PEERING out over Bendigo Racecourse from the grandstand before the first race on Thursday, departing Bendigo Jockey Club CEO Aaron Hearps had every right to feel proud.
Chuffed with the many developments that marked his time in charge of one of Victoria's biggest country racing clubs and above all proud of a job well done during an obviously challenging period for all and sundry in Australia's history during COVID.
But as he prepared to preside over his final meeting as CEO, there was also a sense of the bittersweet.
Hearps' resignation last month after six years at the helm and his last official day on the job on Friday brought to an end of long history of involvement in positions of authority at the BJC for his family.
As the horses made their way to the barrier for Thursday's opening race - the three-year-old fillies maiden plate - there were plenty of mixed emotions.
"I guess it's a bit bittersweet in a sense that I'm ending up," he said.
"The family has had 35 years of history in the club, dating back to my great grandfather Sir John Lienhop, who started back just after 1930. He was chairman of the board for about 20 years.
"And then my grandfather Bill Lienhop was president for around nine years and I've had six years.
"So there's 35 years there, so it wasn't a decision made lightly, but it was one where it was time to venture outside the industry and use my skill set to develop a little bit further in another industry and see how I go."
For Hearps, his appointment as CEO in May 2016 as the replacement for Jason Paech, who returned to South Australia to be closer to family and pursue business interests, was both perfect timing and a dream come true.
It came on the back of more than a dozen years in previous racing roles in Melbourne.
"I started off answering phones in what was the trainers' service centre back in the day, back in the Racing Victoria precinct at 400 Epsom Road," he said.
"I was handling the noms, acceptances, scratchings and gear and rider changes, stuff like that.
"I would get up sometimes at 5am to start shifts on Sunday, which is always tough as a 22-year-old, coming from Bendigo to Melbourne, and all the joys you had back in those days.
"Luckily I had an opportunity to advance at the VRC, where I was for 10 years, starting off in the ticketing coordinating role and finishing up as the senior customer experience manager.
"They were probably the fondest times I look back on. I had a great mentor in Julian Sullivan, who went on to be an interim CEO of the VRC and became the CEO over at Perth Racing.
"He's still my mentor to this day and I owe him a lot of gratitude.
"I made a lot of friends along the way and a lot of friends I still keep in contact at VRC.
"Then family came along and it was time to move back to Bendigo.
"In between, there was an opportunity to go to Country Racing Victoria in a regional manager role and I saw that as a bit of a bridge to head back to Bendigo.
"It was always my dream job and a goal of mine to run the club and I was fortunate enough to get that opportunity."
It wasn't a decision made lightly, but it was one where it was time to venture outside the industry and use my skill set to develop a little bit further in another industry and see how I go.- Aaron Hearps
While he has served six years as CEO, Hearps' involvement with the racing club has virtually covered a lifetime.
That made the decision to call time at the BJC all that much harder.
He is positive he has not only enhanced the club, but is leaving it in great shape by locking down its financial sustainability.
A source of obvious pride for Hearps is the more than $4 million in infrastructure projects undertaken in his time in charge.
And despite the devastating impacts of the COVID pandemic, the club under his watch has been able to grow its cash reserves by over $2 million.
"I feel the club is in a really strong position now to leapfrog from that and secure its position as one of the strongest racing clubs in country Victoria," Hearps said.
"Two years of COVID was always really challenging and the stop-start nature of trying to prepare for feature races days was very challenging.
"But what I am most proud of is the infrastructure upgrades.
"We've just completed a $1.4 million upgrade to the inside grass (track) and we've updated the horse stalls here, which was just under a million dollars.
"A lot of customer facilities have been enhanced; we've put in a big screen, a deck extension, we've upgraded The Gallic Bar and some of the hard surfaces around the bookies' ring.
"$4.2 million in six years we were able to achieve, so that is something I am really proud of."
During his time, Hearps has equally been thrilled for the accolades of others, in particular, the recognition bestowed on the club's curator Bernard Hopkins and his diligent staff.
"We have the best track and the best track manager, so it's no coincidence," he said.
"They have been able to present the track and facilities in first-class condition time and time again.
"This club is very fortunate to have Bernie and his team, I know a lot of clubs have approached him over the time, but he's stayed loyal."
Hearps has wasted little time in moving on to the next exciting phase in his professional life.
He will soon start work with Belgravia Leisure as a regional manager, overseeing a number of aquatic and recreational facilities, including the Gurri Wanyarra Wellbeing Centre at Kangaroo Flat.
It marks a departure from the hustle and bustle of the racing industry he has called home for all but a brief period spent in insurance his entire working life, since graduating from university in 2000.
"Having such a customer centric model in my time at the jockey club, I think that will translate across to my new role," he said.
"So hopefully that will enhance the offering to all the members and guests who go through the Gurri Wanyarra.
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