As we inch towards the Easter Stawell Gift, thoughts of great winners come to mind.
George McNeil, Ravelo, Capobianco, Edmonson, Howard, and Ross are names that easily roll off the tongue as outstanding winners of this great race.
It is a source of constant debate – rarely will two people agree on who was the greatest winner.
Stawell Gift winners are immortalised. Even today, when commercial sporting giants like the AFL dominate sport, the winner of the Gift is lauded on news broadcasts and broadsheets.
People take notice of Stawell Gift winners, and rightly so.
It got me thinking. What about those that almost made it? The runners that were great in their own right but finished just short of the greatest prize in professional running. People like Bill Sutton, Todd Ireland and Tim Mason.
All three were super-fast, superb professional athletes, and all three tell a story of heartache in a sport that gives you very few chances.
I can’t remember Bill Sutton not being at a pro race meeting. Most runners these days know him as a race starter.
The 75 year old is a jovial sort, the type that tends to calm runners before races with a well-placed joke and an easy word.
Bill Sutton was born to run and he has been in the trenches of professional footrunning for almost 60 years.
From Mendini near Broken Hill in NSW, Bill ran in bare feet for his first 15 or 16 years. Running around a sheep and cattle station he didn’t know anything about running shoes, let alone spikes.
Back in the day, when men with money were on the lookout for anyone with speed, Bill was spotted after winning pro races at Gymkhana events in country NSW.
When asked to trial in Broken Hill against a local speedster, in bare feet and a standing start, Bill bolted in.
“I hadn’t trained at all before trialling with those guys. I ran in bare feet because I didn’t have shoes. I didn’t have a clue what Sweeny’s were or anything,’ he said.
“I ran for fun, but that day things changed for me.”
Trained by Bill Botel and Henry McIntyre, Sutton moved to Melbourne in 1961 and took to pro racing like a duck to water, and it wasn’t long before he was raising the eyebrows of the handicappers.
In 1962 and running off a handicap of Five and 3/4 yards, and under instructions from his coaches, his performances were strangely up and down. Quick heat times were followed by slower semi finals.
After an inconsistent performance in the Bendigo Gift the stewards gave Sutton’s handlers some advice in order for Sutton to keep his handicap mark.
It was advice that they didn’t heed and it irks Sutton to this day.
“There were a couple of races where I ran well in the heats but lost time in the semis and the stewards were a bit tired of that. They told my trainers to let me win a race and then wait for Stawell, and my mark will be held.”
“They didn’t want me to race everywhere, continue to do what I was doing and make them look stupid,” he said.
“Well my two trainers thought they knew better and raced me everywhere. I mean, I was 18 or 19, how could I say anything, I was just doing what I was told.”
“I was badly handled by two guys who got excited that they had a good runner,” Sutton said, the disappointment still obvious.
“The handicappers thought I had shit on them but I was just a kid doing what I was told.”
“I ended up getting to Stawell in 1962, and my mark was four and 1/4 yards. I had lost one and half yards.”
The Stawell Gift in 1962 was won by Leonard Beachley with Jeff Thomson second and Bill Sutton an agonizingly close third. Sutton’s loss was measured in inches.
“It sticks in my guts to this very day,” he said.
Sutton ended up winning 31 professional races in distances from 70 through to 400 metres. In 1963 he won both the 200 and the backmarkers 120 yards at Stawell, and some say he still holds an unofficial Australian 300 metre record, in a time somewhere south of 30 seconds.
Bill’s blistering speed saw him get a contract to play Rugby League with North Sydney before injuring himself in a trial game, and whilst having a running career others envied, it’s the Stawell Gift that haunts him, 55 years later.
Melbourne athletes Tim Mason and Todd Ireland both fell short in the same race, 28 years after Sutton.
In a Stawell final said to be one of the best ever, Dean Capobianco launched himself into athletic immortality with his win in the 1990 Gift.
Much has been said about Capobianco but very little has been written about those that lost that day.
Todd Ireland is a legend of the sport. He has made a record 14 Stawell semi-finals and three Stawell Gift finals.
His best chance was in 1990 and like Sutton, he finished third.
A member of the Stawell Gift Hall of Fame, Ireland grew up with visions of winning at Stawell. Whilst others looked to amateur success, he had a firm focus on Central Park in the small Victorian country town.
“When I saw 16 or 17, I was training with guys who wanted to win national titles. For me, nobody remembers who won national titles but everybody remembers who won the Stawell Gift”.
In 1990 after running 12.07 in his heat, the Gary Barker-trained Ireland, went into the 1990 final as equal favourite with Tim Mason.
The lightly framed Ireland faced a headwind in the final which seemed to suit the big striding, well-built Dean Capobianco.
“I was trained to the minute but it was unlucky that perhaps the conditions didn’t suit me. They probably didn’t suit Tim as well,” he recalled.
“I liked a wind blowing behind me and in the final we faced a headwind. A headwind suited a big strong runner like Capo.”
“Sometimes the running gods are with you and sometimes they aren’t. That day they weren’t with me.”
Ireland went on to win 15 or 16 professional races, with wins in classics like Bendigo, Burnie, Wangaratta and Maryborough Gifts. He also won the 200 metres at Stawell in 2011.
“Looking back, I became a better athlete because of the loss. In reality, I was beaten by a better runner although I admit it did hurt. I couldn’t watch the replay for 12 months afterwards,” he said.
Currently on the board of the Victorian Athletic League, Ireland still runs when he can, but his focus is the future of the sport and coaching a squad of young athletes, which includes his sons Jake and Darcy.
“I don’t have any real regrets; sure I wanted to win but I don’t think about it much, my main focus is on the runners I coach and maybe I can help them win a few big races.”
For the easy going Tim Mason, he remembers the money that they didn’t get after the 1990 Stawell Gift.
Trained by current Sprint Handicapper Graeme Goldsworthy, Mason strangely laughs when he recalled that close to $50,000 in winning bets went begging after running second to Capobianco.
“It wasn’t just the prizemoney that we missed but it was what we lost in the betting ring. Goldy gave me the betting slips a while ago and they are now filed away in the scrap book. I will look at them if I ever want to get depressed,” he said with a chuckle.
“Initially you are disappointed, it’s something you think about when you’re young. You train hard and it becomes your focus for a few years.”
“There’s a photo in book called Capturing the Moment by Bruce Postle. It has Capobianco crossing the line with his hands in the air. Myself and Todd Ireland look devastated. That sums it up.”
For Mason, pro athletics gave him a unique view on sport and something not many individual sports can provide.
“I enjoyed the thrill of the punt. When you and your stable think you’re a chance, it adds to the mystique of the sport. I also really loved being part of a stable, the mates and everything that comes with pro running.”
In a career that saw him make two Stawell Gift finals, he eventually won four pro races and he has fond affiliation with Bendigo.
“I made the 1994 Stawell Gift final as well, but I wasn’t really a chance. My highlights both came at Bendigo. The Bendigo Gift was my first win in the pros’ and the Bendigo 400m was a highlight because of the circumstances, and the 50 minute inquiry by the stewards after the race.”
Similar to Ireland, Mason sees his future in helping the sport. With daughter Georgia just starting out in professional athletics, he has also started work on reigniting the Parkdale Gift for season 2018 and looking to provide up and coming athletes more opportunity to race.
There have been some fantastic races at Stawell over the years and usually the winner of the gift is a memorable one.
There can only be one winner and for the others there is always next year.
For Bill Sutton, Todd Ireland and Tim Mason, there is no next year, and whilst losing on the biggest stage, unlike most of us, at least they were there.
(Note - First published on www.runnerboy22.com)