Wangaratta Gift – Bombers history

Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that the Essendon football club have taken a battering of late.

With positive headlines slim pickings, a little known fact might just put smile on the frowning faces of bombers fans.

Whilst not going to make the sports pages of our major papers, what is interesting, is the fact that the Essendon Football Club has a unique relationship with the prestigious professional footrace, the Wangaratta Gift, being held this weekend.

First run in 1920 and considered in the top bracket of pro race meetings in Victoria, the “Wang” gift has long been a target of VFL footballers looking to keep fit and earn “a quid” in the off season. It just so happens that this “gift” has proved to be a happy hunting ground for Essendon footballers over the years.

Two time premiership player and winner of the 1951 Crichton medal, Norm McDonald, was the first Essendon footballer to win the race. At the height of his football career he took out the Wangaratta Gift in 1949.

Lance Mann, who played 77 games for the Bombers between 1951 and 1959, got over the line at “Wang” in 1952. In an interesting side note, he also won the Bendigo and Stawell Gifts in the same year. Further to that and in a quirky twist of fate, he beat Essendon compatriot Norm McDonald in the 1952 Stawell Gift.

Former winger Gary Parkes was another Windy Hill native to carry on the tradition when he won the 1978 edition.

After playing 96 games with the Bombers and seven games with Richmond, Parkes remembers the Wangaratta carnival fondly.

“It was one of the three or four gifts everyone wanted to win and I was lucky enough to win it. It is a great town Wang and I had a lot of fun”, he said.

For the small country Victorian town, “the gift” was a highlight of the year with sporting festivities strewn across three days with not only the running but bike racing, wood chopping and even a rodeo featuring.

Arguably Australia’s greatest ever cyclist, Syd Patterson, graced the bike track regularly and world champion woodchopper David Foster made regular appearances. For the town it was a special event.

“It was a carnival under lights and it was an amazing atmosphere. 15,000 people came to watch in the evening. The bikes and woodchop were great. They turned the lights off, except the ones on the track and it was just terrific”, Parkes remembers.

“As far as winning, for me it was about prestige. Sure the money was nice but I was just glad to win because I had spent a long time trying to win a decent race”.

A sign of the times, Marlboro cigarettes was a major sponsor in 1978 with Parkes taking homes cash and cartons of cigarettes as part of his winnings.

With time comes change, and the 2016 version of the Wangaratta Gift is somewhat different to its earlier edition.

VFL or AFL Players, now fully professional, are forbidden to take part in extracurricular activities in the off season. In addition the three day extravaganza has been replaced by a one day event with no rodeo in sight.

Whilst change is inevitable the “Wang” Gift itself remains a time honoured tradition that holds prestige among professional athletes around Australia.

With $3500 prizemoney on offer this year, the competition will be hot.

Backmarker and one of the pre-race favourites, will be Jamaican Khan Marr off a handicap mark of 3.25m.

The former training partner of Asafa Powell and a rumoured bobsledder, Marr looks to be hitting top form at the right time.

He won’t have it all his own way though, with challenges coming from the likes of Lawrence Coop off the mark of 12.5 metres, Albury runner David Flood and the winner of the Rye Gift Noddy Angelakos hot on his heels.

Whilst having been part of the Victorian sporting landscape since 1920 and closing in on its centenary, the Wangaratta Gift has history on its side but with no Essendon footballers in sight, maybe it’s up to its fans to continue the tradition and you never know, maybe this year’s winner could be a Bombers supporter.

About David Griffin

Lover of coffee, sport and human endeavour. A writer and life enthusiast with a shameless admiration for dogged persistent people that get 'stuff' done.


  1. G’day David, a quick Q? Was Norm McDonald the first indigenous player for Essendon ? To my knowledge of this period prior to me being born, there weren’t too many indigenous players in the VFL ranks.

    You mention Marlboro being a sponsor, with cartons of cigarettes going to the winner makes me think of the current Australian tennis open. wondering if William Hill will present a similar prize to the victors. You know, a 12 month phone account worth $50K. It would follow a grand tradition.


  2. Glen, according to Bombers website, Norm was the first aboriginal player at Essendon with Michael Long the next indigenous player recruited 40 years later.
    ” He was the club’s best first year player, was on the half-back flank in the 1949 and 1950 premiership teams and won the club’s best and fairest award in 1951, no mean feat in a team that included Team of the Century greats Bill Hutchison, John Coleman and Harold Lambert.” Essendon FC Website

  3. G’day Glen,

    Thanks for your comment.

    Thanks to daveP for the answer.

    I like the William Hill Idea. although based on what I am hearing, a lot of the players already have a William Hill account? Gulp!!!!

    If I remember correctly….. I am sure Marlboro sponsored the tennis many years ago. The Marlboro Australian Open rings a bell?

    Great to hear from you.


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