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When Dark Horses Won The Gift - an article from 75 years ago

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When "Dark horses" Won "THE GIFT"

The Argus
Saturday 27th March 1937

Stories of Stawell’s Easter Race

Since 1898 at the picturesque Central Park at Stawell, Australia's leading pedestrians have measured strides for fame and fortune. Many great runners have sought the crown that victory in the Stawell Gift alone can give them and have failed! Many obscure runners hare won it.

THE Stawell Athletic Club's diamond jubilee meeting begins today with the running of the heats of the '£810 Easter Gift, which is worth £500 to the winner.

The finish of the Stawell Easter Gift often introduces a new name into the lists of running champions.

What memories are revived at Stawell each year. Many men recall for instance Jack Donaldson’s dramatic debut when aged 19 years. Donaldson, who was nicknamed ‘The Blue Streak’ became the champion sprint runner of the world. His record for 100 yards (9 3/5th seconds) still stands. Donaldson was practically unknown until he came to Stawell. Before the event he was completely disregarded in the betting ring and it was not until the champion from Raywood took them by storm that the spectators were aware of his speed.

When Inches Count
SO often has the Stawell Gift been won by inches - last year Roy McCann won in the last stride from 6½ yards - that Donaldson’s failure is still discussed in athletic circles although 30 years have elapsed.

With his price shortened to even money for the final of the 1906 Gift Donaldson went to the post a bundle of nerves and was so anxious to leave the holes that he broke and was put back a 1 yard. That penalty cost him the rac.e Donaldson failed by a narrow margin when E W Thompson who survived a protest lodged against him for running under an assumed name for family reasons was declared the winner.

Tom Miles, who won the Stawell Golden Jubilee Gift from 10 yards began his meteoric career at this historic meeting. One would have thought that the appearance of a Queensland representative would excite more than usual curiosity, but so wrapped up was the public in other competitors that it over-looked the "Bundaberg Flier." Miles become world's champion the following year.

The secrecy that enshrouds the event is becoming more and more apparent. In 1931 Fred Ralph, a little South Australian sprinter, was quietly trained and sent to Stawell to win fame overnight. Nicely handicapped on 9½ yards, Ralph's form had been kept a precious secret by his friends and it was not until the last minute that the public awoke to the fact that he had a good chance. A "dark horse" came home!

Roy Barker, of Essendon, who won the 1932 Gift, was also "saved" for the race, and surprised the public when he jumped from a "rank outsider" to a pronounced favourite and won easily. Bert Hyde, coach of the Preston Football Club, running off the limit mark, was backed for a fortune, and there was strong support for O Keefe, a likely lad from the Western District.

Is it any wonder that Stawell has become known for marked fluctuations in the betting ring? The public often has its fancy, and once it has made up its mind a candidate is branded ‘unbeatable’ hours before the race.

Extreme Measures
The friends of Cyril Heath, winner in 1933 who is said to have waited three years to come good, adopted extreme measures for his preparation. A special track was laid doun on the bank of the Goulburn River, near Nagamble, where Heath's training as a runner began. Assisted by a farm hand and his two sisters in his trials, the Balleston East "outsider" eventually achieved the speed which was to give him a decisive victory in the Gift.

Often the "Sunday break," which always imposes a severe strain on the runners, is responsible for failure at Stawell on the Monday. Heath, however, had the nerve and temperament to win the prize. After his sensational debut on the Saturday, a desperate attempt was made to injure him on the Monday a few hours before he was to run in the final but he tackled his assailant and dealt out a little justice for himself.

Tom Roberts, winner of the 1934 Gift, who has become one of the leading runners in Australia, reached Stawell from Mulwala (N.S.W.) almost a complete stranger. A few days before the meet his ability became known, and had the atmosphere of secrecy been preserved, his victory would have been one of the greatest surprises in the history.

After winning his heat by eight yards, Roberts was in popular demand until his price shortened to even money. Before his appearance on the track only a few mentioned his name, and even then his ability was doubted.

THE Stawell Gift has so bristled with uncertainty that it has been labelled one of the most mysterious events in the Australian sporting calendar. Year after year there are elements of drama, romance, and intrigue. Competitors are drawn from many walks of life - salesmen, farm hands, clerks, tradesmen, school teachers, policemen, labourers, ambitious lads fresh from college, and young men anxious to rehabilitate themselves after long periods of unemployment.

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