CD racing farewells two respected stalwarts

By Dennis Ryan

13 Apr 2022

CD racing farewells two respected stalwartsMerv Andrews (secnd right) with his 2016 New Zealand Oaks winner Sentimental Miss

Central Districts racing has lost two of its most respected stalwarts with the recent passing of Merv Andrews and Stewart McGrail.
Andrews, best remembered as an astute trainer based at Bulls in north Manawatu, also made his mark as a jockey on the flat and over jumps, while McGrail’s wide contribution included journalism, handicapping, judging and administration.
Merv Andrews rode 101 winners before increasing weight pushed him towards training, but that century in the saddle set him apart. In the first year of his apprenticeship with Chris Waller forbear Jim Waller, he won the 1943 New Zealand Cup on Classform at age 15.
More than 20 years later he was to also claim the New Zealand Cup as a trainer with 1964 victor Alaska, one of 541 wins in that role. On top of that dual licence double, the Andrews list of unique achievements was headed by something far more momentous.
Seven years after his New Zealand Cup win on Classform, Andrews added the 1950 Grand National Hurdles-Steeplechase double on Gay Fellow and Dawn March. To this day he stands alone as the only jockey to win all three of Riccarton’s marquee races.
He had made a natural progression from flat to jumps riding, having won on his first ride over hurdles and his second over the bigger fences, and at the afore-mentioned 1950 Grand National carnival winning on all but one of his six mounts. He ended the 1950-51 season as the country’s champion jumps jockey.
After taking out his trainer’s licence in 1952, Andrews was initially based at Awapuni before relocating in 1966 to the Rangitikei Racing Club’s racecourse at Bulls, where he was also the track manager. From there he prepared a number of quality performers, including 1970 Grand National Hurdle winner Sabaean Summer, 1972 Avondale Gold Cup winner Beatnik, who he part-owned, and Classic Bay, a stakes winner on both sides of the Tasman whose 1988 Geelong Cup win secured a start in the Melbourne Cup.
The last feature winner Andrews trained was the hardy 1990s mare Gaytrice, whose 12 wins from three to seven years included two editions each of the Manawatu Breeders’ Stakes and Wairarapa Breeders’ Stakes. In a career that entailed 71 starts and close to $200,000 in stakes, Gaytrice was also placed second or third 24 times, with her minor placings including the Gr. 1 Waikato International Stakes and New Zealand Stakes.
Andrews retired in 1995 but maintained a close interest in racing, as a life member of the Manawatu, Rangitikei and Feilding clubs as well as an ownership interest in a number of horses. A highlight as a member of a Go Racing syndicate was the 2016 New Zealand Oaks win by the Lisa Latta-trained Sentimental Miss.
Andrews was just two weeks short of his 94th birthday when he died, and he has since been fondly remembered by family and friends. “With COVID restrictions at the time, a lot of people were unable to attend Dad’s funeral, but we’ve had a huge number of cards and messages,” said his daughter Donna Jury. “So many of them wrote about what a gentleman, a decent man, he was, which means so much to know that’s how other people saw him.”
Former Bulls colleague David Wilson speaks of Andrews in similar vein. “Merv was mild-mannered and so caring about his horses. He would make no excuses whenever one of them was beaten in a race, unless it was something obvious. He was just a good man.”
Stu McGrail, who passed away last weekend, is similarly well-remembered for his ability to mix with people at all levels, apply himself diligently to whatever task at hand and do so with good humour.
Having grown up in the Wanganui district, he led a varied life, from his early days working in local wool stores or on the Castlecliff wharf, before becoming involved in publishing. That was originally as a linotype operator before getting a break as a racing journalist. From the Wanganui Chronicle, he moved to the Hawke’s Bay Herald Tribune and in time combined journalism duties with the role of handicapper for the Hawke’s Bay, Waipukurau, Poverty Bay and Wairoa Clubs.
That morphed into judging duties, when McGrail’s gravelly voice became a familiar sound for racegoers across the region. During that time – and before the internet made data more accessible – he also published the New Zealand Form Record, a weekly subscriber service mailed to clients throughout the country. In the late 1980s he moved to the Hong Kong offshore enclave of Macau as handicapper before returning to New Zealand and the beginning of more than a decade as secretary and general go-to at the Woodville-Pahiatua Racing Club.
When he finally put his binoculars, stopwatch, typewriter and microphone to the side, McGrail and his wife Shirley indulged their love for lawn bowls. Frequent trips to tournaments around the country also enabled him to catch up with his many friends in the racing game.
His final years were spent in the warmer climes of Bundaberg, Queensland, where his son Gregory lived, and where last Saturday evening he passed away at the age of 85.
“Dad had health issues and last week he knew his time was up,” his Feilding-based son Kelvin told RaceForm. “One of the last things he did was watch the Sydney Cup, which was quite an omen.
“He was very accepting of his situation and as he had said on a number of occasions ‘I can’t complain; I’ve had a good innings’.”