From trailblazing jockey to esteemed country trainer, Sue Grills has enjoyed a storied career in racing and is one of the more respected identities in the sport.
Racing at Gunnedah earlier this month, and unbeknownst to Grills at the time, she scored the 800th win of her career, with My Diamond Boy (Dylan Bennett, $5.50) winning the 1250m Country Boosted Benchmark 58 Handicap.
The following day at Armidale, Grills was soon up to 801 victories, winning the $50,000 Super Maiden with Somerton Sniper (Matthew McGillivray, $6).
“I honestly didn’t know I had trained that many winners,” Grills laughed when chatting with NSW Country and Picnic Racing.
“I wouldn’t have thought I was anywhere near that many, but I guess I have been training a long time, and I’m showing my age a bit there.”
For Grills, her career has spanned 45 eventful years.
As a youngster, she was a trailblazer in the 1970s, becoming the first female apprentice in the Hunter and North-West Racing Association.
She started out with her uncle Keith Swan, who, with her grandfather Arthur Gore, were legendary trainers in the area.
Grills’ father (Max McGrath) was Swan’s foreman, and her brother Ron McGrath was apprenticed to Swan and rode successfully.
“I rode in two lady-only races and slaughtered both of them, and then my first ride as an apprentice was in 1978 for my pop, and I won on Majoriole at Inverell,” Grills said.
“You never forget your first win, and I thought I was Linda Jones; I can honestly say there’s been no bigger thrill in my career.
“I was the first female apprentice around here, but it was a different time, and weight and a few falls eventually caught up with me.
“I rode 33 winners, and when I was riding, the only ones that would give me rides were my grandfather or Keith, who I was apprenticed to.
“My only other rides were for trainers that didn’t have jockeys on the day; it’s a lot different to what it is now, and you didn’t get booked like they do today, and you’d pick up rides.”
A trainer career came calling, with Grills spending time as Swan’s foreman at his Somerton property before his tragic passing in 2003.
The following year, Grills moved to Tamworth, and the rest is history, with the talented trainer a force to be reckoned with over the past two decades, training 183 winners on her home course at Tamworth and 105 at Armidale while enjoying success at Gunnedah (64), Moree (49), Quirindi (48), and Grafton (42).
“After Keith passed away, I probably stayed another 12 months before moving into Tamworth,” Grills said.
“I couldn’t even tell you the first horse that won for me, but I reckon I would have been training for 37 years.”
At the peak of her powers, Grills has had up to 31 in work, and right now, she has 22 in her stables and explained that ’20-25 is a nice number’.
During her years of training, Grills has enjoyed success with many good gallopers, winning three Listed races and many more Quality Handicaps while placing in multiple Group events.
Border Rebel was a fabulous horse that put the Tamworth stable on the map, winning 14 of his 37 starts and earning well over $600,000 in prizemoney.
The ever-consistent Johannesburg won back-to-back Hinkler Handicaps at Eagle Farm in 2010/11 and the 2010 Takeover Target Stakes at Gosford.
Ollie Vollie was another champion who made history as an 11-year-old in 2014, winning the $100,000 Quality Gold Coast Stakes.
In the late 1990s, Enterprising was a stable stalwart, winning Open Handicaps all over the North West while the likes of Keen To Dance (10 wins), Monashee Woods, Usain Prince, Lambeth Walk, Darcey, Attila, Little Poet, and Jimmy Be Quick did the stable proud, winning countless races between them.
“There’s probably been more lows than highs, but I’ve been lucky to have some handy horses; it’s been a good run, that’s for sure,” Grills said.
“When Ollie Vollie won at 11 at the Gold Coast, that was one of my best moments; he was a great horse,” Grills said.
“That made him the oldest Stakes winner in Queensland, and it was his 19th win, and the last time Tim Bell rode for me, and it was a winner.
“My best horse was Border Rebel, and yes, he put us out there and won some good races, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Ollie.”
Grills has achieved a lot in the sport, but a few races have eluded her over the years.
“I won the NSW country trainer’s premiership one year, and I was pretty chuffed about that, and Border Rebel was named country horse of the year, but if there were one race I’d like to win, it would be a Ramornie at Grafton,” Grills said.
“I’d like to get a runner in the Country championships or Kosciuszko, but Grafton is a place I like to race, and I remember Ollie Vollie should have won it one year, but he was declared a non-runner, and he missed the kick and ran home and still finished fifth, and for me, that’s always been the race that got away.”
As far as her favourite places to race, Grills enjoys staying in the country.
“I like Gunnedah; it’s a great track and doesn’t get enough meetings, and I have had a lot of luck on my home track. I also like getting over to Grafton,” Grills said.
“I don’t mind Armidale; I know a lot of people don’t like it, but I have had a lot of luck there over the years.”
Having enjoyed so much success over a long period means Grills has teamed up with some champion jockeys.
Still, none have succeeded more than Greg Ryan, who rode 134 winners at a 19.7% strike rate for the Tamworth trainer.
Grills said Ryan and Australian record holder Robert Thompson were the best she’s legged aboard her horses, while the late Tim Bell holds a special place in her heart.
“Greg Ryan and Robert Thompson were superstars,” Grills said.
“Greg was a gem, and he would come back saying if they were not fit enough, too fit, too fat, or if they needed further, he would just know what they needed.
“Robert was the same, and they knew exactly how the horses were going.
“Tim Bell was my apprentice, and he was a great jockey, and these days, you’ve got Aaron Bullock and Ash Morgan, but I don’t think anyone is as good or consistent as Greg and Robert.”
At 62, Grills admitted that retirement was looming, but she was still enjoying her time training.
“It is getting closer and has been on my mind, but I’m still working as hard as I did 20 years ago,” Grills said.
“I still enjoy it, and the great thing about racing is all the people you meet and all those friendships.
“It’s like a big family, and you’ll chat with different people and catch up with others you haven’t seen for ages, and it’s like a big social gathering; that will be one thing I miss when I retire.”
For the moment, Grills will continue to go about her days as usual and notch up winners regularly, with the North West racing scene heating up in the coming weeks.