McGovern’s life of racing

Tony McGovern was 16 when he first became involved in racing, but the King Country-born industry stalwart was born into it.

His family have long ties with the racing industry – uncle Rory was a successful trainer in Matamata and his father Tom, a butcher, worked for the Taumarunui Racing Club president Rod ‘Porky’ McLeish.

Tony McGovern takes a break between checking horse brands at the Cambridge Jockey Club. Photo: Mary Anne Gill.

Trips from their Manunui home for the annual Taumarunui meeting at Waipā Racing Club in Te Awamutu were a must and once the family moved to Hamilton – when McGovern was eight – the tradition continued.

“We used to get all the rellies come up and there would be a big meeting of the clan when the Taumarunui race meeting was on.”

McGovern, 68, was born in Taumarunui – he was in the same Manunui Primary School class as Ruapehu mayor Weston Kirton – and now lives in Roto-o-Rangi – midway between Te Awamutu and Cambridge.

He has become a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) in the King’s Birthday list for his services to the racing industry.

While at Fraser High School in Hamilton, the family would spend the school holidays at his uncle’s place and he would help on the starting gates at various meetings, alongside his father.

McGovern left school midway through the fifth form because he wanted to work on a farm, completed a butchery apprenticeship and in 1972 embarked on his 50-year racing career as a starting gates barrier attendant.

He became a chief starter in 1990 in the upper North Island – at Dargaville, Ruakaka, Auckland, Avondale, Pukekohe, Hamilton, Thames and Paeroa – where he officiated at all meetings including Group One races.

In 2003 he was appointed Hong Kong Jockey Club chief starter where he stayed until 2016, officiating at two courses where over 700 races were run each season.

Tony McGovern checks out the horse brands with stipendiary stewards before races at Cambridge. Photo: Mary Anne Gill.

For the past four years he has provided advisory services to New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing on starting procedures for races, mentored a new generation of industry participants, and continues the role of chief starter for several race meetings each year.

He does a bit of work with veterinarian Michael Hurley who vets horses that are bought in New Zealand and sold to Hong Kong.

The examination for entry into Hong Kong is one of the most rigorous vettings a racehorse can undergo.

He also works at the Cambridge Jockey Club, now part of Waikato Thoroughbred Racing, where The News caught up with him on race day last week where he was out the back with the stipendiary stewards checking horse brands before the races.

It was bucketing down, offering more proof the decision to lay a synthetic polytrack in 2020 was a wise one.

“It’s a new tool for racing. A lot of people don’t like it, a lot of people do like it. If your horse goes well on it, you do like it. But it runs better with a bit of rain on it.”

Semi-retired “my rubbish bin goes out more than I do now” though still getting called on. He filled in at Pukekohe on Saturday and will be in Whangārei next week.

He is not sure who nominated him for the honour, but it took him several days to decide whether to accept it.

“I talked to my wife (Cathy), and I was reluctant to start with and she said, ‘it could be grounds for divorce after all these years of staying at home while you were away at racing’,” he says.

“You do these sorts of jobs, you’re not in the limelight, you’re not like the jockeys or the trainers, getting write ups.”

Until now.

Tony McGovern, out the back in the stables at Cambridge where he works part time, has been honoured for his services to the racing industry. Photo: Mary Anne Gill

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