Stawell Gift: The Call of Stawell

by Rod Oaten

As it turned out I was very happy I didn’t go to the Fish Bowl behind Spencer Street  railway station for the Don’s game against a team called Fremantle. I even had a free ticket but  no one in their right mind would want to see a game against  a corporate team that plays in purple and red and green and white.   Luckily the  call of Stawell and visiting friends and seeing the Stawell Gift was too strong so on the Sunday we headed off with the radio on ABC.  Big mistake, they broadcast some game in Sydney followed up by Richmond v Footscray, I had to put up with crosses to the Don’s game and in the last quarter I completely lost interest, luckily Stawell was close and a few cleansing ales at our friends eased the pain.

As a kid I was fascinated by professional running, the thought of “stables” perplexed me  and the handicap system seemed very odd.  One of my  earliest  memories was in 1952 when two Essendon footballers came first and second, they were Lance Mann a very speedy winger and one of my favourites of all time, Norm McDonald. I used to live near Caulfield Park and would see these runners doing what turned out to be time trials in the semi dark on one of the ovals, there seemed to be secrecy surrounding their activities, who knows I may have unwittingly  watched a winner of the future on those evenings.

Much later a few of us hatched a plan for one of our football mates who was like lightening over 100 yards to run “dead” for 18 months and then make us rich at Stawell. Every thing seemed to be going to plan until we put the idea to him ,and he told us what we could to with our plan!!!!!!!!!

Monday morning was a sparkling day at Stawell, so it was on the bike for a pleasant 10k ride to Central Park. I arrived just as the first race was taking place, the tracks all roped down each lane and by this time they had the distances correct. Lots of athletes stretching and sprinting up the back straight, lots of Stawell Athletic Club officials resplendent in the burgundy blazers and white hats and a pretty fair crowd for that time of day, a great setting for probably the most famous professional  footrace in Australia, maybe the world!!!!!  A bit later I called in to see the Stawell Gift Hall of Fame. Lots of great photos of all the previous winners , press clippings, old blazers, footwear, trophies etc a half an hour well spent.

But back to the track and one of the great moments was when an aged who had been trying for a sash for 26 years , Stephen Baird by name ,won the  Necropolis Florist and Cafe, Hank Neil Sportsmans Veteran’s Handicap over 100 metres. This aged veteran was absolutely over the moon with his win. I as a bit worried about the sponsers commercial interests but who am I to make a comment.   The six heats of the gift started at right on 12.10 and it was apparent that after the sixth heat Tom Burbridge was a “shoe in” I went for a wander to the betting ring and he was a very short price favourite, although I did hear a few whisperings about other runners doing great time trails. There were other great races such as the Strickland Family Womens Gift that was won by a young women in a very close finish and she was rapt.  A bit of controversy when two runners hit the tape for one of the other races and the second placed protested without success.

Right on the dot at 1.44 the Gift was run to a hushed crowd and it was a bit of an anti climax really, Burbridge was too good. Little did we know all the medical problems he had faced over the last 12 months, even a few weeks ago he was not a certainty to start with severe back pain. The Stewards weren’t entirely convinced and fined him $5,000 for inconsistent running, as if that could really happen in pro running!!!

There were another eight races of varying distances after the gift,  the most complex the Town Hall Hotel Grampians Handicap of 3,200 metres. Fair dinkum there were runners spread all around the track, how on earth the stewards kept tally was beyond me, and how must the backmarkers felt?  None the less at the completion of the day, the crowd were in good spirit , the officials still looked proud, and all the competitors looked  a tad tired.

A great day and I’m looking forward to the 130th Stawell Gift next Easter Monday, 2011.


  1. Rod – it was another very enjoyable weekend at Stawell. Burbidge never looked like losing. The nonsense of mis-measuring the track was actually a bit sad, but the Gift final always puts a nice touch on the whole affair.

    Hope you go back again next year.

  2. Jonathan says

    Rod, can you let us know how Freo is a ‘corporate’ team and the Dons aren’t? Just because we joined your competition doesn’t mean we aren’t a legitimate football club.

    Liked the Stawell Gift references though.

  3. Pamela Sherpa says

    Rod,I think it’s a bit sad that football and athletics don’t connect and co-ordinate with each other like they used to.

    As for Essendon – if they don’t smarten up they could lose 5 in a row as we go to Perth then have Anzac Day. I’m coming down for the game sat night so I hope they snap into action.

  4. Jonathan, I can’t remember a team called Fremantle, I do know of a South Fremantle and i think there was another with a geographic reference, but anyway it’s all fun on the Almanac. Thanks for the Stawell note. Rod

  5. Probably a good thing you didn’t go the footy Rod. The Bombers were admirable, but during the last quarter I recall asking my PA to make a note that it was like watching a corner shop take on Coles.

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