The Cokum Gift: a local sporting institution

The following is an edited excerpt from an essay written by my brother Aaron Thompson provided with his permission.

Australia is blessed with a huge number of sporting institutions.   They range from being extremely popular, watched and supported by millions of people, to small town sporting contests, only known by those who partake in them and their community.

More often than not the reputation of these little country events is spread by the country rumour mill, that is by word of mouth. One of these is the Cokum Gift, legendary in its own locale.

‘Gift’ like events were likely brought to Australia to by our British founders and were typically awarded in sports of the working class that cost little to hold and compete in. Traditionally these were organised and run by the local publican to draw people to their establishment for the purposes of drinking and gambling.

Other bar room games were played for the same reasons, but outdoor events allowed for whole communities to spectate and hence provided the publican a bigger money spinning crowd.

Usually to entice participants a cash prize was offered to the winner. Often these events could make running or pedestrianism, as it was known then, a profitable pastime.

As the popularity of such event arose so did the prizemoney of running races and people came from far and wide to compete.

These professional footraces particularly boomed in gold rush towns of NSW and Victoria where miners raced against each other in handicap races for the ‘Gift’ of a gold nugget by the mine owner. Due to this the term ‘Gift’ was given to such races and Gift racing was born.

The Cokum Gift is a more modern event but has been run every Good Friday since 1980. All of the runners are handicapped for the race. Handicapping is based on their known running ability (as most are local, with the odd ring-in), their past performances and the level of their sobriety at the time of the running.

Odds are posted for each of the runners by the bookie (usually a member of the local family who do most of the organising of the event). Anyone, even those running are allowed to bet on the result at agreed odds.

There are no set rules other than no breaking the start. The race begins with a shotgun start from an old pump platform which floats in the dam that the race is held around.

Runners must complete one circuit of the dam. The distance around the dam is approximately 220 metres.

There is a field of 12-18 runners, mostly from the surrounding district.

It is made clear to competitors on the starting line that any means of winning the race are allowed. Pushing, tripping, scragging etc. are valid methods of ensuring yourself or the runner who has your money riding on them, crosses the line first.

A common ploy is for competitors to form a gang and bet their money on one of the best runners in their group. The remaining members then do their best to help their nominated man to win, normally by impeding other runners while also stopping competitors getting to their man.

The winner of the Cokum Gift receives the gift of $100. The runner up received $50 and the second runner up around $30 depending on the kitty.

Prizemoney is raised by spectators and competitors paying money to the kitty, $2 for runners, $5 for non-runners.

Fun, community spirit, having a million beers and the punt are central to the event.

One year a former local who had joined the army, used his day off to attend. Not so odd. What was different was his entrance. The crowd was disturbed by an approaching rumbling sound. Suddenly an army tank appeared over the bank, down the inside of the bank, through the dam and out the other side, before parking on the opposite bank. Out climbed the former local ready to run the Gift.

In 2002 there was a dead heat for the race for the first time with Lalbert local Vaughan Brown claiming victory but that was not to be as it was declared the title would be halved. Although the title is one that can be a lifetime’s point of local pride it cannot outshine the event itself.

The specifics of the race location remain confidential to protect the identities of those involved (as well as the race wagering the post Gift two-up is also a feature) For those who have trouble finding it on Google – Cokum was an old Mallee school that closed down in the 50s and the dam is nearby.

Proceeds from the day are donated to the Royal Children’s Hospital and resulting hangovers may last for days.

About Troy Thompson

Grew up in the Mallee at Ultima. Played footy at R.O.C FC, University Blues, Newlyn FC, Macquarie University ARFC, Burleigh Heads and Atlanta Kookaburras. Played at West Brunswick AFC in Ammos and am a life member of that club. Writer and Editor for World Footy News website.

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