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PROTRACK » GENERAL » Athletes chase riches in historic mile at Bendigo

Athletes chase riches in historic mile at Bendigo

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Athletes chase riches in historic mile at Bendigo International Madison

By Nathan Dole
Bendigo Adevertiser
Feb. 13, 2013,

NEXT month’s backmarkers mile at the Bendigo International Madison will carry some significant tags.

The winner’s purse of $3000 is the highest for the distance on the Victorian Athletics League circuit.

Flack Advisory has kicked in to provide $5000 for the mile (1609m) to be run on Sunday, March 10 at the Tom Flood Sports Centre.

The mile will honour the amazing feat achieved by Harry Downes when he ran 3:59.7 for the distance at the Bendigo Thousand meeting on March 10, 1963 at what was then known as the Bendigo Showgrounds, now Tom Flood Sports Centre.

Downes was the sixth Australian to beat the four-minute barrier for the mile, but the first in the world to do so at a professional athletics carnival.

The Hamilton athlete beat the four-minute mark in the mile twice and won from scratch in more than 40 races.

The Flack Advisory Backmarkers Mile on March 10 will include an extra $1000 should the winner break the four-minute mark.

Bendigo International Madison committee member Neil Macdonald said yesterday the backmarkers mile would be a major highlight on the athletics card at the athletics-cycling carnival.

“George Flack was keen to recognise the run by Harry Downes in Bendigo 50 years ago, so we are rapt he has upped his sponsorship so signficantly,” Macdonald said.

Home-track advantage has played a big part in the successful runs by Bendigo athletes in the backmarkers 1600m in recent years.

Winners of the great race on the Labor Day holiday weekend include Bendigo Harriers clubmates Brady Threlfall in 2009, and Josh Nolan in 2010 and 2012, and Bendigo University’s Andy Buchanan two years ago.

The Bendigo International Madison program includes the Black Opal 400m, the richest of its kind in Australia.

Macdonald said the finish line for all circuit races at this year’s Madison carnival would be moved 10 metres closer to the Goal Road end of the Barnard Street track.

Pale ale

Excited to see this one. Will the big bucks attract the stars? Not sure if a Bendigo runner is fit enough to hold the sash this year?


A great article on "Uncle Harry" from a few years ago.

An old pro who ran like the fastest amateur.
By Len Johnson
June 16, 2004

Harry Downes running in what he regarded as his "finest race" - for third place, in Burnie, Tasmania, in 1967.

Before the era of open athletics, professional and amateur athletes often seemed to operate in parallel worlds.

They looked the same; they ran the same distances, but it seemed to be a case of never the twain shall meet.

Harry Downes was an exception. The 41st man in the world to run under four minutes for the mile, the sixth Australian to do it, Downes ran for most of his career with a very amateur concept in mind. With each run, he wanted to run better.

When Downes began to show improvement as an athlete, it was not long before he got some typical advice from an experienced practitioner.

"I was running about 4:05-4:06 for the mile," Downes recalls, "and this old 'pro' said to me, 'You want to slow up now and get your mark back'."

"Getting a mark", a handicap from which you can win, is the main objective of just about every professional runner.

Not Downes, however. "It was the last thing I had on my mind," he says. "Four minutes was always my goal."

So, in a manner reminiscent of John Landy almost a decade earlier, Downes pursued his goal determinedly. Again like Landy, he did it mostly on his own, except where Landy had no one fast enough to be of significant help to him, Downes had too many slower runners to get around.

Even though Downes broke four minutes for the mile twice and won from scratch more than 40 times, the race he reckons was his finest was neither under four minutes, nor a win. Instead, it was his third place in 4:01 in a mile in Burnie in 1967.

"There were 45 in the race," Downes recalls. "I ran 4:01, so I got around 42 of them."

Downes cracked the four-minute barrier in 1963, in the famous Bendigo 1000 meeting. Laps of 57 seconds, 61 seconds and 59 seconds took him to the bell within sight of his long-time goal. Even going around runners in the final lap, he held on to run 62.7 seconds for a final time of 3:59.7.

The date was March 10, 1963, though it is often given as March 9. The reason says Downes, was the weather.

"We were to run on the Saturday evening," Downes recalls, "but there was a terrific rainstorm and the carnival was abandoned. So they crammed everything in to Sunday's program and we ran at about 9pm. The track was heavy."

The Bendigo Showgrounds track was also one of the best grass tracks in Australia. Big amateur and professional meetings were regularly held there. Landy ran a 4:02 mile there in 1953 - Herb Elliott ran sub-four minutes. American hurdler Jack Davis equalled the world record for the 120 yards hurdles in a pre-Melbourne Olympic Games meeting in 1956.

Only five Australians had beaten Downes to a sub-four. Landy was the first, of course, then Jim Bailey, Merv Lincoln, Elliott and Albie Thomas. Six years, and countless wins off scratch, later, Downes again broke four minutes - vindicating his class.

Englishman Alan Simpson, the fourth placegetter in the 1964 Olympic 1500 metres, subsequently turned professional and came to Australia for a series of match races against Downes. After each had beaten the other, Downes won the third race at Moorabbin decisively in 3:59.9.

Incredibly, in a carbon copy of his first sub-four, the original race was abandoned. "It was washed out on Saturday, so we ran it on a Tuesday or Wednesday the next week," Downes says.

"It was promoted as a match race, but some of the others were teed up to have a go and make sure the pace was fast."

Not long afterwards, Downes retired, holder of all the professional world records from 880 yards to two miles. He could have been an Olympian. Indeed, Merv Lincoln, who was very supportive of Downes, at one stage encouraged him to seek reinstatement.

Downes expresses no regrets. His background in the Western District pretty well pushed him into professional running and that was that. He says he was inspired by the feats of Landy, Lincoln and Elliott and would have loved to have tested himself against them.

On June 21, he will join them in a dinner marking the 50th anniversary of Landy's 3:57.9 in Turku in 1954.

Downes almost did not make it on to the list of Australian sub-four-minute milers. Like all the "pro" performances before open athletics came in the 1980s, his was not recorded at the time and thus has not been carried through on Australian lists. Fortunately, it is on international lists recording every sub-four-minute mile ever run, so Downes was invited as a guest.

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