“POSTCARD FROM STAWELL……..”

“…..Pick you up at 6 o’clock,” he said.

I wasn’t so sure. The Rovers were in the midst of copping a whacking from Yarrawonga. It was shaping as a black day at Mulwala and I was feeling a touch melancholy. Life wasn’t pretty, just at that moment.

But sure enough, he’s convinced me, and lobs right on the knocker of 6 the next morning. We’re on our way. ……Headed for Stawell.

On this day, as it has done on every Easter Monday for the past 136 years, the old goldfields town becomes the athletics capital of Australia….the Southern Hemisphere…possibly the world……

I’ve always admired it from afar; put it on the bucket list of ‘must do’s’, alongside all of the other far-fangled dreams that an inveterate sports-watcher conjures in his mind.

I haven’t been in this neck of the woods too often, but the ‘chauffeur’ knows the four and a half trip like the back of his hand.

He’s Greg O’Keefe, the man who has made an indelible imprint on the Stawell Carnival – and foot-running in general.

Greg has tried a few different routes over the 30-plus trips he has made, but finds none of them any quicker than the other. Provided you avoid the kangaroos, he jokes.

He collided with a big fellah one year and wiped his car off. “I rang home with the good news”, he says. “……and told Vicki that we’d just lost our wheels…..and would she mind coming over with another vehicle.”

A couple of local athletes, Bree Spasojevic and Meredith Castle are also with us. They’re keen to see how Anna Pasquali performs today. Anna’s lining up in the semis of the Women’s Gift and has set herself for the 400 metres event.

They’ve already received a few messages from her during the morning. “She’s seems nervous, Greg, how do you think she’ll go ?,” ponders Meredith.

Greg, who is her coach, is, as always, unflappable. “Okay. Provided she doesn’t use up too much juice in the semi…….”

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When we reach our destination, Central Park, there’s a buzz of expectation amongst the queuing fans. Stawell’s population is a touch over 6,000, but there will be almost double that in attendance today.

It’s a Grand Final-like atmosphere.

Old-timers, I’m told, assume vantage spots from which they’ve watched the action, year after year. It’s just part of the tradition. The old timber grandstand is chockers, as it offers a perfect view of the Gift finish. And underneath, where the bar is doing a frenetic trade, you almost have to jostle for position.

At the far end of the ground, next to the old score-board, I’ve happened upon the Hall of Fame Pavilion. To a history buff like me, it’s ‘nirvana’, and some of the tales of Gift-winners of the past are full of romance.

Like Bill Howard, the Albury winger, who first appeared in 1966. In days gone by, a ring of up to 40 bookies could be operating, high up on the grassy bank, under the huge plane trees.

They were at the mercy of shrewd stables and in Pat Kennedy, Howard’s trainer, you had a typical example.

Another master trainer, Jack King – a mentor of Kennedy’s – had noticed Bill on the footy field, reckoned he had potential and talked him into having a crack at running. He had a light frame and had only competed in five pro races when he lined up in his heat at Stawell.

The bookies stood to lose $20,000 if he got up. Despite a broken bone in his right foot, which forced him to wear old spikes, he won the Gift off 8.75 yards. His foot was so sore that he had to be carried from the arena.

He was out of action for some time, before deciding to make another assault on the Gift in 1967. With just the one lead-up race he created history by winning Stawell two years in a row.

His win was all the more meritorious because, as a backmarker, he was conceding 5 yards or more to the other finalists. Half-an-hour later Howard blitzed the field in the Backmarkers’ 220 yard Invitation Handicap.

I’m yarning to another Wangaratta running great (and a Stawell veteran) Bernie Grealy, between races, when he points out a chap on the arena, near the finish line.

” That’s Bill Howard,” he says.”They invited him up to mark the 50th anniversary of his second win.”

“Did you see it ? “, I ask Bernie, who hasn’t missed a meeting since 1964. “Yeah, I ran third.”

I found out that Bernie won seven successive Gift heats and made another final in 1971. He was the one who talked Greg O’Keeffe into taking up running, which proved a fair move. Greg collected a total of 13 silk vests, awarded for being a Stawell semi-finalist, and was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2008. I’d noticed his name on the Honor board.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

There are only three bookies operating today, but there’s a crowd milling around them. They’ve already taken the white-hot Gift favourite Matthew Rizzo, whose run in Saturday’s heat rendered him unbackable, off their boards.

One of them captures my imagination. He’s a knockabout bloke wearing desert boots, with a shirt and dacks untidily hanging off him and shouting rapid-fire odds. His wife is filling in the running sheet and the pair are involved in an occasional slanging match.

After he gives her another serve it looks like she’s had enough. Packing up her books, she hesitates for a second or two, then plonks them back in place. I surmise that she’s done this a few times over the years……..

There’s a real sense of drama as the Gift semi-finals get under way. Anna is just tipped out by a whisker; the girl in White, Lauren Wells, getting there with a desperate lunge on the line.

The crowd’s packed in around me and they’re knowledgeable. The bloke nearby is geeing for Andrew Campbell, the out-marker in the fourth semi. He gets up, which tickles my neighbor no end.

He’s bursting with pride and, I suppose, has to tell someone. He taps me on the shoulder: “That’s my nephew,” he says.

But really, the Men’s Gift is almost cut and dried once Matthew Rizzo storms home, easing up, in the final semi.

He again runs magnificently in the Final, and had the race in his keeping 20 metres from the line. $40,000 – not a bad earn for an 18 year-old…….

Another local lad, Paul Hughes, ran well to reach the Final of the 200 metres. But the day ends in triumph for Anna Pasquali………

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Her earlier career as a top athlete is reasonably well known, but the continued passion of Anna and Wally for the sport has provided a fantastic example to everyone in our area – kids and adults alike.

She’s also had an ongoing love-affair with Stawell and it has been a bee in her bonnet that she’d reached eight Finals and was four times runner-up. It became her obsession when she made a come-back in 2011, to never give up until there was a Stawell sash draped around her shoulders.

It came on Monday, in spectacular fashion, in the Lorraine Donnan 400 metres Handicap Final.

She had hit the front near the brick grandstand in the back straight and was never really challenged; dashing away to record an impressive victory.

It prompted a Wangaratta love-in on the track, as family and fans celebrated around her. The subsequent speech took the honours as the best of the day.

Anna had finally achieved her Stawell dream………

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thought on ““POSTCARD FROM STAWELL……..”

  1. Greg Rosser

    G’day Kev, beautiful! Sounds like a great day, great people (especially the O’Keefes, Pasqualis and Grealys) and a great event, thanks, By the way, do you remember the day I ran away from Bill Howard and had a couple of bounces in the twos on the Albury Sportsground?…neither do I…regards Greg Rosser

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