, year-round. “I have always held backstretch and farm workers near and dear to my heart as I know firsthand the sacrifices that come with their jobs and environment,” Lillis said.
Lillis was 15 when he started working as a hot walker for trainer Bob Holthus and lived in a tack room at old Detroit Race Course in Livonia, Mich., in 1969. In 1972 he went to Sugar Hill Farm in Ocala, Fla., under the guidance of retired jockey Sherman Armstrong to learn how to break yearlings and become a jockey, which he did not long after.
Lillis worked at many East Coast racetracks and met his wife, Ruthanne, in 1975 at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. They moved to Maryland in 1976 because the state had four tracks and year-round racing at Bowie Race Course, Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course and the Maryland State Fair at Timonium, and currently reside in Westminster in Carroll County.
“The horse racing industry is the only work I’ve known,” Lillis said. “It is an industry with countless career opportunities, and the trick is to see and take the opportunity when it presents itself,” Lillis said. “For me, it was taking a shot at being a jockey and then later a small-potatoes horse owner and breeder. For the last 21 years I have been Benefits Director, serving as an advocate for backstretch workers facing hardships and offering financial assistance to those in need with the help of funding of the Maryland Horsemen’s Assistance Foundation and the MTHA.
“I want to thank you to all owners, trainers and racing fans—past and present. Because of their investments, hundreds of thousands of compassionate people who have a love for horses have employment and careers. I am very confident that our Maryland backstretch employees are left in good hands with in my coworkers.”
Lillis has been recognized over the years with various awards, most recently the Godolphin Thoroughbred Industry Community Award and the Maryland Horse Industry Board Touch of Class Award, both in 2019. He also garnered the Maryland Racing Media Association President’s Award, the Maryland Jockey Club Circle of Excellence Award, the MTHA Outstanding Service to Maryland Horsemen Award and the Thoroughbred Charities of America Distinguished Service Award, and was the Honorary Postmaster at the Alibi Breakfast.
Though he is retiring, Lillis, who has helped educate many fans during the annual “Sunrise Tours” Preakness week at Pimlico, will not be a stranger at Maryland racetracks. He will continue to work for the MHAF Board of Directors.
“On a limited basis I will help the Maryland Horsemen’s Assistance Foundation,” Lillis said. “I was asked to stay on through the end of the year while the organization determines its future. I will be at the racetrack periodically.”
The MTHA and those he has assisted thank Lillis for his many years of contributions to the Maryland racing industry.