‘DUAL GIFT-WINNER RE-LIVES THE DREAM……’

‘Oh how warm the summer night

As athletes gather beneath the light,

The arena is dimmed for the final race,

The runners are ready and take their place.

‘Does he remember the tension out on the line,

Leaving the blocks right on time,

Legs stretched out in motion,

Running like a machine,

Did he really win,

Or was it a dream………..’

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

You’d be hard-pressed to find a greater advocate of the Wangaratta Athletic Carnival than Jason Boulton.

Back when he was a ‘whippersnapper’ he’d count off the days leading up to each Australia Day week-end. Give him a chance and he’ll re-count the deeds of those champion cycling locals Woodsy and Clarkey, and regale you with tales about big names like Steven Pate, who could gather up the field in the back straight and sweep to victory.

And, of course, not to forget those charismatic wood-choppers.

But he was completely captivated by the athletes: “When the floodlights would focus on the Gift track and the field was introduced, a hush would fall over the huge crowd – the atmosphere was electric,” he says.

He remembers one occasion, as an 11 year-old, that perhaps fired his ambitions to become a pro runner.

He’d been swimming down at the Ovens River, and popped in to catch a glimpse of the Showgrounds one Carnival-eve. “A big American negro by the name of Kipper Bell was practising his starts and got yapping to me…….Geez, could he run !…….I think he’d won a Powderhall Gift in Scotland a few months earlier……He certainly left an impression on me….”

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Jason had shown some talent in Little Athletics, drifted off to try cricket for a couple of years, played in a Junior League footy flag for Centrals, then had a season with Wangaratta Thirds.

But footy was off the agenda when he underwent three shoulder reconstructions. Besides, he’d started a Building Apprenticeship with L.H.Brown Constructions. Running seemed a much sounder sporting option for the young fellah.

But still, the shoulders continued to cause him grief. He was at Keilor, limbering up for a 100m race once, when it popped out. He was desperately trying to knock it back into place. Greg O’Keeffe, who was competing in the same heat, said: “You’d better pull out. The stewards will think you’re putting one over ‘em.”

“But I just stabilised the arm with my other hand and ran okay, actually. Finished just out of a place, I think.”

He fitted in like a glove to the pro circuit, training firstly with Jack Gannon and Scotty Hargreaves, then under Bernie Grealy………And began to chalk up a few wins.

Stawell, he says, never held the same appeal for him that it did for most in the running game. He remembers running third in a Bill Howard 100m Novice, and also finishing in third place in the Jack Donaldson 200, Handicap.

“Trouble was, being such a long season, I struggled to stay in one piece. When Stawell came around I was usually stuffed. I made five Gift semis, and got beaten on the line one year. That was the closest I came to a Stawell Final.”

“Anyway, Wangaratta was my Stawell.”

By 1996, at Wang, Jason was flying. He took out the 70m Warby Sprint, and won his way through to the Gift Final, alongside the local veteran – and crowd favourite – Greg O’Keeffe. The thought floated through his mind….Could this be the realisation of a boyhood dream ?

Alas, he finished second, pipped by the Scotchman, Kevin Hanlon, by six inches.

He headed to Sydney for a six-month break not long after, then found work as a Builder in Melbourne. It led to him hitching up with well-known trainer, Evan Armstrong, who also happened to be Hanlon’s coach.

“I got to know Kevin pretty well,” says Jason. “His is familiar story. He came out to Australia to run in the ‘95/‘96 season, grew to like the place, and stayed.”

“Training with him brought out the best in me. But Evan Armstrong was a hard task-master; very intense. I struggled to stay fit.”

His lead-up to the Wangaratta Carnival in 1997 didn’t provide much cause for excitement. He incurred a slight injury at the Burnie meet over Christmas, and performed well-below his best at Ringwood in early January.

The Armstrong stable had Hanlon pencilled in to win back-to-back Gifts. A sizeable portion of the crowd shared that opinion.

But Jason had that ‘feeling’….So did his dad, who had backed him to win.

He grew an extra leg on his home track, and won with plenty to spare.

“It was a great feeling. I think it was one of the last occasions that they ran it under the floodlights. I made a few Finals in my time, but Wang smashed them all for atmosphere,” he says.

That blue sash and the colours that he ran in became his proudest possessions. When his brother passed away in 2001, he buried them with the casket…………….

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Jason’s love-affair with running waxed and waned. He admits he didn’t get all that enthused about winter training: “Injuries and laziness were my bugbear. I used to retire in April, then get itchy feet in October.”

He was also having trouble with stress foot fractures around 2001, and retired for keeps, he thought. But the bug caught him again. Another Boulton come-back eventuated in 2004.

A year later, he was again firing, and within reach of another Wang Gift victory before fading in the closing stages of the Final to finish fifth.

The pro running diehards had written off the 33 year-old in 2006. But, for one of the few times in his career he’d gone into the season injury-free, and set himself to run well on his home track.

A rich vein of form in the lead-up saw him run third at Rye, second at Geelong, win the Wallan Gift early in the New Year, and take out the Ringwood Gift in mid-January.

And he made no mistake at Wangaratta, cruising to victory in 12.36 seconds, from 2004 winner Justin Lewis and Brendan Boyle.

Jason Boulton had entered the record-books as a dual Gift winner, emulating North Melbourne’s J.J.O’Sullivan ( 1927 and ‘29 ) and ex-VFL boundary-umpire Peter Saultry ( 1964 and ‘66 ).

*( Since then Albury’s Robert Ballard and Essendon’s Paul Tancredi have joined the trio. Ballard won in 2009, following his triumph in 1989. Tancredi won successive Gifts in 2015 and ‘16 ).

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Jason finally hung up the spikes in 2007: “I went back to the doctors about my feet. They started talking about having a series of cortisone injections. I said: ‘Nah, I won’t worry,’ and moved on.”

Still working in the Building industry, as an Estimator with Hadar Homes, he remains deeply involved in Athletics. He has coached Johnny Adams ( a fourth place-getter in the 2014 Stawell Gift) , and Isabelle Long from Mulwala ( a 2-time National 400m Hurdles winner ).

He also guides some local youngsters, as well as his own four kids . He and Renee have 8 year-old twins, Isabella and Will, Jack (15) and Gabriella ( 18 ).

The twins compete in Little Aths of a Friday night, whilst Gab has already made her mark at the Wang Carnival, finishing second in the Women’s Gift last year.

Jack, a 5-time National Age champion and current Australian U.16 400m record-holder, is an outstanding prospect, but Jason’s charting his progress carefully.

“He’s doing the pro circuit to learn how to run ; how to back up and learn to be strong. People may look down their noses at the pros, but they’re a lot stronger and tougher than they’re given credit for,” his dad says.

Jack finished seventh in the final of the Rye Gift a fortnight ago. He had seven runs for the day at Maryborough, on New Year’s Day. Jason says it took him about a week and a half to recover, but it was great experience for the lad.

“I just make sure the kids enjoy themselves; I don’t put too much pressure on ‘em. They know there’s always bigger and better people around the corner who’ll test them,” he says.

Jack and Gabriella will both be competing at the Carnival this week-end. They’re probably tired of their dad regaling them with tales of how big it used to be.

“I was talking to the great Ricky Dunbar at Rye recently. He’s now a VAL official. Rick arrived in Australia from Scotland in 1966 and finished third in the Gift that year. He hasn’t missed a Wang Carnival since.”

“He told me they were paying to get into the Richardson Stand in those days. The place was packed.”

“That’s how big Wang was………”

‘BRINGING HOME THE BACON IN THE LOCAL GIFT………’

Wally Pasquali occasionally harks back to the most memorable night of his sporting career……

He was feeling the weight of expectation pressing down upon his slightly-built frame, as he stepped onto the blocks for the Final of the 1995 Wangaratta Gift.

Moments earlier, under the glare of the floodlights, the second back-marker had sauntered down the 120-metre track whilst being introduced by the ground announcer .

The accompanying applause from the locals sent a tingle down his spine.img_3924

Wal was 27, and already an accomplished pro performer. He’d contested a Stawell Gift Final, won two Broadford Gifts, finished fourth in South Australia’s prestigious Bay Sheffield, fourth in a Bendigo 1000 – and two weeks prior, had taken out the Rye Gift.

But this one would give him special satisfaction.

He got away to a flier and breasted the tape in 12.21 seconds, a metre clear of his nearest opponent – Peter Harloff of North Albury – to whom he’d conceded five metres.img_3925

It was a dream run. With hands held aloft, he commenced probably the longest celebratory journey in Gift history. He completed his ‘lap of honour’ by acknowledging the roar of the crowd in the Richardson Stand…………..
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Twenty-four years on, the prestigious Wangaratta Carnival still means the world to Wally Pasquali. He plays a key role in its organisation. His company – Optus – heavily promotes the event.

He regards that as his duty, just as he did when the Wangaratta City Soccer Club – and his old footy team, the Wangaratta Rovers – both asked him to be their President.

Wal has a keen eye for history, and he’s proud of the fact that he’s one of only seven locals to have taken out the Carnival’s ‘Blue Ribbon’ event in its 97-year history……..
…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Mick Maroney was the first, in 1930.

Maroney stood just 5’4”, was beautifully proportioned, and was handled by a wise old coach, Marty Bean, who had a number of Wangaratta runners in his ‘stable’.

Bean was only an average runner himself, but had a terrific influence on the careers of several champions.

Marty, who was born in 1896, had played in Wangaratta Football Club’s 1920 premiership, and acted as Head Trainer for the Pies for 17 years. It was whilst performing this role that he recognised the talent of the elusive, courageous, determined Maroney, who was a star winger.img_3930

The bookies adjudged the 18 year-old a 7/4 favourite for the Gift. Given a liberal handicap of 12 metres, he cruised home in style, and completed the double, by taking out the Warby Sprint.

The following year, Mick continued his good form, despite being handed a much stricter mark from the handicapper. He ran impressively to win the Shepparton Gift, and pocket the accompanying purse of 130 pounds.

He moved to Melbourne soon after, but would make the annual pilgrimage home to compete at the Carnival each Australia Day week-end. In 1937, his final success at Wang, he won the Ovens Handicap and Warby Sprint………..

 

Alf Whittaker had gained employment locally, with the Railways, when he prevailed in 1938 . After winning a re-run of the 100 yard sprint in effortless fashion on the Saturday night, and effortlessly winning the twelfth Gift heat , he stormed into contention.

The Final proved a thriller, as front-markers Stevens, McCorkell and the Echuca sprinter C.R.Collins were locked together nearing the end of the 130 yard journey.

But Whittaker lunged at the line to take out the 100 pounds prize-money, finishing six inches in front of the fancied Stevens, with McCorkell a further six inches away in third place……….

 

When Frank Seymour bobbed up, the town was in raptures.

Seymour’s adolescent years co-incided with the advent of World War II. He was an ardent footballer and played his first senior games with Wangaratta in the Murray Valley Association.

The cessation of hostilities saw O & M football resume and Frank, at the tender age of 17, was selected for his share of senior matches with the Pies. Wangaratta went on to win the 1946 premiership, with the youngster in their line-up.

By now, Marty Bean had convinced Seymour that he possessed the wherewithal to make his mark in the world of pro-running. He gave him the advice that he no doubt passed on to all up-and-comers:

“Son, you have to be dead keen, not just to run, but to listen to what I tell you. If you’re half-hearted I’m not interested in you.”

After experiencing success at a few unregistered athletic meetings, Seymour reasoned that he’d like to give it a go in pro ranks

‘Old Marty’ decided to set him him for the Silver Jubilee Gift of 1947.

A blistering-hot January day reduced the afternoon attendance, but when dusk fell, the crowd had swelled to almost-capacity.

When Seymour registered the fastest time of the day in his semi, he was installed as warm favourite for the final.img_3929

Running off seven yards, he scorched to the tape, to edge out Sydney taxi-driver J.C.King, who was also well-fancied. A large contingent of Wangaratta footballers could hardly contain their glee, having backed their team-mate for a considerable sum…………

 

The Doolan family moved to Wangaratta in 1950, and young Jim, who had attended Assumption College, soon made his mark in local sport.

He came under the influence of the ageing Bean, who was sure that he had the talent to go a fair way as a professional athlete.

Doolan’s big moment came in 1958, but it was not without its share of drama. He dead-heated with W.Dinsdale in the semi, but won his way through to the Final on a soggy Monday evening.

He ran the race of his life to take out the Gift, then completed the double with a win in the Ovens Sprint…………..

 

Greg O’Keeffe was jogging around the Galen College Oval, trying to maintain some fitness after an exhausting 1980 football season with the Wangaratta Rovers, when a car pulled up and a voice called out: “……Ow ya goin….”.

It was Bernie Grealy, a local running legend and two-time Stawell finalist.
He told the panting O’Keeffe that he’d seen him on the footy field, and reckoned he could do all right as an athlete.

He must have sold the message okay, as, within months, Greg had his first run, in the Carnegie Gift. He was unplaced, but the adrenalin had started to flow. He ran in his first Wangaratta Gift in 1983. The next year he finished second in the Final.

He was to reach his home-town Final five times, but in 1985 ‘ran the house down’. Off a mark of 7.5 metres he clocked 12.23 to narrowly defeat Murray Dineen in a famous Gift Final.img_3931

Greg continued to compete with considerable success all over the state, and is renowned as an icon of pro running. He has been inducted into the prestigious Stawell Athletic Club Hall of Fame, in recognition of  his devotion to the sport over nearly 40 years.

He’s another stalwart who decided to put his shoulder to the wheel when the Wangaratta Carnival faced the threat of extinction several years ago.

He was President for 13 years and will be floating around in some administrative capacity this week-end, besides keeping an eye on a couple of the runners he now coaches…….

 

Jason Boulton was one of Wangaratta’s up-and-comers in the early nineties. He showed his potential by figuring prominently in many meets around the state. But there was a bullet beside his name when he finished runner-up in the 1996 Gift – pipped by Scottish-born Kevin Hanlon.

The following year he turned the tables with a strong performance, outlasting Hanlon in a tight finish.img_3926

By now, Jason had re-located to Melbourne, but he continued to return for the Carnival week-end. In 2006, nine years after his initial triumph, he coasted to victory in 12.36 seconds, off the handy mark of 11.5m, to become one of only four dual Gift winners.

Boulton had overcome some niggling injuries, including three shoulder reconstructions emanating from his football career. But he kept persevering. He made the Gift Final four times, won the 70 metre event twice and also took out the 400m handicap in 1998.img_3927
These days he keeps a close eye on his four kids, who are keen Little Athletes and shaping as stars of the future…………
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
One of the host of great Wangaratta Gift stories concerns, not a local winner, but probably the most famous runner to have contested the event…….

American negro Barney Ewell ( a 1948 Olympic Gold Medallist ) won his heat and semi-Final of the 1950 Gift, then came up against Carlton footballer Laurie Kerr, who was favourite to win the Final.img_3922

Ewell badly wanted the prize-money.

At the start he walked across the track and saluted each finalist. When he came to Kerr he said: “Hiya Laurie, see you at the tape……but you’ll be looking at my back.”
Vintage gamesmanship indeed !

There was a sensation, and the hushed crowd sighed as Ewell and Frank Banner appeared to break. It was revealed that the fault was caused by a ‘snapped cap’ from the starter’s gun…..

Ewell later said: “I went and Frank followed. I gave that goddam starter the raspberry when I went back to the blocks.”
Ewell burned up the track to set an all-time record of 12.1, beating Laurie Kerr into second place.

In presenting Ewell with his sash, long-time Carnival President Arthur Callander said: “ Great run, Barney. You have done so much to put this town on the map…………”img_3928

‘THIS RUNNING LIFE……..’

Bernie Grealy was just 8 years old when his dad Frank, drove he and his brother Laurie in from Eldorado to watch their first Wangaratta Carnival.

It was Australia Day, 1950; and like the thousands of other fans who had jammed into the Showgrounds that night, he was excited about the prospect of watching the American sprinter, Barney Ewell.

The reigning Olympic Gold Medallist, was dubbed ‘The Ebony Flash’, and had been heavily promoted as the Carnival’s feature attraction. As the unbackable favourite, off scratch, for the Gift Final, all eyes were trained on him when the lights dimmed and the runners crouched to await the starter’s pistol.

Barney, and another champion, Frank Banner,  appeared to break, but the field was recalled…which only added to the dripping suspense of the occasion.

He got away perfectly in the re-run, to edge out Carlton footballer Laurie Kerr by a matter of inches, in a run timed as one of the quickest and most memorable-ever on the Wangaratta track…………..
…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

If Bernie still needed any convincing that athletics was to be his chosen sport, it was pretty much decided for him that night.

And over the next forty years or so, he was to place his own stamp on Carnivals such as his beloved Wangaratta – and beyond……….
…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

“I was no great shakes at footy or cricket at school – even though I liked them both. But I found out I could leave most of the kids for dead when the running events were held at the school sports. So that’s the path I chose,” he recalls.

A few years later, when he was about 16, and working at the Woollen Mills, he set himself for the Mill Gift, which was held as part of their Christmas break-up. He won, and a couple of months later, went out to Easter Saturday’s Milawa Sports, and took out that Gift as well.

His dad advised him: “If you’re going to run, you ought to be fair dinkum about it.”

So he measured out a sprint track on the Eldorado sports ground and spent hours honing his talent.

“There were about 30 or 40 blokes who used to run at the unregistered Meetings which were held in February-March each year during the early sixties. Places like Whorouly, Moyhu, Tatong, Hansonville and Thoona, “ Bernie says.

“Then the Harriers started up in Wang and a fellah called Bill Eaton got onto me about turning amateur. I’d won something like 10 pounds as a pro, which seemed to be a bit of an obstacle, but he managed to get me re-instated.”

“After about two years – and competing in country championships and the like, I discovered there were a few blokes a fair bit better than me. I thought, gee, I might as well see if I can earn a few quid. “

That’s when he decided to turn professional, aged 18.

Not that prize money was ever his sole objective.

“I think the largest purse I ever got was $1,500 for winning the Oakleigh Gift. There wasn’t that much dough around.”

The biggest plus you get out of the running game, he says, is the friendships you cultivate.

Although, on the face of it, running appears to be an individual sport, there’s a unique camaraderie among the athletes.

It’s what inspired Bernie to keep going for all those years…………
………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

That – and the support of Robyn, his wife and greatest fan.

Bernie’s got an affectionate country drawl, which adds a bit of flavour to the stories he tells. He loves a yarn about sport. So does Robyn.

She used to follow him around the circuit and sit up in the stands, jotting down every race result – the times, scratchings and any other incidentals. When the runners gathered around the camp-fire of a night to chew over the day’s happenings, they’d refer to Robyn for the finer details.

Bernie’s always had a fascination for Stawell. He first went there in 1963. He and Robyn have hardly missed a meeting since.

He won his Gift heat for seven successive years and reached two finals – which still sit indelibly in his mind.

In the first of them – 1967 – in front of a crowd of nearly 14,000, he came up against the great Bill Howard, who stormed to his second successive win. Bernie ran strongly to finish third.

“People were coming up to congratulate me and say how well I’d run. To tell you the truth, I was shitty…Thought I could have done better…….”

Four years later, when Fitzroy footballer Treva McGregor took the honours, he hit the line in fourth place.

“I’d won the Yarroweyah Gift the week before, and took a few days off work, to keep off the concrete floor, and give myself the best possible chance. Did okay too…. I didn’t miss out on third place by much and was pretty happy with my effort.”

Bernie diverts to chat about Jack King, the wise old running coach, whose brother Chris won Stawell in 1908. Jack apparently lived for running and had trained five winners of the famous Gift on a cinder track he’d constructed at the family property, just off the Three Chain Road.

“Jack walked into the bank in Rutherglen one day, where Bill Howard had just been transferred, and said to him: ‘Son, would you like to win a Stawell Gift’. He’d seen him playing footy and reckoned he had the makings of a runner. “

“Bill was backed in from 100 to 1 when he won his first Gift. He was pulled about 3 yards the next year and ran 11.6, to win it again. I picked up the princely sum of $140 for finishing third.”

“One thing I regret, in hindsight, was not going over and training under old Jack when I was about 16.”

Bernie’s first-ever victory in pro ranks was at Maryborough, in 1967, when he took out the quarter-mile ( 400 metres ). He saluted again in 1970.

The 400 turned out to be his specialty. He won it on four occasions at Wangaratta – 1970, ‘74, 1980 and ‘84. The event is now called the ‘Grealy Family 400 Metre Handicap.’

A framed photo, depicting each win, takes pride of place on the Dining-Room wall. It’s about the only show of pretension from the illustrious Grealy running career.

“Robyn doesn’t like displaying too much of that stuff,” he says. “But it is special, winning a race in front of your home crowd.”

Bernie first started coaching around 1980. Greg O’Keeffe was his first ‘recruit’.
Greg recalls the day he was jogging along Edwards Street when a car pulled up alongside, and an instantly-recognisable voice called out: ‘….Ow ya goin…..’

It was Bernie, who asked him if he’d like to start training with him.

They hit it off straight away and became great mates, sharing countless memorable sporting moments over the years.

“There were a fair few who trained with us over the years. I think all of them won a race at some stage.”

“I remember Wally Pas coming down with his Rovers team-mate Nick Goodear. The first time he came out of the blocks I thought: ‘Wow, this bloke’s got something.’ “

“Of course, he won a Wang Gift, as did Greg and Jason Boulton. They all became pretty-well infatuated with the sport.”

Bernie was also a finalist in four Wang Gifts. The closest he got to bringing home the chocolates was in 1976, when he finished a close third to Warren Vines.

He retired from running when he was 55, but still remained heavily involved. For quite a few years he competed in Veterans Games.

Then he took up cycling and enjoyed the competitive aspect of Hume Veterans events.

But a couple of heavy falls, the last of which badly damaged his shoulder, broke some ribs, and caused a stint in hospital, convinced him that it was time to give away the bikes.

With the Carnival looming, he’s been doing a bit of work on the Showgrounds track and will be there in an official capacity next week.

He thinks back to those days when the Carnival attracted 140 bikies and something like 300 athletes, and the town would be buzzing for weeks beforehand.

It’s just that, with the passage of time, circumstances have changed, he says. Regardless, it still gets the adrenaline of this sporting junkie rushing, just like it did 68 years ago…………..