by Adam Hamilton
Don’t mention the “R” word to champion driver Chris Lewis.
The icon of Aussie harness racing and the third winningest driver in the southern hemisphere is in the twilight of his 52-year career, but has no plans of retirement.
Lewis, 67, has just topped 5,850 career wins, which puts him behind only Victorian champion Chris Alford (7,734 wins) and the late, great Gavin Lang (6,303).
In his home state of Western Australia, Lewis is almost 1,400 clear of his nearest rival – 40-year-old champ Gary Hall Jr.
“I love the competition and I love winning. I still enjoy it all, the ups and downs,” Lewis said.
“I’m always seeing talented younger drivers coming through, but I don’t feel pressure. I’m still learning, by that I mean I still have to change the way I do things and get better. You can never rest on your laurels.
“The main difference now is the amount of homework you need to do. I think that’s mainly due to the difference between the best horses and the next best getting so much closer these days. There’s not much between them, so knowing your rivals – horses and drivers – can be the difference.”
That talks to something Lewis is acutely aware of at his age – the importance of his ability to make snap decisions.
“I think our racing (at Gloucester Park) is the most competitive and tightest in Australia. And that means you have a milli-second to be on the ball, make a decision and get out of a situation,” Lewis said.
“If I lose that split-second, almost instinctive decision-making, then I’d have to consider why I’m still driving. Hopefully I’ll have retired before that.
“Our racing has an element of ‘catch and kill’ your own, there are no favors given and you have to be on the ball. It’s because there is such an advantage to be up-front at Gloucester Park and it’s only a half-mile track with no sprint (passing) lane.”
While half-mile tracks are considered tiny these days, Lewis recalls driving at the now defunct Wayville track in his then home state of South Australia. It was only 513m in circumference. Think about that – not much bigger than a quarter-mile.
“It’s crazy thinking back to that, just as, in time, it’ll be crazy to think we used to race on half-mile tracks when you consider how much faster our horses are getting all the time,” he said.
It was back in those South Australian days when Lewis, the son of a very successful trainer, put his name up in lights for the first time courtesy of a brilliant front-running drive on $100 outsider Carclew to win Down Under’s biggest race, the Inter Dominion. He beat the then almost invincible champ, Pure Steel.
It was Lewis’ first taste of the Inter Dominion and, at just 21 years of age, he became the youngest driver in Inter Dominion history to win the final. He’s since driven in another 12 finals, won 14 qualifying heats and won another final on the defining horse of his career, the great Village Kid.
“Carclew winning was up with the greatest moments of my career for all the obvious reasons, especially given nobody expected it,” he said. “It’s something I’ll never forget and never thought I’d top… but then along came Village Kid.”
Village Kid is one of Down Under’s absolute, all-time greats. He won three of his nine starts in New Zealand before being sold and moving to butcher-come-hobby trainer, Bill Horn, in WA.
The gelding raced and won until he was 13, finishing his remarkable career with 160 starts for 93 wins, 37 placings and earnings of $2,117,870. That would equate to close to $10 million in today’s terms.
Lewis drove Village Kid to 88 of his 90 Australian wins.
“Think about this… the last time he went to the track he set a world record for 13-year-old when he time-trialled in 1:55.1 and that was over 30 years ago,” Lewis said.
“That me be the most special moment of all because of the ride the horse, myself, Bill Horn and the public had been on with Village Kid. It was a night they held as a fundraiser for sick kids and Village Kid was the star of the show, as usual.
“He’s been the standout horse of my career, without doubt. More than being a champion, he just had the most remarkable will-to-win, right through until the end. And, at his prime, he was probably the fastest beginner I’ve not only ever driven, but seen.
“And to share the whole amazing time with Bill (Horn) and his wife Norma, who was also such a big part of it, was extra special. We had a lot of faith and trust in each other over the decade he raced and to keep him going like they did was a huge credit to Bill and Norma.”
After all that, it seems so secondary to ask Lewis who the other best he’s driven are.
“Saab, Talladega, Hilarion Star and Jack Mac, who is a young horse I drove a couple of years back before he got injured. He was right up with the best and he’s back in training, so hopefully we might see him back (at the races),” he said.
But there is another horse who is inspiring Lewis in the twilight of his stellar career.
The Ray Jones-trained 4-year-old Lavra Joe boasts 24 wins from his 40 starts and Lewis has been aboard for 21 of them. The most recent at Gloucester Park last Friday night (August 26).
“He’s got the potential to be up with the best I’ve driven,” he said. “It’s early days, but on his times, he is right up there.
“I’ve driven some nice horses and he gives you the feel of a really good horse.”
Lavra Joe was an outstanding juvenile, missed a year through injury, but is making up for lost time with an encouraging transition into free-for-all (open pace) racing.
And the timing is good with the biggest races in his home state – the $A300,000 Fremantle Cup and $A450,000 WA Pacing Cup – only months away.
“The way he’s come back and if he keeps building, I’m sure he’ll be very competitive against the best in those races,” Lewis said.
Lewis has five WA Pacing Cups – three of them on Village Kid (1986, ’88 and ’89) – but his last win was back in 1999 on Saab.
Could Lavra Joe be the horse to do it for him again?
CHAMPION HARNESS TRAINER EMMA STEWART SCORES 100TH GROUP 1 WIN
Trainer Emma Stewart smashed through another massive milestone with her 100th Group 1 training success at Menangle on Saturday (Aug. 27).
Fittingly, the master trainer of young horses did with exciting 2-year-old First Responder in the $175,000 Nutrien colts and geldings final.
“It’s a big thrill, but it sort of snuck up on us to be honest,” Stewart said. “We’ve got some great owners and have been lucky enough to train some terrific horses along the way.”
Stewart speaks in plural because although she trains in her name, it is very much a partnership between her and partner Clayton Tonkin.
As they have done so often, Stewart and Tonkin held all the aces going into last night’s feature with the first three favourites. They finished first, third (Major Celebrity) and fourth (Petracca).
“We think all three are very serious young horses. We thought there was nothing between them going into the race and that’s how it panned out, First Responder got the best run and won. He really sprinted quickly when the run came,” Stewart said.
In a frightening warning for rival trainers, Stewart warned there could be an even better two-year-old back in their Ballarat stable.
“I think The Lost Storm is the best of the lot,” she said. “He’s only had one start and won easily. He’ll be back for the Home Grown series in October and then the Breeders Crown and Vicbred.”
Last night’s milestone moment could be the start of a monstrous finish to the year for Stewart and Tonkin.
They are about to really flex their muscle with a plethora of stable stars ready to race again.
Their major Victoria Cup and Inter Dominion hopefuls Honolua Bay and Like a Wildfire will run next Saturday or the week after.
Then they’ve got mighty mares like Ladies In Red, Tough Tilly, Joanna and Treachery bubbling away in preparation for the huge Victorian Mares’ Triple Crown, starting with the Group 3 Make Mine Cullen at Melton on October 8.
“Ladies In Red is ticking along well. We’re being selective where and when we race here because of the number of big races ahead for her in the next few months,” Stewart said.
But wait, there’s more.
“We’ve also picked-up a 3-year-old we think can give the Victoria Derby a really big shake,” Stewart said. “Captain Ravishing is his name. We think he’s outstanding and we’re so lucky to have him come to us. He’s ready to go any day we can find the right race for him now.”
Captain Ravishing has raced just five times for two wins and a second (in a heat of the NSW Derby). He hasn’t raced since finishing 10th in that Derby final back on March 5.
Waiting for Captain Ravishing at Derby time will be Andy and Kate Gath’s stunning young pacer Catch A Wave, who returned to winning form by a big space at Melton last night.
Racing in block blinker for the first time to help him concentrate, Catch A Wave settled well, looked a more complete racehorse and roared away to win by 16m without being extended.