Rain, Hail and Winning

 

by Damian O’Donnell

I’m here again, sitting in my deck chair in the shade of a gnarly old gum tree. The twisted and tortured limbs make it look a bit crotchety. My view is across the Lake Fyans road and the Stawell racecourse to the sleepy Grampians on the horizon. I’m staring across the landscape and enjoying a cold beer contemplating the days ahead. The Easter weekend will unfold to its own lethargic rhythm as it always does at Stawell. By Monday afternoon some young bloke will have his name on the Stawell Gift winner’s list outside the Hall of Fame.

It’s hot. Unseasonably hot. The dust seems to levitate just above the ground and settles between my toes like coal on a Welsh miners face. I missed Stawell last year for the first time since Anwar Sadat was President of Egypt. A few days before Easter my appendix began to whine like an EH diff and finally blew up at two o’clock in the morning. The kids were ropable.

It’s only been an absence of one year but things have changed. My old man, who has Stawell dirt in his veins, has decided to retire from the yearly trek up the Western Highway. As he is pushing 80 who can blame him for preferring a home cooked meal and his own bed, over a long weekend of low fibre, high GI food and a shower with more papilloma virus lurking in the floor tiles than there are people on the globe.

I think, however, that he believes the Stawell Gift has lost some of its meaning; some of its soul. As the sporting world becomes more professional, the Gift, rather perversely, becomes more amateur. The intrigue, the culture and the traditions have been diluted. The beginning of the end came for him a few years back when there was talk of shifting the Gift to Ballarat. I’m not sure that those making this proposition really understood the insult this was to the old timers. The thought of it was every bit as devastating to Stawell stalwarts as the loss of Fitzroy was to football lovers, every bit as confounding as the idea that to fix a broken heart it must be removed completely. I’m sure the old professional runners felt a loss of respect, like the Gift had been commoditised, like their contribution to its illustrious past had been overridden by inane commercial interest. I know I felt that.

But here it is, still in Stawell, surviving more as a curiosity in a world of push button sporting entertainment.

Good Friday the change comes through. The rain barely touches the ground it’s so light, but the wind blows us all to Kansas. We can’t recall such a blowy start to Easter. The suggestion around the camp fire is that the Stawell Gift might be won in a time exceeding 20 seconds.

One of my brothers has brought up the old family tent which we intend using as a gathering point if the weather turns foul. It’s been sitting in the old man’s shed for the last ten years with dampness, possums, mice and spiders for company. As we unpack it the musty smell of mildew invades our senses. We feel that in our father’s absence it is right and fitting that his tent should take pride of place in the centre of the camp.

As the tent rose up from the ground we relived countless camps that were made in this monument to our childhood. We marvelled at how the old canvas battler survived cyclonic conditions in Caloundra and Palm Beach and battering rain over the years at Stawell. We recounted as kids being huddled together inside its four flapping walls eating mum’s life giving casseroles.

After 15 minutes we stood back to admire our work. The marvellous, feeble tent stood again like an aged war veteran who manages to get out of a chair one more time. Ten minutes later the roof caved in, the centre pole no longer able to hold the weight of the rot ridden heavy canvas roof. However after some good old Aussie improvisation with a car’s hub cap the centre pole was resurrected. A cheer rose up around the camp. Easter is all about resurrections.

Saturday arrived. The wind had gone. Gone where I’m not sure but it had left The Wimmera. We were greeted with a perfect day for running. We arrived at Central Park and were immediately goaded by the usual suspects of human blandness asking us not to stand in the place where we have stood since the 1980s because we were supposedly blocking their comfortable seated view. But Stawell is about tradition. And numbers. Numbers prevailed. We stayed, they left. It could also have had something to do with the fact that we stank of camp fire smoke.

The first shock of Easter came when we discovered that the bar wasn’t stocking VB. We had a choice between Boags and a Queensland beer that has no name other than a collection of Xs. Boags won. The second shock came when we saw some glorious looking girls dressed in bright red shorts and yellow shirts, who seemed to be very pleased with the QLD ale, dance a jig on the back of a large truck. It was rather confronting that these girls with French enhancements had taken the place of the time honoured, quaint Irish dancing that once occurred behind the grandstand. We felt unsettled by the suggestion of vulgarity, like we would if the CWA replaced their traditional cup of tea with a can of Jim Beam and coke.

The heats of the Stawell Gift start and the times are slow. The track looks like a Gabba wicket on the first morning. I put an asterisk against a few runners; Wiltshire, Tiu, Stubbs (the 2009 winner), S. Hargreaves, Eschebach, Coote, and Brittain. I also put a sentimental asterisk against a bloke named Greenough who carries the surname of a very good mate who recently died. One of my brothers backs him. Steffensen wins his heat but, in the words of Jack Dyer, his run is good-ordinary. We take no notice of him. He seems to be taking a lot of notice of himself.

Sunday is spent wandering between our camp and the Stawell racecourse (just across the road). We watch the Stawell Cup contenders gallop past at the top of the straight. There was conjecture during the day as to whether or not the race meeting would proceed. Apparently the jockeys were unhappy with the track. But in typical Stawell fashion the issue was resolved – eventually. I couldn’t tell you who won. I was too despondent after watching my choice for the Cup enter the straight last.

Monday morning. It’s wintery and cold. Rain flashes across from the Grampians but its travelling so fast it only sweeps across the plains without settling in. The wind gusts turn umbrellas inside out and hats tumbling along the ground like scampering rabbits. The rain and the sun seem to be in a contest as to which can prevail. We joke that we might all go home with a combination of sunburn and pneumonia. Eventually the sun is conquered and vanquished behind grey clouds.

The semis of the Gift are run and produce some raised eyebrows. Greenough runs strongly in the first and books a place in the final. Suddenly the sentimental bet made on him on Saturday has the prospect of turning into a very handy payoff. Hargreaves wins the second and Wiltshire the third. Wiltshire is an interesting runner. What he lacks in style he makes up for with tenacity. His head wobbles with effort and he leaves the blocks without the poise of a well drilled athlete, but it’s effective. He’s a fighter and fighters often win here. He’s been a favourite with the bookies most of the week-end.

Adam Coote and Paul Cracroft-Wilson win the fourth and fifth semis. Cracroft-Wilson’s run is particularly strong, but what else would you expect from a former world beach sprint champion. The conditions seem to suit his bullocking style. We mark him down as a smokie but question his one-pace ability when the pressure goes on. The last semi is full of controversy. John Steffensen breaks at the start and is sent back a metre. Then, unbelievably, Liu does the same. All of a sudden this race is wide open. But Steffensen produces a blinder. He gobbles up his opponents and hits the line like a Gift winner. He goes into outright favouritism.

In hindsight this probably helped Wilshire enormously. The spotlight had moved from him. He’s a young inexperienced bloke who probably just needed to concentrate on running his race. Steffensen, on the other hand, soaks up the favouritism with gusto. He conducted interviews with his trademark faux African-American mumbo jumbo like he was doing a C-grade impersonation of Muhammad Ali. If only he had one tenth of the talent.

Wiltshire blasted him off the track in the final. It was a superb effort. The fighter conquered the pretender. Steffensen’s performance in the final is probably the most petulant I’ve ever seen in any sporting arena, not just at Stawell. Half way down the track he loomed up on Wiltshire’s shoulder and looked every bit the winner, but Wiltshire seemed to be invigorated by the battle and lifted. Steffensen, perhaps predictably, faulted. Knowing he couldn’t win with 30 metres to go Steffensen simply eased to a jog and walked off the track. It was a disgrace. There was some conjecture that he’d felt a twinge in his hamstring but it’s hard not to be cynical. Had he been storming to victory would the hamstring have been such a bother? I think not. The belligerence was an insult to his fellow competitors and an insult to the history of the race, not to mention the fact that plenty of punters had backed him. How no suspension or penalty was issued is beyond me. I hope he never reappears.

But the story of Matthew Wiltshire is a beauty. His grandfather was a huge chance to win in 1958 but tore his hamstring in the semi final. He never got another shot at it. Stawell is often cruel that way. Fortunately his grandfather was at Central Park to watch him complete some unfinished Wiltshire business. It was a lovely moment; right in so many ways. A worthy winner greeted the crowd. Greenough’s effort to run second was very noteworthy.

Melissa Breen’s unique double achieved over the weekend at Stawell was also a ripping yarn. On Sunday she won the fashions on the field at the Stawell Cup and on Monday won the women’s Gift final. I doubt this will ever be repeated. She’s a brilliant young athlete. Put her down as one to remember.

On Tuesday morning we packed up the tents. The old family tent could go on no longer. It virtually fell apart in our hands. A tough decision was made after a council-of-the-brothers. With as much ceremony as a bunch of unshaven, un-showered, smoke smelling, bleary eyed blokes can muster we gently laid the tent to rest in the dumpster and saluted a melancholy moment.

About Damian O'Donnell

OK - which is the odd one out: Love the Cats and flannelette shirts, especially in winter. I get on extremely well with red wine. We just seem to hit it off. Love horse racing in Spring. Used to love cricket. Go to Stawell every Easter and contemplate life around the fire. Love water skiing, especially in summer. Get meaning from catching a beautiful curling wave. Love a great oil painting. Will read most things put in front of me. Thought 'The Sopranos' was the best TV show ever made - by miles. Run an accounting practice in Melbourne's suburbs.

Comments

  1. Wonderful stuff, Dips. Was there a murmur of disapproval in the crowd about Steffensen’s “effort”?

  2. The Stawell gift comes alive thanks to your story. We managed to watch part of the final day on TV and my wife and I reckon its a goer next year. Did you see any up and comers for the black book?

  3. pamela sherpa says:

    Wonderful Dips. It was great to see the history and romance of the Gift continue with Wiltshire’s win and to see the joy and excitement the win brought to his family and friends. I too thought Steffensen was pathetic by pulling up and thought the scimpily clad dancing girls out of place at Stawell. p.s Watched from the comfort of my loungeroom but enjoyed your description of the conditions up there. Bad luck about the old tent but a fitting place for it to be put to rest by the sounds. Two of my sisters and families went on the Sunday and enjoyed sitting up there in the sunshine . All had a lovely day.

  4. Apparently the Cats have a small sniff of the Boags XXX at 3/4 time when they play the Hawks Dips.

    It works every time.

  5. Is Wiltshire a diminutive runner Dips?

  6. Steve Fahey says:

    Great piece Dips.

    Agree re the XXX girls, they were there last year. I might be getting old, but they add nothing to the atmosphere, and actually detract from it.

    I couldn’t get there this year, but on TV thoroughly enjoyed the backmarkers 1600 with Olympian Jeff Riseley storming home from last at the bell to catch all but one of those ahead of him.

    Agree re Steffenson’s effort in the final. He said all the right things in his interviews both after the semi and before the final, indicating some respect for his competitors and the Gift, but didn’t display this quality when it counted most. I know he had some scans but haven’t heard that there is an injury of any note. He is a big talent, but very hard to warm to. The Wiltshire story is a beauty.

    RIP the tent !

  7. Great yarn, Dips. Beautifully expressed as always. Got a sentimental tingle reading it. I went to Stawell twice in the 70’s when I lived in Adelaide. Saw Jean-Louis Ravelomana………………………….. win off scratch.
    I commented to Mr Wrap off-line that there is a yearning in a lot of the best Almanac writing and writers for something that was lost between 1970 and 1990. Pre-Americanisation; Pre-Globalisation; Age of Innocence stuff; without being too parochial or xenophobic (I would add pre political correctness – but it is a term that defies a common understanding – so saying it offends many people – friend or foe).
    What was it about that Australia we loved, and regret losing? We often hint at some of the elements without ever really capturing it, beyond blandness or sentimentality.
    I used to think Macca was a redneck, and never listened to ABC on Sunday mornings. Now I’m a regular. What changed, him or me? Think I’ll go put ‘Cootamundra Wattle’ on and have a quiet sniff.
    Thanks again for taking me back there.

  8. Gigs – I think the crown agreed with me. There was a bid ooohhhh.
    Phanto – Wiltshire is soooooo not diminutive.
    Steve – I worry about Steffensen. When he’s in a good place he loves everything and everyone. But its easy to be gracious when it all goes your way. I have no time for him at all.
    Pamela – I hope your sisters enjoyed it,.Tell them to look us up when theu are there next year. We’re always standing on the bookies’ side of the grandstand.
    PeterB – lovely comment. If you go to Stawell next year let me know. Cheers

  9. I was at the Stawell Gift too, and saw Steffenson pull up with a painful hamstring injury. It’s a bit rough for a spectator to accuse a superb athlete of taking a dive or tossing in the towel. With 40 thousand on the line, and 30 metres to the finish line, he was closing fast on the other runners until he felt the dreaded “ping” and immediately clutched the back of his thigh and hobbled to the sidelines. Distraught and in agony, he made his way to the change room where hIs trainers immediately went to work on him. Bags of ice were summoned from the bar, where the punters were downing their xxxx, and drowning their sorrows over lost bets. Perhaps, as the back marker (giving several metres start to most of his opponents) he just tried too hard to bridge the gap, and brought about his injury. As usual the real class runners of the day didn’t even make the final. They were in the back markers race, having been handicapped out of any chance of winning the big event. It is a rare occasion when the best man wins at Stawell.

  10. Bert – interesting how two people can see the same thing so differently. I didn’t see agony and I didn’t see distraught.And his hamstring didn’t “ping” (I assume by that you mean tear) because if it did he would have grabbed at it immediately and gone up in the air like someone had shot him. At best (or worst) he felt a minor pull.

    As to your comment that the best man rarely wins at Stawell it depends on how you define “best”. At Stawell its usually the best racer over the journey, given the handicaps applied. Same priciple as the Melbourne Cup really.

    Hope you keep going to Stawell to watch the race.

  11. Its a goer- Stawell next year thanks to your post and seeing it on TV . (the Management has spoken)
    I will try and see you on the Saturday to get the lowdown on the runners (see my earlier post)

  12. David – good man. You must have put a convincing case forward to management.

    I’ve heard this morning on the radio that Steffensen did in fact sustain an injury to his hamstring. How serious I’m not sure. Does this change my view of things? Probably. It seems I was a bit harsh in calling his effort petulant. However I recall watching Williams tear his hamstring badly in winning the 2011 Gift final. He battled to the line and won – just. Maybe JS just didn’t quite want it badly enough.

  13. Peter Flynn says:

    Thanks Dips,

    Lovely piece.

    I’ll have to get there one of these days.

  14. Hey Dips, I saw Williams win in 2011 too, and his hamstring tear was just short of the finish line. He showed real guts to lunge across at the finish for a great victory. I hope you have re-evaluated your hasty and harsh call on Steffensen, in light of the subsequent medical report. Anyone who has ever had a torn hamstring would recognise the obvious signs and be aware of the totally debilitating effect of such an injury. IIt happens regularly in football. No runner could have possibly kept competing, with a ripped hamstring 30 metres out from the finish. All that would have been achieved would be a worsening of the injury. As it stands, Steffensen may have seriously damaged his chances at the London Olympics.
    To smugly and publicly denounce an athlete’s courage and character is very easy, from the comfort of the spectator’s vantage point. It happens a little too often on this site.

  15. Bertie – perhaps you didn’t read my later comment that I was a bit harsh on Steffensen. However I still maintain that he didn’t “rip” (as you so colorfully put it) his hamstring. He felt it pull and slowed up. Still not the thing to do in my humble opinion. To Steffensen (and sadly to a lot of amateur athletes) Stawell is just another training run, and is not regarded with the respect it deserves. They don’t understand the history, they don’t comprehend the concept of a handicapped race, (many innanely argue that the “best” runner doesn’t always win), and they don’t grasp the significance of the moment when they take to the track in a final. Steffensen obviously doesn’t.

    I’m also intrigued that you could assess my comment as smug. Were you standing next to me at the time?

    This site is not compulsory, Bertie. Perhaps you could find one that agrees with all your own views of the world and wallow in that place.

  16. John Harms says:

    It’s a broad church. And one that can accommodate all views, well-argued, and even ones which start from different (and conflicting) assumptions.

  17. Obviously Dips has suffered a personal injury in a sensitive nerve area, following confirmation that his accusation that John Steffensen was petulant / ” a disgrace”‘ / “hope he never reappears” was indeed just a tad “harsh”. Why is he still attacking the poor man, for his alleged viewpoints? Has Dips actually ever spoken JS to enable his psychological insights into the runner’s mind?
    Incidentally, as all competitors in the Gift are chasing the big prize money, how can some be described as “amateurs”? What is the point of the distinction being attempted? If you can’t qualify for the Olympics, then apparently you are a real runner, with the right mindset, and proper respect for tradition.
    John Harms is spot-on : debate is healthy, even when all the logic is on one side.
    I still think the notion of a handicap race is anathema to sport. It might make sense to a gambler, but it has no place in fair dinkum competition. If we were to pursue the analogy with horse racing, we might as well go the whole hog and start loading up runners with additional weights to carry. Maybe little jockeys on their backs?
    Imagine two football teams taking the field in a handicap tournament. Would you allow the Gold Coast Suns a few extra players against Collingwood? The Giants could get ten goals start, or bring their own umpire. Maybe, with gambling growing in strength in the A F L, we may yet see the day.
    The Stawell Gift is great fun, with a long and colourful history and I know that many people enjoy the bookmakers and the betting. I enjoy the carnival atmosphere, and admire the athleticism on show, but personally I don’t enjoy the fact that the “best” runner (defined, quaintly, as the fastest over the same distance) rarely wins. May the best man / woman / team win – that’s how I define the essence of sport.

  18. Bert – it seems we must agree to disagree. The notion of a handicapped race is a notion that best reflects life itself. Is life all equal and even? Do we all start and finish in the same place? No.

    I have nothing against JS personally, nothing at all. I’m not sure you grasp where I’m coming from.

  19. Life is seldom even and fair. That’s why we love sport so much. The rules codify a sense of fairness and consistency designed to produce just outcomes. The moral code of sportsmanship stresses thst we should strive to be even and fair to all, especially sportspeople who put themselves on the line every time they enter the field of contest. There’s nowhere to hide when you step into the ring, or onto the field. The punters who look on, smugly, beers in hand, and pontificate about the players’ lack of guts and determination have it very easy. True sportsmen and women rarely make cheap shots at others. That ‘s where my critique is coming from.

  20. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    While I have never attended the , Stawell gift I did call thru once on the , Easter Sunday I think it was in , 92 to have a look around and you could feel the history and culture of the event and moving , Stawell would be the same as moving , Oakbank , NO WAY
    Dips as usual you capture the spirit and emotion of a event in this case , Stawell brilliantly and , Steffensen has failed to capture the hearts of the majority of us all
    His fault ? Ours ? His mainly in my opinion . Got a good laugh out of your paragraph re the beer and xxxx girls . Fantastic read as always Dips

  21. Cheers Malcolm. Nice to hear your voice on the radio yesterday.

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