Unsung Hero - Sharon Johnson, a.k.a Ginge
Those at the Matamata Race Track pre-dawn can set their clocks by the gap lady, Sharon Johnson.
Ginge, as she is known by most, is there at 4.30am six days a week, ready with pen in hand to jot down the name of each and every horse that passes her hut. With around 650 horses each morning, ridden by jockeys who hail from all corners of the globe, it’s not a job for the faint hearted . . . and that suits Ginge just fine.
She done the job for nigh on 17 years after being shoulder tapped by Matamata Racing Club course manager Graeme Styles. “You have to be passionate in this game,” says Graeme, “and that’s something Ginge certainly is. She’s here at 4.30am on the dot and it’s busy right through to 10am. She’s a real character and needs to be pretty firm in that job.”
Ginge and her two sisters grew up in the MacKenzie Country down south. While still at school she had a job working horses with former clerk of the course Jack Shaw. She dabbled in a bit of showing too, riding her own little pony and doing well with others, mostly at the Fairlie Show. She also hunted at Timaru too, but it was racing that caught her fancy.
On leaving school she headed to Barry Jones stable at Washdyke before moving to Christchurch where she worked with Lyndon Barr in Christchurch.
A few years later she and a girlfriend decided they needed to be more in the heart of horse country, so moved north, taking up residence in the Waikato and worked with Norm and the late Kath Crawford who became a second family to her. Her sister Paddy married their son Kevin and she remains best mates with Karen Fursdon (nee Crawford).
Karen remembers meeting the sisters from the south and says they were the first females to be employed in racing in Matamata. “They became part of our family and even called my parents mother and father,” remembers Karen. “Ginge is fantastic fun. We have been friends for all that time and never has a harsh word been spoken. We’ve been friends through thick and thin . . . she is a real asset to the Matamata Racing Club.”
That sentiment is reiterated by many including trainer Andrew Scott who says Ginge is the “go-to for anything”.
“If there is a story she knows it,” he says. “You get some people who are just special and she is one of those. She is the same person every day – what you see is what you get and that’s great!”
Ginge, who turns 62 in October, herself is clearly chuffed. “It is a good place here,” she says. “It is a great team of people and Matamata is really one of the best with its trainers and others who are involved. Graeme (Styles) runs a good ship here.”
She’s seen racing from all sides, including as a trainer with husband Ray. They had some good horses over the years including the likes of Savana City who won the AJC Oaks, Kapatan Cash, Colonial King and Secret Ace.
It started when Ray gave up riding and was asked to private train for Ash Daley and then a few years later they set out on their own. “We thought we would give it a crack and did quite well with some handy horses like Gold City, Our Minty and Commander Chevel.”
But it was a battle to really make ends meet and Ray made the decision to hang up his boots and took a job at Fonterra.
“The biggest problem these days is if you have a horse that is any good, it gets sold overseas – that’s the saddest thing,” says Ginge. “It is just such a shame.”
Over the years she’s bred a few – some faster than others – and feels syndicate racing opens the sport up for more people to enjoy. “It's a great way to do it and makes for a good day at the races when you’ve got a horse running.”
So while she isn’t training any more, she still has a hand in. “I love my job. It’s outside and there is lots of fun to be had. The biggest challenge is understanding all the accents and nationalities but once you get used to it, it isn’t so bad.”
She and Ray live next to Darryn and Louise Weatherley, parents of two-time Apprentice of the Year Sam, and attended the recent racing awards with them.
“There’s a lot to love about racing,” says Ginge. “I love the horses and have met the greatest people over the years. It’s just brilliant to be part of it.”