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ONCE the racing “bug” gets into your system, it’s generally full steam ahead!

That’s exactly the case with Illawarra Turf Club’s new chief executive, 43-year-old STEVE KEENE.

Having recently stepped into the role following the retirement of long-serving CEO Peter de Vries, Keene is thrilled with his opportunity to take the club to the next level.

Born at the small township of Henty (between Albury and Wagga) in south-western New South Wales, there was no racing background in his family.

But his interest in the industry arose through chats with the father of internationally-successful jockey Danny Beasley.

“I was at University at Wagga studying for a teaching degree, and met Bob at a bottle shop,” Keene explained.

“Danny’s father was working full-time there, and I did some part-time work to help pay the bills.

“Naturally, Bob was very proud of his son’s achievements, and I got to learn more about racing from him.

“It certainly aroused my interest in such a diverse industry.”

Keene did a bit of travelling and spent a few years in Perth before returning home.

He worked as a stock controller at an Albury/Wodonga car yard for seven years until he noticed an advertisement for aSales and Events Manager at Wodonga Turf Club (now Racing Wodonga).

“I got the position, and it was lucky timing I guess as the club was growing,” he said.

“Being able to work with CEO Tom O’Connor, who has just recently retired from Warrnambool Race Club, gave me a really good grounding for what was to come.”

That arrived firstly when Keene secured a promotion as chief executive of Murrumbidgee Turf Club at Wagga.

As much as he was pleased to step into a new role managing one of NSW country racing’s major clubs, he admits to “three tricky years” there.

“Like everyone else, we had to deal with COVID,” he said.

“I will never forget the Wagga Gold Cup in 2020 when race clubs couldn’t have crowds at the track.

“We had something like 15 trainers and as many strappers there and officials, and no one else.

“As it turned out, we probably dodged a bullet as it rained sideways that day.

“We raced on a Heavy 9 track.”

That aside, there was drama to follow. Sydney trainer John Sargent’s mare House Of Cartier, who had been placed in the Group 1 Australasian Oaks at Morphettville 12 months earlier, won the Cup but was later stripped of the victory because of a swab irregularity.

As a result, fellow Randwick trainer John Thompson “won” the Cup not only by default with Maurus (Brodie Loy), but also then had the quinella, stablemate Master Of Arts (Brock Ryan), which had finished a distant third, being promoted to second.

After nearly two and a half years at Wagga, Keene’s career took another step in mid-2021 when he was appointed chief executive of Scone Race Club.

“It was another important move, especially with Scone being the focal point of the thoroughbred breeding industry in the Hunter, and staging two stand-alone meetings (Friday and Saturday) at its annual Cup carnival in May,” he said.

“And there is such huge development happening there with RacingNSW’s master plan to ensure it is a premier training centre.”

Keene no doubt had expected to be at Scone longer, but saw another opportunity to progress further by applying for the vacant position at Illawarra Turf Club when long-serving

Peter de Vries (who gave 25 years loyal service as a Board member, chairman, executive chairman and CEO for the last dozen) earlier this year decided to call it a day.

He was successful, and began his new role in late July – and he and his family quickly settled in and love the area.

“Running a provincial club was something I had aspired to, and it is a tribute to all those people who helped and supported me along the way that I was able to win the position,” Keene said.

“The ITC is a great club, and Peter has left it in wonderful standing. I have a lot to be thankful for.”

Keene hardly had time to put his feet under the desk as Kembla Grange races 35 times a year and the club’s flagship event, the $1m The Gong (1600m), is just around the corner on Saturday, November 25, preceded by the always popular Melbourne Cup day (and now also The Big Dance) meeting 18 days earlier.

“It’s a busy time for sure, but that suits my appetite,” Keene said.

“I really enjoy race meetings, getting out and talking with all the participants, our members and racegoers alike.”

Along with a non-stop schedule of racedays, Kembla Grange is also undergoing an important re-development.

“Earthworks are well underway on our inside (B) grass track,” Keene explained.

“It will take 12 months, but it will put Kembla on another level, having a second course which we will be able to race onfrom time to time, similar to the Beaumont track at Newcastle.

“With so much going on, it’s a really exciting period.

“I could not have started here at a better time, and am really looking forward to continuing to advance the ITC as one of the major provincial clubs in the country.”

. HOOFNOTE: There are six more meetings before The Gong metropolitan stand-alone Saturday meeting, which boasts total prizemoney of $2.5m.

Kembla Grange will race this Saturday (October 7), and then Thursday, October 12, Saturday, October 21, Saturday, October 28, Tuesday, November 7, and Saturday, November 18 (when Newcastle Jockey Club stages the $1m The Hunter at Broadmeadow). *Story John Curtis, October 3, 2023 - Pics supplied*

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