IN Racing
Tony McGovern: From starting gates to King’s Birthday honours
Tony McGovern’s decades devoted to ensuring the safe start to thoroughbred races in New Zealand has been recognised in the 2024 King’s Birthday honours.
Joshua Smith, LOVERACING.NZ News Desk | June 05, 2024
Starter Tony McGovern has been recognised in the King's Birthday honours. Photo: Trish Dunell

Tony McGovern’s decades devoted to ensuring the safe start to thoroughbred races in New Zealand has been recognised in the 2024 King’s Birthday honours, with the Cambridge resident bestowed the New Zealand Order Of Merit for services to the racing industry.

“It was very humbling to receive that (honour),” McGovern said.

McGovern grew up in a racing family, but it was only a matter of chance when he was a teenager that led him down a path of pursuing a career in the industry.

“I took over starting in 1991, but prior to that I had done 18 years on the starting gates, so I did a long apprenticeship,” he said.

“I had been around horses, and I could ride, and my uncle trained horses in Matamata. When I was leaving school, my father was working on the starting gates and someone was away sick. I ended up filling in for them and stayed there.

“It was part-time back then, I am a butcher by trade, so I was doing other work.”

While his butchery work paid the bills, McGovern’s passion for racing never wavered, and he was finally rewarded for his dedication with an approach to become a starter.

“It was mostly weekend work with the starting gates, but I had a very sympathetic boss who would let me off midweek if they were short at the trials,” he said.

“I carried on butchering and doing home kills for a while, but I would always work it around race meetings.

“Ellerslie used to have their own gates in those early days, so we didn’t do all of the tracks that you do now. It was mainly around the Waikato and when they started building starting gates in Hamilton that serviced all the other tracks, then we started doing Whangarei, Ellerslie and other tracks.

“Jack Mudford was the starter at Ellerslie up until the early nineties and then he retired, and they asked me if I was interested in taking over his position. I had to apply and got the nod for Ellerslie and carried on there.”

A decade later, McGovern’s talent was noticed aboard, and he was scouted to take up a starting position with the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

“They don’t advertise, they come looking for people, and they found me all the way down here in New Zealand and I ticked all the boxes for them,” he said.

“I moved to Hong Kong in 2003 and came home in 2016, it was just time to come home. I had done three contracts and we had grandkids starting to grow up here in New Zealand and you don’t get many opportunities to come home from Hong Kong, it is very busy up there.

“Hong Kong was a great experience and we left on good terms. I have managed to go up there a couple of times and do a few jobs for them at their new track and Conghua that they built in China.

“It was a great city to live in. It was very safe when we were there. We were there during some great years of Hong Kong racing, with great horses. Seeing the international races and all those top trainers and jockeys from around the world. I got to know top jockeys like Frankie Dettori and Ryan Moore pretty well, it was a great experience.”

McGovern said the level of betting turnover was the biggest difference between New Zealand and Hong Kong racing, and that pressure didn’t go unnoticed.

“There is a lot more pressure in Hong Kong because of the betting money on the racing,” he said. “Horse racing is the biggest business in Hong Kong and the turnovers are astronomical.

“We had a lot of good staff up there and I have been very lucky in Hong Kong and New Zealand to have very good barrier staff. Without them I can’t do my job.”

Upon McGovern’s return to New Zealand, he stepped back into his old role as starter in the Auckland region, and he said he is still enjoying his time on the gates.

“Before I went to Hong Kong I was doing Waikato and Auckland, but now I am just doing Ellerslie, Ruakaka and Pukekohe, which keeps me in the game,” he said.

McGovern has welcomed the installation of a StrathAyr track at Ellerslie and he believes it is the right step forward for New Zealand racing.

“I worked with StrathAyr tracks in Hong Kong, so to come back and see one come into New Zealand is great for racing,” he said. “It is only a time thing and everything will get sorted out.”

McGovern noted the biggest change to racing that he has noticed in New Zealand in his time on the gates have been the gates themselves.

“Over the years here, seeing the starting gates coming from the old caddy gates to what we have got now, these Steriline starting gates, they are brilliant,” he said.

“They are a lot safer for the horses and the riders, and a lot more reliable. I was involved with Steriline in Hong Kong and helping develop the gates that we have in New Zealand now. It was nice to see that all evolve.”

While humbled by his recognition in the King’s Birthday honours, McGovern said it is also recognition for racing participants who work behind the scenes.

“It’s the jockeys and trainers you see getting all the limelight in racing, but it is nice for someone out the back to get a pat on the back,” he said.