Born outside Australia, began his working life in advertising and journalism, worked with equal success in commercial and wider industry roles, noted as a selector of bloodstock, overcame significant personal challenges, re-invented himself as a successful consultant in later life, and intolerant of hypocrisy and mediocrity but also capable of great wit and humour, loyalty and kindness… haven’t I written this tribute already in 2018?
Well yes, I have, but it’s only when I began to write about Steve Brem after his death on 26th September that I could see the aspects of character and biography he shared with his near-contemporary Nick Columb who pre-deceased him by 47 days.
There were many differences too, as both men would have quickly pointed out, but together they leave a heavyweight legacy of thoroughbred industry contribution and achievement, and a large space their many friends know won’t be filled anytime soon.
In his own words
It’s a space I confess to struggling with, in a year rather too full of death, and my cohort approaching the milestone Steve addressed with typical bluntness and some prescience almost ten years ago:
"When you get to 60 suddenly it hits you: shit, look at all the things I haven’t yet done in my life and to think I may have just a decade left to get my act together – if I’m lucky. You have a panic attack at the thought and for the first time in your life the meaning of the old saw “live each day like it’s the last” sheets home to you. "
That comes from his wonderful blog This Racing Game which Steve stopped writing in early 2009, but which remains online:
"For the first time in your life the meaning of the old saw “live each day like it’s the last” sheets home to you." - Steve Brem
It still provides entertaining and provocative reading and confirms what a riveting book he could have written about his life in racing.
As with Nick, the tributes have flowed for Steve, and it’s easy to imagine him wryly inquiring if we’ve read the wrong death notice. But I think he might be quietly chuffed too.
Steve’s story began in Glasgow, Scotland where he was born in 1949 before emigrating three years later with his parents and two older brothers to Herne Bay, an inner-city suburb of Auckland, New Zealand.
Educated at Bayfield Primary School and Mount Albert Grammar, where he was a prefect, Steve’s first job as an 18 year-old in the late 1960s was writing copy for an advertising agency. He later recalled, “I wasn’t really that interested in the advertising world, I was more interested in studying form. One of the account executives…organised an interview for me with their Racing Editor and I started at Best Bets writing form on the cards in 1968. I left their employ in 1976 after a stint in Wellington and then the role of editor in the Waikato."
It was in the Waikato that he took on the voluntary role of Secretary with the local branch of the NZTBA. His administrative and communication skills soon led to his 1977 appointment as the Association’s first full-time National Secretary.
Steve’s effective management of diverse responsibilities such as Government lobbying, domestic & international marketing and equine health helped the Association reach a peak membership of 4,500 – about three times its current size. In 1984, as investment in bloodstock boomed along with the sharemarket, Steve became Managing Director of Waikato Stud Ltd which was purchased from pioneering global breeder Nelson Bunker Hunt and listed on the New Zealand Stock Exchange.
"Steve’s effective management helped the (NZTBA) Association reach a peak membership of 4,500 – about three times its current size." - Susan Archer
It was an exciting and reckless period in New Zealand’s thoroughbred history and ultimately investors learned that it is very difficult indeed to earn escalating annual profits in the horse business. Nevertheless, those who kept their heads managed to notch up important breeding successes and Waikato Stud graduates during the late 1980s included Group 1 winners Imposera & Courtza (both bought and raced by Nick Columb), Imprimatur and Full And By.
Steve’s 1987 move to a similar role with the Chitty family-owned Haunui Farm was well-timed, and highlights of his decade as General Manager were significant sires Crested Wave, Tights, Carnegie and Last Tycoon, and multiple Group 1 winner Surfers Paradise.
His impact on Haunui’s business has been long-lasting. Ron Chitty recalls in a section on the farm’s website titled A Guru Named Steve, “When Steve came he took over the administration and the other side of the team got on with looking after the horses and the farm. The structures Steve put in place are the ones that operate today. Only the technology has changed… he will always be part of the Haunui story."
A shift to Sydney
A brief stint as Chief Executive of Thoroughbred Breeders’ Australia was followed by seven years as Racing Manager for Gai Waterhouse. Gai’s tribute measures Steve’s contribution to a record-setting period in which the stable won four Premierships.
“He gave great credibility to the horses I purchased during 1998-2005, including some of the best Group 1 winners I have trained in my time with the likes of Dance Hero and Excellerator.
“Steve was able to give enormous insight into the pedigrees, my owners very much appreciated his intimate knowledge of breeding and he was well liked by all. When he no longer worked with me, his expert knowledge was sought by some of the leading studs and syndicators in Australia. A man who lived and breathed racing and was respected by all.”
"A man who lived and breathed racing and was respected by all.” - Gai Waterhouse
After 2005, Steve decided to offer his encyclopaedic memory, deep pedigree knowledge, sharp eye for a nice horse and impeccable integrity to private clients. Multiple Group 1 winner Ortensia, Group winners Adorabeel, Betwixt & Snippets Land and the dams of Group 1 winners Atlantic Jewel, Commanding Jewel & Delectation topped a list of purchases that ended only in June this year.
Syndicator Denise Martin had not forgotten Steve’s earlier work for Tulloch Lodge and Star Thoroughbreds. “Three years ago I asked Steve whether he could once again assist Star and throughout the 2016 and 2017 sales seasons he worked with us. During this time his expert eye enabled Star to buy high quality horses including Group 1 winner D’Argento, Group-winning filly Fiesta and Group performer Dealmaker.
“Steve’s knowledge and thorough understanding of the breeding industry in this region and internationally was admired by all of our owners. His passing is a great loss to the racing and breeding industries both in Australia and New Zealand."
“Steve’s knowledge and thorough understanding of the breeding industry in this region and internationally was admired by all of our owners." - Denise Martin
Last Saturday’s valiant Group 1 placings by Fiesta and D’Argento, and Fiesta’s victory in the Darley Princess Series are posthumous hat-tips he’d have surely appreciated.
Strength to the end
In the last decade of his life Steve handled his cancer diagnoses and gruelling treatment with fortitude and humour, was regularly active at sales, always ready with a good story or spot-on observation and he kept working almost until the end.
One thing I have learned from looking back at the lives I’ve celebrated in 2018 is that constant friendships and small kindnesses are remembered even more warmly than headline professional achievements.
It’s evident in the tributes of Steve’s friends, including Sydney bloodstock agent Michael Stedman:
“Affable, eloquent, knowledgeable and straight up, yet with an almost shy and reserved side to his persona. Always great company whether it be at the art gallery, in the sale ring or proffering his opinion in the mounting yard. A Group One guy who worked assiduously for his valued clients achieving Group One results. A loyal and valued friend of over thirty years and a true Gentleman of the Turf!"
“Affable, eloquent, knowledgeable and straight up, yet with an almost shy and reserved side to his persona." Michael Stedman
New Zealand breeders Philip & Catherine Brown of Ancroft Stud: “We all enjoyed his company when he called into Ancroft, the robust discussions, his forthright opinions punctuated with a large dose of humour. Steve, we will miss you."
And from this fellow Kiwi, homesick in Sydney eight years ago, my heartfelt gratitude for the kindness of looking out for me when I needed it most.
Steve’s former wife Madeleine died in 2015; he is survived by his sons David & Anthony, grand-children Mathilda, Jude, Archer & Monty and brother Maxwell.
His friends are invited to attend a Memorial Service at The Lord Dudley Hotel (upstairs area), 236 Jersey Road, Woollahra, Sydney, on Thursday 4th October 2018 commencing at 1.00pm.