Stawell and the Cats

It’s been on my bucket list and now I have ticked of another great event – the Stawell Easter Gift.

Don’t know why I have never been. It has been part of my ABC listening since Arthur Martin won in 1947.  I guess footy has always taken precedence.  Though mind you the performance of VFL  footballers at the Gift from the forties through to the eighties was always highlighted during the event.  Lance Mann (Essendon) 1952, Treva McGregor (Fitzroy) 1971 both won while others were hot favourites but did not bring home the bacon.  Another Essendon great Norm McDonald was expected to win one year but didn’t.

W.P.Twomey who won in 1924 was the father of the famous magpie brothers Bill, Pat, Mick.  W.P. (why do they always address pro runners with their initials?)  was no slouch as a footballer having played 54 games with the Pies before retiring to concentrate on his professional running career. Came back 8 years later and played 10 games with the Hawks.  The three boys between them played 401 games with Carringbush.

Easter Monday now comely referred to as “Hawthorn v Geelong Day” saw me driving to Stawell from Mildura. Going via Rupanyup, Minyip,  et al reminded me of the glory days of the Wimmera Football League.  That was the powerhouse league for supplying players to the VFL and vice versa as players went there to earn a “quid” more than they were getting in the VFL.  Sadly many of those towns are virtually ghost towns and I was shocked to see the dilapidated state of the towns.  Is progress worth it?  Young people now leave the country for good and so the footy and netball decline as well.  One wonders how long the great game will last in places like the Wimmera.

Going to the Stawell Gift is like going back in time.  In fact this was the 132nd running of the most famous professional foot race in the world.  The grass track, the ropes between the lanes, the beautiful old grandstands and the Hall of Fame all hark back to gold rush days.  To complement the “old” was the “new”. Huge TV screen, loud music but most of all the “new food”.  There was even a page in the souvenir program dedicated to the variety of food that was being offered.  If one was interested in food only you could have a marvellous day there.

Caught up with an old-timer John McLaren who has been coming to the event for 60 years from Tasmania.  One hand John “stupidly lost my right hand playing with explosives” was a talented cricketer and footballer before the accident but continued with his running career. Why does he keep coming back?  “I have met the most marvellous people here” he said as another old friend greeted him. McLaren clocks every race so that he can get an indicator of who is “performing “ on the day. When I asked him who was the best runner he had ever seen his quick reply was “they don’t run any faster today”.  He still trains runners in Tassie.

Stawell has always been a showcase for drama  and this year was no exception. The favourite broke in the final was penalised a yard and missed out by inches in taking out the final. Tasmanian Andrew Robinson from Launceston took out the final and as usual the camp went home with their pockets loaded with dad getting odds of 81/1 at the calling of the card on Good Friday.

The star attraction Asafa Powell from Jamaica withdrew earlier in the day with hamstring sawness.  Sat with his trainer and manager who were astounded at the crowd who turned up to a little country town for a foot race. Fellow Jamaican Khan Marr did not let his country down as he took out the backmarkers event in fine style.  Marr is looking for Australian citizenship so we could have Olympic gold at the next Olympics.

Left the event feeling elated that I had finally witnessed one of the great Australian sporting icons.

For once the AFL had thought of the public and had put the Hawks v Cats match back to after the Gift.  Well I hope they thought that way.

Driving the four hours to home went quickly as again I tuned in to the radio to get the complete word picture of yet another great game between these two goliaths of the game.  Time just passed me by as first it was the exciting new Hawk Bradley Hill who dominated the first half and then the whole Geelong team who came back after the big interval to take control.  Captain Sellwood received rave notices from all commentators.  His ability to lift the team is amazing and sometimes he doesn’t even have to have the ball in his hands.

The special comments men Josh Fraser and Mark McClure know their footy.  Kept repeating once Geelong got a run on of goals that Hawthorn would crack but then fight back.  How true it was and how wonderful to hear commentators taking on the game instead of themselves.  It was great being in the car and creating my own picture of the ebb and flow of the game.  Thank you Gerard, Drew and co.

Got pulled over in Hopetown by a female traffic police who wanted to have a chat.  Not many people on the road as I told her they would all be watching the epic game.

As a cat I told her not to worry they would get home on the ability of the old hands plus some exciting new boys like Bilvacs, Smedts,Murdoch with only a handful of games between them.

The Hawks came back as expected but the cats hung on.  Can’t wait for their next encounter just  like the Stawell Gift.  Must add to my bucket list again.

About Bob Utber

At 80 years of age Citrus Bob is doing what he wanted to do as a 14 year-old living on the farm at Lang Lang. Talking, writing, watching sport. Now into his third book on sports history he lives in Mildura with his very considerate wife (Jenny ) and a groodle named "Chloe On Flinders". How good is that.


  1. Bob – glad to hear you enjoyed Stawell. Seems I was surrounded by Almanackers this year and never knew. It really is a special race.

    If you get back there make sure you look me up. My 5 brothers and I always stand on the grassy knoll next to the old grandstand. We’re easy to find; we smell like camp fire smoke.

    A fascinating race again this year.

  2. The heading of Bob’s article could just about be your epitaph, Dips.

  3. Cookie – very profound. It is becoming a beautiful Stawell tradition – watch the final of the Gift, wander back to the camp site, crack a can, and listen to a ripper Hawks v Cats battle on the radio.

  4. Bob Utber says

    Methinks we should have a hospitality tent next year at Stawell for nostalgic sports historians plus Chris Bracher. Have already got six O’donnells if I can extricate them from the grassy knoll aka L.H.OSWALD STAND.
    Any thoughts fellow afficienados?
    R.J.Utber (scr)

  5. Bob – the solution is simple. The grassy knoll becomes Knacker Corner. We have a location close to the three critical elements of Stawell – the finish gate, the bar, and the bookies.

  6. That should read R.J. Utber (Mildura) – scratch

  7. Andrew Fithall says

    As a former Stawellwart (mid ’70s to mid ’80s) I reckon that is a great idea Bob.

    A.N. Fithall (19.5)

  8. Bob Utber says

    With interest mounting I will start on it straight away.
    However I believe that we will need some one to do the handicapping.
    P.J.Flynn (Geelong) – .05 has been suggested. Does anyone know his track record?

  9. This year was my 4th Stawell Gift, a wonderful sporting event to attend. I visited the Hall of Fame late in the day and saw your name in the sign in book Bob, glad you enjoyed your day. See you all in the Knacker Corner next year!

  10. Andrew Fithall says

    Given that P.J. Flynn (Geelong) has never held a driver’s licence, I think .05 is a bit under.

  11. Of course you’re all welcome back at the camp for a post race convivial. BYO chair and beer. We camp in the horse paddock looking across to the Stawell race course.

    Since birth I’ve missed 5 Gifts (I believe). Two because I was a baby, two because my wife was having babies, and one because my appendix exploded at a very inconvenient time. So next year is my 45th anniversary!

  12. Chris Bracher says

    C.G.Bracher (Emerald) is a probable starter for 2014, subject to the Grassy knoll handicapper being generous to the youngest chap in the knacker field!!

  13. Chris Bracher says

    Bob that’s a great piece. The Wimmera League connection was completed through Minister Delahunty ( Murtoa) being amongst the VIP s.
    I wonder how Big John Sudholz ( Rupanyup and South Melbourne) might have fared at Stawell??!!

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