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SOME jockeys turn to training when they hang up their boots and saddles; some switch to the other side of racing’s fence to become stewards.

Others find different pastimes away from racing – and very few indeed turn their hand to the actual administration side of the industry.

But perhaps it was destiny that MICHAEL CRAIG was going to do the latter, and especially at Kembla Grange.

After all, he made his riding debut there and also rode his first winner at the track.

There is no more well-liked Provincial administrator than Craig, who has been Illawarra Turf Club’s racing manager for nigh on 25 years.

It was just after the mighty Might And Power’s 1998 Cox Plate triumph that he joined the ITC, but not before he had an early introduction to members when asked to attend the club’s annual general meeting a couple of nights earlier.

Craig was certainly no fly by nighter in terms of racing admin experience either when he linked with the provincial club at a time when the legendary Keith “Shoulders” Nolan was chief executive and current CEO Peter de Vries was chairman.

He had already spent considerable time working with both the now defunct Sydney Turf Club and West Australian Turf Club.

“I started with the WATC on August 1, 1996 as racing manager/handicapper,” Craig said.

“But the family wasn’t all that settled in Perth, and I made a promise that we would return to Sydney as soon as a suitable job came up.

“Then STC racing manager John Nicholson rang me to say Peter Nolan was leaving the ITC, and there was an opportunity there as racing manager.

“I applied and was fortunate to get the position.”

Craig spent the first six months of his life at Doncaster Avenue, Kingsford not far from Royal Randwick racecourse before the family moved to Revesby.

“I was always interested in racing, and Dad used to put a little daily double on each Saturday for a mate and myself when I was at De La Salle College at Revesby,” he confided.

A young Craig, keen to further his fondness for racing, began doing work experience at weekends with Rosehill Gardens trainer Cliff Robertson.

After two years he became apprenticed to Robertson, and had his first ride for him on 15-1 chance Moroccan Miss, who ran seventh of 12 runners at Kembla Grange on August 17, 1975.

“My first winner was at Kembla and also for the boss at my sixth ride on December 4 that year. I won on I’m A Dandy, and Cliff had bred him from his good sprinter Boy Dandy.”

Craig did not have a lot of rides but also clinched a city breakthrough (pictured) on another of Robertson’s horses, the filly Rene’s Spirit, at Canterbury on July 28, 1976.

“She was a 33-1 chance and it was a huge thrill to overhaul premier jockey Kevin Langby’s mount Arctic Mission just before the post,” he recalled.

“When we pulled up, Tony Marney rode up to congratulate me and said: ‘Now pull your goggles back on to your skullcap and ride back like you own the place’.”

Craig also rode a couple of seconds on rank outsiders in Sydney. “Jack Denham’s Escalante was a 100-1 shot and Cliff’s Countess Clair was at 250-1,” he said.

Increasing weight and Robertson’s decision to take up a Hong Kong contract combined to call a halt to Craig’s riding career.

“I was 51kg when the minimum weight was 49kg, and the only option to stay in the saddle was to go to the bush, but I didn’t want to do that,” he explained.

“John Jeffs was at the STC and gave me a job in the track office. After 12 months, I moved into the city at the club’s Park St office to join the handicapping department.”

As well as the Perth stint, Craig had a heap of experience in other racing areas behind him when he joined the ITC.

He had been a barrier attendant at Randwick and Warwick Farm, courtesy of then starter Ron Swales, also worked in a similar role with STC starter Bill Dale, filled the clerk of scales’ role, worked in the judges’ box at STC meetings and eventually took over as judge when John Nicholson stood down.

In his two and a half decades at Kembla Grange, Craig has seen a multitude of changes in the industry.

“We used to do all our own nominations and acceptances, and collect acceptance fees, but no longer,” he said.

“There was a lot of paperwork, but with everything centralized now, the noms and acceptances go through Racing Australia.

“And we confer with RacingNSW about the order of our races at all meetings except our major The Gong meeting.

“When equine influenza hit in 2007 and caused so much commotion, RacingNSW boss Peter V’Landys was able to negotiate a massive deal with the Federal Government to enable the industry to survive and thankfully racing resumed a few months later.

“Both the race fields legislation and getting tax parity from the NSW Government to bring us in line with Victoria has seen the remarkable surge in prizemoney now available to all participants.

“Prizemoney for a race at Kembla was $5000 when I started, and now it is a minimum $40,000.”

Craig says he has worked for only two chairmen, Peter de Vries and the incumbent Barry Vandenberg, pointing out “it has always been pretty stable during my time here”.

He views the focal point of his job as ensuring the racing side of the business runs smoothly, and understandably welcomed the advent of the $1m The Gong in 2019.

“This November will mark the fifth running of The Gong, and it will be another ripper,” Craig promised.

“The second and third editions were seriously affected by the COVID pandemic, so we are really looking forward to welcoming another big crowd later in the year.”

At 65 years of age, Craig’s racing career is obviously closer to the end than the beginning – but he’s not ready to call it quits just yet.

And he has no intention of leaving the area when the time does come to pull down the curtain at Kembla Grange.

“I’ll play a bit of golf and go to the beach, and would be interested in a part-time role within the industry should one arise,” he said.

“But I won’t be going anywhere. I have a unit at North Wollongong and love the area. There’s no better place to live.”

*Words John Curtis - May 9, 2023 - Pics supplied*

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