Country trainers rarely get the opportunity to chase Group 1 races.
Tamworth’s Sue Grills has had three cracks at racing’s elite level; all with her former talented sprinter Border Rebel – and the best result was a fourth in Brisbane’s Doomben Ten Thousand (1350m) in 2011.
But at least she can lay claim to an involvement, albeit indirectly, with this year’s Group 1 Queensland Oaks winner Duais, prepared at Hawkesbury by fifth generation trainer Edward Cummings.
Grills purchased Duais’ dam Meerlust for $22,000 at the 2009 Scone yearling sale on behalf of Matthew Irwin and Peter Harris.
“There were a couple of reasons why I chose Meerlust,” Grills explained.
“As well as liking her dam’s side (she was out of an American-bred mare Flying Visit), she was by Johannesburg, the sire of Border Rebel.”
Border Rebel also was a relative “cheapie” at $26,000. He was one of four yearlings purchased in 2007 by expatriate South African Veronica Scott-Mason – and the only one who joined Grills’ stable (the other three went to other trainers and didn’t set the world on fire).
She won 14 races – including three Listed events (2010 and 2011 Hinkler Handicap at Eagle Farm and 2010 Takeover Target Stakes at Gosford) along with Group 2 (2010 QTC Cup) and Group 3 (Carrington Stakes) placings – with him and collected $623,000 in prizemoney and bonuses.
“Meerlust showed ability right from the start, and won on debut at Grafton in March, 2011,” Grills said.
“But she had only five starts after chipping both knees.
“She was operated on, but it was a disaster. Infection set in and she had to have another operation, and never raced again.”
Grills also trained Meerlust’s first foal Little Lusty, a filly by Arlington – and trouble struck once more!
“Like her dam, Little Lusty also was flighty,” she said. “She injured a knee and had only three starts.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t get the opportunity to get her out over distance.”
Though Meerlust’s racetrack career was restricted to a handful of starts, she has certainly been a great success as a broodmare.
Her first stakes winner was Baccarat Baby (trained by David Vandyke), who won eight races, including two Sunshine Coast 1600m features in 2019 – the Listed Princess Stakes and Group 3 Sunshine Coast Guineas (the race which four years earlier started Winx’s remarkable 33-win streak) – and earned more than $500,000.
She then fetched $650,000 when sold at the Magic Millions National Broodmare Sale earlier this year.
Meerlust has also produced Amiche (by Nicconi), the winner of four Queensland races and now also under Cummings’ care.
She has since foaled a full sister to Duais, who will race as Amity Gal. Though yet to start, she won a 1200m trial at Deagon last month.
Grills is yet to see Duais in action live, but understandably has been thrilled by performances such as her runaway Queensland Oaks (2200m) victory at Eagle Farm in June and the Group 3 Coongy Cup (2000m) at Caulfield last month.
“It’s great to see her win these good races,” she said. “Matthew and Peter deserve it as Meerlust’s operations before she went to stud cost them a fortune.”
Grills hails from a distinguished racing family; her grandfather Arthur Gore and uncle Keith Swan will always be remembered as legendary trainers who could hold their own in both the country and city.
Her father Max McGrath was Swan’s foreman for many years, and her brother Ron was apprenticed to Swan and rode successfully.
Grills also was apprenticed to her uncle, becoming the first female to be licensed in the Hunter and North West Racing Association.
Women were permitted to ride against men in 1979, and she quickly got in the groove, riding a winner for “Pop” (Arthur Gore) at Inverell in August that year.
Grills rode 33 winners before calling it quits. “They were hard times,” she said. “There were fewer meetings and a lot more jockeys.”
She later joined Swan as his foreman and, a year after his death in 2003, moved from nearby Somerton to take up stables at Tamworth racecourse.
Not only was she first female apprentice in the HNWRA, but she also became the first of her sex to win the trainers’ premiership in that region in 2014-15 (46 winners) after Border Rebel was named NSW Country Horse Of The Year in 2010.
Though Meerlust is long gone from her Tamworth stable, she retains a close association with Sydney-based Matthew Irwin, who has a property near Armidale.
“Matthew is in Burning Crown, who has won six races for us, including one at The Hunter meeting at Newcastle two years ago and another at Warwick Farm last year,” Grills said.
“He and I also have an unraced Your Song three-year-old from Chic And Happy, which I trained for him.”
“His name is Small Town, and he won a trial at Tamworth on Melbourne Cup day.”
HOOFNOTE: Duais’ dam Meerlust was partnered in her Grafton debut success by Grills’ then apprentice, the gifted Tim Bell, who tragically fell to his death from a Singapore high-rise apartment balcony on November 3 six years ago.
Bell also rode Border Rebel in 12 of his 14 wins.