Stawell: The Gift that keeps on giving

by Damian O’Donnell

A boy, perhaps sixteen years old, works the pedals of his bicycle as he struggles with the blustery wind that is blowing across his right shoulder. It threatens on several occasions to blow him off the bitumen. The undulating road carves its way through the tough dry country of north western Victoria. This boy has a long ride ahead of him, probably 60 kilometres, but he will not be deterred because he is going to watch a Gift and this is his only way to get there. The year, I am told, is 1948.
 
I arrive at Stawell on Thursday afternoon and set up camp in the relatively deserted camping ground. Our camping spot is in the “Horse Paddock” which is situated on the far edge of the camping ground next to the stables and right opposite the entrance to the Stawell racecourse. Every morning at about 6 am we can hear the horses going through their work. It’s a very comforting sound for some reason.
 
By Good Friday afternoon the place is buzzing with tents, caravans and human activity.
 
My old man as his mate visit our camp on Friday (these days they stay in a local motel) and make themselves comfortable in our circle of friends and family which has swelled in number to about 25. This year is going to be a very vibrant affair. The camp fire tales and good cheer are helped along by a glass of red or a cold beer.
 
All these people have come to Stawell to experience, or in most cases experience again, the Stawell Gift. This is a place where the town has become the race and the race has become the town. The two are as intertwined as the moon and the tides. Our experience of the race is now as much about the friendships and the fun around the camp fire as it is about the race, but there is no denying that running of the Gift on Easter Monday is the glue that holds it all together.
 
“This is my 18th year in a row”, says a mate to the gathering.
 
“Eight years for me”, says my niece.
 
“I can’t really remember”, says one of my brother as he does the mental arithmetic, “But probably about my 35th.”
 
I listen as people reel off the years of attendance. They’ve all been hooked; grabbed by the mysteries of the place and they return year after year, missing only in the event of a birth or death in the family. My oldest brother leaned back in his deck chair later that night and took in the magnificence of the Milky Way in the sky above.
 
“Ahh”, he says, “How good is this?”
 
Hank Neil, a long time and well respected secretary of the Stawell Athletic Club, once commented that people always come back to Stawell. This seems, anecdotally at least, to be true but the problem these days seems to be getting larger numbers of people to come for a first time.
 
The Gift is unquestionably under siege on many fronts but primarily it lacks money both to run it professionally and to provide inviting prize money to attract the quality and quantity of runners it needs. But it is also at risk of becoming a victim of the ever growing sporting industry marketplace where events are economic opportunities first and foremost. No regard is given in this thought process for history or tradition. Indeed those who trumpet the virtues of history and tradition are told to “get with it”.
 
Whilst there is no question that the Stawell Gift should have regard for the economics, the tragedy is that it has been overwhelmed by the economics. Perhaps it is a victim of its own quaintness. The very things that attract people to it might also be keeping them away. It has never tried to keep up with the world which is one of its charms, but now it finds itself in a race against time and a struggle against flawed logic.
 
There are influential forces at play that are suggesting that the Stawell Gift could be moved, but whilst it has its difficulties (none of which are insurmountable or automatically resolved by relocation) and whilst it is lacking in many areas, one thing it is definitely not lacking is a home. The Stawell Gift is spiritually and physically connected to Stawell like the Vatican is to Rome. It doesn’t need a new home it simply needs to rediscover its heart and soul. Or perhaps more accurately those who exert influence need to understand its heart and soul.
 
“Who do you like?” I ask Dad’s mate as we discuss Saturday’s Gift heats.
 
Shorty (Brian Short who won the two mile at Stawell in 1959 and was personally involved in the intrigue of the W.R. Williams’ victory in the Gift in 1956) looks at me with the look of an old pro runner that tells you everything and tells you nothing.
 
“There’s a bloke who hasn’t run for six years but recently made a comeback. He’s supposed to be flying. And then there’s another bloke from Darwin, can’t remember his name, and another bloke by the name of Burbridge or Burbidge…..”
 
My own research indicates that the punters like Brittain ( a semi finalist from 2009), Matthew Hargreaves, Aaron Stubbs (last year’s winner) Jacob Groth and Dale Woodhams.
 
But the whole event almost turns to farce as times are regularly being recorded at 13 seconds or beyond (extremely slow) until it is revealed that the track has been measured incorrectly – its 3.2 metres too long. Officials with worried looks are pacing up and down the track with tape measures and mobile phones. We discover later that they hadn’t even bothered to check the distance before Saturday’s heats. It’s hard to fathom.
 
Discussions immediately commence in the crowd. Will they re-run all the heats? Will any runners have any protest claims? Can the officials find an accurate tape measure?
 
The final solution is that three runners who were deemed to have been obviously disadvantaged by the blunder will be given a start in the semi finals. Whilst the Stawell Gift and intrigue are well known to each other, this type of intrigue is not what the race needs.
 
Despite some very respectable runs from several heat winners including Groth, Asghari, Stubbs, Clark, Matthews and Woodhams, the last heat sees Tom Burbidge bolt away from a pre-race favourite in Kevin Brittain and plunge to almost unbackable status with the bookies (he started the final 18:1 on). The consensus seems to be that they may as well give him the sash now.
 
The semi finals see impressive efforts from Tiu and Woodhams, but Burbidge is still the man to beat. He runs 12.03 in his semi, two metres faster than anyone else.
 
Burbidge doesn’t succumb to the dreaded nerves that have brought many athletes undone over the Easter weekend. He cruises through his semi final and, despite being made to work a bit harder in the final, takes the Gift with a very accomplished run in 12.01.
 
The Stawell camp has reached another conclusion. Friends and family depart in different directions with a hand shack or a cuddle, but the parting comment is always the same,
 
“See you next year.”
 
I certainly hope so.
 
The boy made the long journey from Horsham to Stawell exhausted but delighted. His legs might be painful after his mammoth ride, his backside chaffed and raw, and his spine stiff and sore, but he would witness the Stawell Gift. His name was Collis Plozza and he would go on to run in the professional ranks for many years, inspired by the Gift.

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. Love a great oil painting. Will read most things put in front of me. Thought 'The Sorpranos' was the best TV show ever made - by miles. Run an accounting practice in Melbourne's suburbs.

Comments

  1. Andrew Fithall says:

    Dips – fine job again. As one who used to attend regularly but who hasn’t been to Stawell for many years, I do enjoy visualising the event… and the camping. I did read elswhere that the man responsible for the final measurement check has only ever done it once. It was okay that year so he hasn’t bothered since. For professional running, it sounded like a it was being run bunch of amateurs. Or is any publicity good publicity?

    My interest was piqued when JTH (I think) suggested that an Alamanac contingent join your camping party next year. Now that sounds like a very good idea. Perhaps we could dicuss it over lunch one Friday. Or several.

  2. Andrew – Almanackers would be most welcome to join us. I’m sure many tales would be told around the campfire in those circumstances, but I’m wandering when I would get any sleep !

  3. Top piece, Dips.

    You’ve got a great feel for the event, the region and the history.

    I love all those traditions as well.

    As the Irish say, fair play to ya!

  4. Peter Flynn says:

    Dips (and others thinking of camping at Stawell in 2011),

    Next year’s Easter Monday is April 25.

    What a plethora of sport that day!

    PF

  5. Flynnie – the Gift may well be run on the Tuesday next year as ANZAC Day falls on Easter Monday. Don’t think that’s ever happened before? Combine that with the fact that its the end of April and more likely to be cold and wet, and it could make things very interesting.

  6. Dips – Cold and wet? In Victoria? Come on! That doesn’t happen anymore!

  7. Andrew Fithall says:

    If camping and I am involved, it will at least be wet. My last three camping ventures have been Meredith 08 (wettest day for the calendar year), Golden Plains 2010 (apparently there were one or two showers – and a few hailstones – over that March long weekend) and Apollo Bay the week before Easter – it rained! The camper van I was in on each occasion has a history of drought-breaking. Although Patrick Donovan (sorry – did I drop something?)borrowed the same van and took it to Boogie over Easter and the weather was fine.

    One of the joys of camping at Stawell is that it is one of the few remaining camping places where you are still allowed a camp fire. That still seems to be the case Dips?

  8. Pamela Sherpa says:

    Great article Dips.
    The mis measuring of the track was classic- what amazed me was that no-one actually noticed it ‘looked’ long before people saw the slow times. 3 metres is a fair distance. Funny really- an incident like that adds to the charm of it all.
    Andrew F -you’d better book into a motel so that no-one else gets wet next year.

  9. johnharms says:

    What’s 3.2m in imperial terms, Dips? (Would prefer the response to be in chains, but will also take furlongs as the unit.)

  10. Dips,
    My son and I discussed the Gift. He’s been to a carnival so understands its charm and status. He also pointed out that you can win a lot more on Wipeout (a novelty TV show) by being a goose or on Deal or No Deal by selecting suitcases – perhaps a safer punting proposition too!
    Sounds like another happy visit for you and I agree that Ballarat etc would just diminish the race to another footrace. It sounds very “Granny” to suggest that sometimes things are best left alone!
    By the way, Pete Donegan is nearly reaching legend status there by now?

  11. Pamela – Its funny because before the heats we were all saying to each other that something looked different. We assumed that they had moved the finish post down a bit for some reason.

    Andrew – camper van!! What’s that? We only camp in tents.

    JTH – 3.2 metres converts to 10.4985 feet or 3.49952 yards or 0.015907 furlongs or 0.159070 chains (approximately).

    Crio – Pete Donegan is almost at legend status. He’s a class act I reckon.

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