Stewart and Tonkin continue domination, win record nine races at Melton meet

It has set the scene for a pillaging of the six Vicbred pacing finals on Saturday night. The duo has 26 of the 72 confirmed finalists, across the six finals.

by Adam Hamilton

Australian harness racing has never seen such dominance.

Powerhouse Victorian duo Emma Stewart and Clayton Tonkin have long been a juggernaut in their own backyard, but they have spread their wings to other parts of Australia with increasing success over the past two years.

The icing on that cake came on Sept. 3 with what Stewart declared “our greatest night in the sport” when their star mare Encipher – the lone female in the race – upstaged the boys to win the world’s richest harness race, the $2.1 million TAB Eureka at Sydney’s Menangle track.

Just a week later and back in their domain (Victoria), Stewart and Tonkin underlined the depth of talent in their 100-strong Cardigan stables near Ballarat by having 25 per cent of the runners across 12 semi-finals of the rich Vicbred series at Melton.

The result? Yet another record night for the barn.

They won nine races, which equalled their own Australian record for wins by one stable at one race meeting, which they first did at Launceston in Tasmania in April, last year.

But this was a much bigger stage and far bigger achievement, especially when you consider another five of their runners finished second. So, 41 per cent of their starters finished top-two.

Further, Stewart and Tonkin had the first five across the line in two of the semi-finals.

It has set the scene for a pillaging of the six Vicbred pacing finals at Melton on Saturday night. They have 36 per cent of the finalists, or 26 of the 72 confirmed runners, across the six pacing finals.

In the 4-year-old mares’ final, Stewart and Tonkin have eight of the 12 starters. It’s similar in the 2-year-old colts and geldings final with seven of the 12 runners.

But that’s nothing new for the stable. In 2018 and ’19 they won five of the six pacing finals and the three years since they’ve won three finals each year.

And that dominance could be even stronger had a quirk of the racing calendar not ruled out Encipher and star 3-year-old The Lost Storm from not contesting the Vicbred series. That’s because the heats clashed with their TAB Eureka campaigns.

It hardly seems fair they were “punished” for flying the flag for Victoria against Australia’s best.

Of all their stars on display in the Vicbred finals, the biggest is mighty New Zealand-owned mare Amore Vita, who many think is on par with Encipher.

The 4-year-old daughter of Art Major was sublime sitting parked and arrogantly beating some quality rivals with closing splits of :53.5 and :26.2 over 2,240m.

It will be a major shock if Amore Vita doesn’t win the final and take her record to 18 wins from just 35 starts.

Stand-in driver David Moran, who took the reins for the first time with Chris Alford away driving Aldebaran Zeus at Yonkers, was suitably impressed.

“Oh, she’s every bit as good as they told me,” he said. “That was a fantastic win. She’s so strong and fast, I see no reason she wouldn’t measure up against the boys in big races later on.”

Later could be as early as next month in Victoria’s second biggest race, the Group 1 Victoria Cup at Melton on Oct. 14.

Already Stewart has hinted at Encipher taking on the boys again in the Victoria Cup after her TAB Eureka triumph.

“We’ll have a talk with [owner] Tyson [Linke], but I think she deserved her shot at those races [against the boys],” Stewart said.

The normally measured Stewart showed rare emotion after Encipher’s blazing Eureka win and was still buzzing a week later.

She even had “Encipher” tattooed across the side of hand to mark the occasion.

“It’s the best night we’ve ever had. It was absolutely amazing,” she said. “The crowd and atmosphere was like nothing I’ve seen in harness racing here (Australia) before. [The organizers] did it so well.”

There’s no doubt doing it away from “home” made it extra special for Stewart and Tonkin.

For so long their incredible Victorian success and a reluctance to travel had some calling them “flat track bullies.”

“I laughed when I read that. I think we’ve turned that around,” Stewart said.

A look at their major interstate success over the past 16 months certainly backs that up.

Let’s go back to July, last year. Their champion mare Ladies In Red beat the boys in the Group 1 Rising Sun at Brisbane’s Albion Park. Soho Historia also won the Group 1 Queensland Oaks during that carnival.

Earlier this year, Stewart and Tonkin qualified three of the eight runners for Australasia’s premier speed test, the $1 million Miracle Mile. On the way to it in NSW, Mach Dan won his successive Newcastle Mile and Honolua Bay won a feature lead-up sprint.

Then back to Queensland and in July, Amore Vita won the Group 1 Golden Girl at Albion Park and The Lost Storm thrashed his rivals in the Group 1 Queensland Derby.

Then came Encipher’s TAB Eureka win where Stewart and Tonkin were the only stable to have two runners, with The Lost Storm also flying their flag.

So, a stable once revered for his success with 2- and 3-year-olds and largely in its home state, has now spread its wings to other parts of Australia and is making a serious impact in what’s traditionally been the toughest domain Down Under, the open-aged feature races.

Last December, they had four of the 12 runners in the Inter Dominion final, albeit they had to settle for third as their best finish with Act Now.

Two months later, Honolua Bay won them the famed Group 1 Hunter Cup at Melton.

All those races are rolling around again, and Stewart and Tonkin have the arsenal to be even more influential players.

Ladies In Red, one of the greatest mares Australia has ever seen, is close to a return from injury, while Honolua Bay is also over a smaller setback and ready to step out publicly again.

Then there are proven Group 1 performers like Act Now, Mach Dan and Hurricane Harley ticking away, too.

And, of course, Encipher and Amore Vita if they so choose to throw them in against the boys.

They will be massive players in races like the Victoria Cup (Oct. 14), Brisbane Inter Dominion (final on Dec. 16), Hunter Cup (Feb. 3) and Miracle Mile (March 3).

But, for now, they are just focused on doing what built their greatness, dominating in their own patch and winning the bulk of Saturday night’s Vicbred finals at Melton.