The News – 23rd December 1950
HAS-BEEN RUNNER STAGGERED HIMSELF
Just nine years ago, a 30-year-old athletic "has-been" who had turned trainer, staggered himself and other finalists by winning his second Bay Sheffield. The winner was Len Sullivan. His victory was "the most colossal fluke in the history of the race." And they're Len Sullivan's own words.
IN the 63 years of the race, Len Sullivan is the sixth man to win the 130 yards Bay race twice. His first win was in 1933. (The others are G. H. Clarkson, 1890 and 1891; Dave Smith, 1902 and 1903; George MacNamara, 1904 and 1909; Alby Fooks, 1910 and 1915; Fred Ralph, 1930 and 1932.)
One of the best professional runners SA has seen, Don Cameron, who won the 1947 Bendigo Thousand, won the 1941 race for Sullivan, strange as it may sound. Here's how it happened. After the Sullivans - father Jim, brother Gil, and Len - had spotted Cameron as a raw recruit to running in 1939, Len, who had given up race running, was induced to become Cameron's trainer.
Through 1940 and 1941, Len trained Cameron. Towards the end of 1941, he found he himself becoming so fit with the training he was giving Cameron, he decided he'd have a shot at the Bay Sheffield again. When he won in 1933, he was off 10 1/4 yards. He entered, and was given 8 1/2 yards for the 1941 event. A fortnight before the race, with three others - South and State footballer Laurie Cahill, Don Cameron, and Jack Brady, Len took part in a trial at Victoria Park racecourse over 130 yards. Jack Brady was out on the limit of 12 yards, and Laurie Cahill was giving Len, on the outside, about a yard. Len's job was to try to take Cahill and Cameron up to Brady, and then run off. Cahill and Cameron had their eyes glued on each other, and overlooked the fact at the finish that Len, going great guns, hadn't dropped out.
Ran to Trial
On Commemoration Day, 1941, after Laurie Cahill and Len had won their heats, they met in the semi-final.
Before they were off, Laurie laughed, and said "This is as far as you go, Len”.
Sullivan grinned back, and said, "No, I'll run you out, Laurie. Remember that trial a fortnight ago? You tried to give me a yard and couldn't. Now you've got to stand me up three yards."
That's the way it turned out. Len won the semi-final. But afterwards he looked so sick and sorry for himself that his people wanted him to scratch for the final. He refused. At 80 yards, the field caught him. "This is it. I'm finished,"
He thought. "Just don't struggle." From experience, Len knew, and drums it into other runners now, too many races are lost by runners "struggling" over the last pinches, straining to bring out an extra yard that isn't in them. Len relaxed, the others "struggled", and while they were trying to push the accelerator through the floorboards Len swept on to win by a yard.
There's only one thing, though, that makes him smile a little sceptically about that win. He was clocked officially at 11 3-5 sec. "That was equal to five and a half yards inside evens. I just couldn't run it then," he says. The Sullivan brothers, Gil and Len, took after their father as far as running was concerned. At Adelaide High School in 1927, Len won the junior cup by taking the 75, 100, and 220 yards races, 120 yards hurdles, and being placed third in the high jump. He was then 15. In 1929, aged 18, he turned professional, trained by his father. His first decent win was in the Mildura Gift two years later. He'd won minor races at Payneham before that.
To that time, he had been regarded purely as a 75-yard sprinter. Then the late "Dad" Eglinton took him in hand. These were the depression days, mind, and professional running was chock full of class athletes. Eglinton set about improving Len's stamina. Training on Norwood Oval in those days were men like the late Malcolm Dunn, one of the classiest runners SA has ever seen, Bob Ey, Ron Koch, Lex Alcorn, Jack Coad, and Don Cahill all even-timers. Norwood Oval is ideal for athletes preparing for Stawell Gifts, considers Len. If you can run time there you'll do the same at Stawell, and probably two yards faster at Bendigo. But with men, as with horses, track trials are a trap. In his first Bay Sheffield win in 1933, Len knew one runner could run past him with hob nail boots on. This runner reached the final, too. A week later, in a track trial, this other runner beat Len by a street. At Stawell, when Gil Sullivan ran second to Bishop, there was a runner named Thompson who'd been backed for a fortune. His nerves packed up, and he was run out in his heat. Yet later, in the 75-yard sprint, running for nothing more than the stake, he broke seven seconds in winning easily.
At Stawell, Len has seen trainers crooning and cooing to highly-strung runners like fond mothers to babies. Even with Don Cameron, in the Bendigo Thousand, the Sullivans weren't quite sure just how he would go knowing that he had been backed for something like £6,000.
Before the race, in trials at Norwood Oval, Len Sullivan set what he describes as "impossible" tasks for Cameron. Yet he won them all. If he only ran to those trials . . . ? They needn't have worried. The only fright Cameron gave them was from calm self-confidence, rather than lack of it. At 100 yards in the final, Frank Banner raced level with him. Then Cameron went away again to win. Len said to Don afterwards, "Say, what was the idea in letting Banner run to you?"
“Great runner" "Oh, that," replied Cameron, "I didn't want to hurt my injured foot any more than I could help." The Sullivans just wiped the sweat from their brows, sighed, and then collected. Don Cameron, now living in Bendigo, was an amazing runner, says Len. How good he'd have been if he could only have been kept free from a sciatic nerve trouble in the groin, nobody knows. When the Sullivans first saw Cameron run at Norwood in 1939, he was down from Mallala. He was off the limit mark, went from first to last in a few strides, but to the amazement of Jim Sullivan Sen, he won. When Len took him in hand, the first trial was in the park lands and Len gave him five yards in 50. "I caught him in 10 yards, but do you think I could pass him? He's the greatest bulldog I've known. "
I class John Stoney, Barney Ewell, and Malcolm Dunn as the three best runners I've seen. Yet, if Don Cameron had the early speed to be with them at 100 yards, he'd eat the three of them over the last 30 yards. "He just seemed to dig, dig, dig for that extra punch in a finish. I've never seen anyone like him," says Len. Amazing time For the 1948 Bendigo Thousand the Sullivans had tried Cameron to run the amazing time of 8.3 yards "inside" for the 130. In the semi-final, Cameron glanced across the field at the 100, and thought he had them all covered. He didn't see McKeon flying on the outside until too late. Even then the judges had to rely on the camera. John Stoney won the final, being clocked at 7 yards "inside". Cameron, on times, should have dead-heated, if . .
Nowadays, Len Sullivan keeps a wide eye open for promising runners to train. As the winner of between 50 and 60 races in his time, he knows what's wanted. It could be that a Sullivan-trained runner might take off one of next year's big races.