John May Obituary

By Duane Ranger

The man who helped pioneer harness racing on national TV and radio back in the 1970s and 80s died in Auckland late last month. John May passed away in the North Shore Hospital on Monday March 30 with his wife of 52 years, Margaret, at his bedside. He was 76.  

May, the late Phillip Leishman and Reg Clapp brought harness racing to our lounges with their weekly 1970s and 80s coverage. The live Sunday show included race reviews, previews, interviews, expert comments, and coverage of the Alexandra Park or Addington meetings held the night before.  But May was more than just as a broadcasting icon. As well as covering the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games for TVNZ, he was also a harness racing committee man; a marketing manager for both Harness Racing New Zealand and the Auckland Trotting Club; and was also one of the co-founders of the New Zealand Sires Stakes Board. He has also served on the New Zealand Standardbred Breeders Association.

Ironically, since first entering broadcasting almost 60 years ago, May only ever owned a handful of horses. His last one - 2012 New Zealand Free-For-All runner-up, Pure Power (13 wins and $343,031) was his best.  And for everything great May did in harness racing he was also wise, witty, and clever with it.  In fact his son Peter also labelled him a ‘harness racing google’ before his time.  “Dad was a mastermind when it came to harness racing. He never lost his love of the sport after he retired in 2001. He was always very passionate about the standardbred breed. I remember Ron Hanford, who was once on the New Zealand Trotting Conference said of Dad:  “’Your father was the most knowledgeable men I have ever met in a lifetime of harness racing.’ I thought that comment summed up Dad’s commitment and love of the sport,” (Peter) May said.  He said his father was a ‘great’ Dad who had an even temper, was very funny and had an infectious laugh. 

Meanwhile New Zealand TAB’s harness racing bookmaker and lifetime friend, Steve Richardson, described May as one of the most genuine and knowledgeable harness racing friends he had.  “John was best man at my wedding. I met him in Wellington in 1983 when I was in my early twenties. He was marketing manager for HRNZ and I worked for the Wellington Harness Racing Club. We stayed in touch and I often rang him.  “John was ahead of his time. He was always forward thinking. He did so much for harness racing and putting the sport in the national spotlight.  “John was a great leveller in life,” Richardson said.

May was born in the small rural Hawkes Bay township of Takapau. He was not raised in a harness racing family.  When interviewed by this writer a couple of years ago May said the only racing connection he had was when his parents would take him to the Waipukurau gallops every couple of years." 

May attended Dannevirke High and when he left secondary school he worked in his father's books, toys, fancy goods, and electrical shop.  “I remember Dad (John) saying he was in a school play at Dannevirke High once and someone came up to him after the show and said ‘you should go into broadcasting’. “Dad took that advice as both a compliment and motivation,” Peter May said. He was then left with a decision to move to either Whangarei or Invercargill.  Here’s what the late John May said:  "I wanted to enter into broadcasting and they were the two towns offering me the chance to learn to be a copy writer. I opted for Whangarei because it was closer to home. In 1958 (aged 20) I became a trainee announcer.”  A year later May relocated to Gisborne before becoming the first ever announcer on 1ZD Tauranga in 1961. "Tauranga gave me my first taste of sports broadcasting. I really enjoyed covering everything from golf to general news," the former Tauranga Trotting Club vice president said.

In 1975 May got a sports broadcasting job in Auckland and a year later found himself covering equestrian and the opening and closing ceremonies at the Montreal Olympics. When May returned from the Olympics people at the Auckland Trotting Club (ATC) had heard of his exploits in Canada. That's when Dr John Sullivan asked if him if he would be the publicity officer at the ATC. In the early 1980s May moved to Christchurch where he worked for seven years as the national body's harness racing PR manager. But by 1990 he was back in Auckland. "I got a bit homesick and my family were growing up and we wanted to be back in Auckland. That's when I took on the job of PR manager for the Auckland City Council," May said in 2012. Before retiring in 2001 May spent the last four to five years of his working life as a private PR consultant in Auckland. May is survived by his wife Margaret.

His death notice read: Dearly loved father and father-in-law of Suzanne and Pete; Annette and Patrick; and Peter. Treasured brother of Shirley Campbell and much loved uncle to all of his nieces and nephews. Wonderful brother- in-law of Janice and Geoff, Colleen and Mike and the late Gillian Morris. John's fantastic life will be celebrated at Blockhouse Bay Tennis Club, Rathlin Street, Blockhouse Bay at 11am on Thursday 9 April. All communications to 3/9 Evans Rd, Glen Eden 0602.