A good keen man: Blake Keane

Catching up with long-time show jumping steward Blake Keane

pukekohe-showBlake Keane is the friendly face at the in-gate at many shows on the circuit. Every volunteer has a special connection to the sport, but with over 40 years of involvement, Blake has become the cornerstone of many shows. I decided to take some time to find out a bit more about this special guy.

Tell us about your first day as a ‘call-up steward’.

In 1972 the boss on the station where I was working sent me down to the Gisborne horse show to pick up rails. I was taken to the gate and asked to relieve the gatekeeper while he went for his morning tea, which I did – 43 years later I am still standing in the same place yelling my heart out waiting for Charlie Matthews (the old gatekeeper) to return!

When you are calling riders up to compete, do you notice a winning pattern? For example, are the winners usually anxious or relaxed as they enter the ring?

Every rider and every horse is different, they are all individuals, but when a rider enters the ring feeling confident, it certainly helps. Sometimes the young riders can be so nervous they are hardly breathing – I then give them a strop up and tell them to get some good deep breaths.

Sharing some ringside wisdom with Elle Phillips
Sharing some ringside wisdom with Elle Phillips

Have you become accustomed to various riders’ warm-up patterns? Without naming names, are the same people always early and the same people always late?

Yes – I have found this to be the case and I work my way around it; and yes, I have become accustomed to their individual warm-ups. Claire, you take seven minutes to walk the course, then you like about 10 horses to warm up. Your husband Simon, I always call him to the gate at least a minute before I need to, as he always dismounts and checks his saddle and boots, which is 45 seconds. I can also go down the list and note riders who I know will just appear two or three horses away from entering the ring. You will note I often have a stopwatch – this is not to time the course, I am timing riders’ and judges’ habits and often I can predict the finishing time of most classes.

You are often the last point of contact for riders as they enter the ring. What is the most common piece of advice you give the younger riders who turn to you for support?

I never wish them luck, I tell them to go out, ride with confidence and do their best. Because when you really try, you can always do that little bit better.

Blake has a great bond with the riders; here, with Steffi Whittaker (image: Kampic)
Blake has a great bond with the riders; here, with Steffi Whittaker (image: Kampic)

What is the most outrageous excuse you have had from a rider who has missed their order of go?

Oh boy! I have had excuses ranging from feeding babies, lame horses, waiting for owners of horses to arrive, broken tack, lost shoes… but I had a real good one this year: Trudy Mitchell and Rachael Martin need 10 horses between them because they were both sharing the same bit!

What has been the most unusual warm-up technique that you have seen in the practice ring?

All riders seem to warm up very much the same. However, I do remember at Tauranga show about 10 years ago one rider arrived late eating a hamburger. I told her she was two away, she quickly warmed up, and came to the gate continuing to eat her hamburger. I chased her into the ring, she rode and came out with the remains of the hamburger still in her mouth… bless you, Megan Stacey.

Who gives you the most grief: the riders, the trainers, the parents or the judges?

I don’t seem to get much grief. The riders and trainers all work in, but I’m sure the judges must curse me sometimes with some of the excuses that I feed them. The announcers are very good; they always cover for me if a rider goes out of order.

In the moments before an important class, you often tell the riders a joke. What is the purpose of this?

I do it to help break the tension – the parents and trainers may get a laugh!

Tell us the story about your famous chair… that one that went missing and turned up on Trade Me.

The famous chair!

For years I had an old chair with ‘Wet Paint’ written across the seat to put people off sitting on it. However, at the series finals in Manfeild two years ago the old chair was accidentally left behind… and I felt it was time for a new one anyway. Three months later I received texts telling me my old chair was on Trade Me with a reserve of $1000 (no bidders). At Hawke’s Bay show the following year, I found my good old chair waiting at the gate for me. The riders, however, decided I needed a new one and at HOY they presented me with a new chair covered in signatures. I went back to my gate and, hello – my old chair was gone again – I’ve not seen it since.

In 2011 you were awarded the David Ross Memorial Trophy for outstanding volunteer service to the Horse of the Year show. How did it feel to win this prize?

I knew David well and I really felt honoured to receive this award. There are so many volunteers out there and I felt especially privileged.

What advice do you have for other stewards who find pushy competitors intimidating?

If you give riders plenty of warning before entering, it normally gives you time to sort out any problems. However, if a rider is intimidating, you tell them that there are other riders just as important as them and they should fall into line.

Has there ever been a special horse that you have particularly enjoyed seeing progress up the grades?

Kiwi Iron Mark – Melanie Purcell was very special to me, and when she first got Mark we went hunting together, and that is when I agreed with Melanie that Mark was going to go places. The following year she started show jumping him in the lower grades and he never pulled a rail all season. Year two Melanie became very ill and at times could not walk the course. Mark always carried her through and she handed the horse over to Katie, who has carried the dream on for Mel by winning the World Cup at Woodhill Sands and carrying on over to the US.

What equipment do you need to make calling up more comfortable and efficient?

I am lucky: I naturally have a very strong voice (maybe it comes from my shepherding days). However, in recent years I sometimes use a wireless microphone which allows me to talk rather than yell, but I often find myself reverting to just the good old voice.

Blake Keane, imake Showjumping World Cup Final, Woodhill Sands, Auckland, Sunday, January 11, 2015. Credit: KAMPIC / Kerry Marshall
(Image: Kampic)

What are your favourite shows to be involved with?

Whether it is HOY or the little Opotiki show – I enjoy them all. The Christmas Classic is always enjoyable because of the atmosphere and the Tauranga show has the Mills Reef event which I also enjoy.

You have a rodeo rider look about you, have you tried this in the past?

Yes, in my teens I worked on cattle stations in Australia and most mornings, when you got your horses in, it was like a country and western show. We would all go off to the rodeos in the weekends and I was lucky enough to travel with some of the top riders.

Do other members of your family share your love of horses?

Yes, both my wife and daughter. My daughter has ridden from the time she could walk and it’s only in the past three years that she has not been involved with horses due to family commitments. Di, my wife, also rides and as a family we did a lot of hunting together and attended many A & P shows.

Blake and his wife Di enjoying the Great NZ Horse Trek
Blake and his wife Di enjoying the Great NZ Horse Trek

When you aren’t following the show circuit around, how do you fill your day in?

I have a 50-acre lifestyle block where I have a few sheep, cattle and horses. I also trade and invest in property.

Blake at home on his Gisborne lifestyle block
Blake at home on his Gisborne lifestyle block

Do you have aspirations to be a call-up steward at any overseas show jumping competitions?

I have been to Spruce Meadows on two occasions, just to watch, but if I go over again I will apply on their volunteers list, so maybe they will allow me to call in one of their rings.

  • This article was first published in the July 2015 issue of NZ Horse & Pony