Wangaratta’s first superstar sportsman was slight of build, had a touch of ‘attitude’, and could run like a gazelle.
Long before football began to take its hold on the public, and even prior to cricket becoming established as part of the local psyche, Thomas Cusack was the town’s sporting hero.
To uncover the legend of this strong-willed maverick, it’s necessary to go back approximately 160 years, to a time when Victoria’s population had exploded and young men with a sense of adventure tested their luck and converged on the goldfields around the state.
It was a time when Cusack was acknowledged as a near-unbeatable athlete in the colony………….
Professional running in the 1850’s and ‘60’s was avidly followed and big crowds would attend events which were held on a specially-prepared track in the square in front of the Royal Hotel (now the Pinsent), or on a piece of land across the King River.
The wiry Cusack, the son of the Council Club proprietor, had set records for the colony over 100 yards (10 seconds), 150 yards ( 15.5 seconds) and 300 yards ( 32 seconds). He was the undisputed professional champion of Victoria.
Unable to find suitable competition locally, he began to look further afield for opponents.
One famous meeting took place at Wahgunyah in 1862 against the local champ, James Frewin.
The members of Cusack’s considerable entourage included his backers, Harry Connelly, R.W. Shadforth, John Hall, James Dixon, Thomas Fairbairn and Charles Chandler.
Cusack, who was running barefoot, as he always did until after this race, was jeered by Frewin’s supporters, but easily won the first heat of 100 yards in 10 seconds. No mean feat, when it’s considered that he had to jump over a dog, which had been strategically let onto the track by a spectator.
The next heat of 200 metres was even more exciting. Tacks had been spread on the track in front of Cusack’s path, but he successfully ran around them and was leading comfortably when one of Frewin’s backers deliberately got in his way and forced him over the ropes.
In retaliation, Frewin was then obstructed by a Wangaratta man. A general scrimmage broke out, during which Cusack ran around the crowd and breasted the tape.
This ignited several fights, but Cusack fortunately escaped on horseback. The referee (Mr.McCaughey) reserved his decision for a week, but ultimately declared Cusack as the winner.
It was reported that almost 4,000 pounds changed hands, although there was considerable ill-feeling among the backers of the two athletes.
Tommy Cusack had retired by 1865 because of a lack of opposition. Even though he was ageing, the competitor in him couldn’t resist a challenge set down by Matt Higgins, an Irishman residing in Melbourne.
The pair were matched to race over 150 yards at the Elston Hotel on Brighton Road.
Higgins, a lightly-framed runner, who weighed about nine stone, was renowned as a versatile and a confident type.
But the Wangaratta contingent wouldn’t hear of their champ being beaten. Naturally, betting on the race was fierce.
Even though he was well past his prime, that wasn’t seen as a hindrance, as no opponent had come anywhere near defeating the ‘Wangaratta Flyer’ throughout his career.
The few thousand expectant fans who turned up for the race, could scarcely believe the outcome.
Higgins won by eight yards; Cusack was hardly even in the picture.
His backers were incensed, claiming that their champ had been nobbled – the victim of foul play.
What added to the conjecture was that Cusack had complained of feeling sick and giddy before the race.
One observer wrote: “I was somewhat surprised when Cusack took his tea on Friday afternoon – stewed mutton, a bowl of soup, three and a half cups of tea, two spoonfuls of butter in his eggs – and then eating toast spread thick with butter. He might as well have gone on to be rolling drunk.”
Higgins’ supporters scoffed at the accusations of foul play, so another match-race was organised – for the ‘Championship of Victoria’.
It was to be held at Wangaratta over three distances – 150, 200 and 300 yards.
The faithful Wangaratta fans again put their money on the home-town hero, whilst the two runners agreed to race for 400 pounds – a small fortune at the time.
“The town at 11am presented the liveliest appearance…..At 12 o’clock, the town emptied itself and headed to the Showgrounds. The course was on a very level part of the paddock,” the Despatch reported.
As Higgins had won the contest in Melbourne, Cusack was entitled to choose the distance of the first race. He selected his favourite – the short course of 150 yards.
The first race ended in controversy, with judges unable to seperate the pair at the finish line.
Cusack’s supporters claimed their hero had won, and were furious. But judges declared a dead-heat. Higgins and Cusack would have to agree to a re-run.
To the delight of the crowd, Cusack bolted away to win it by two yards.
But he had obviously been disadvantaged by having to run the 150 yards event twice. Naturally, because of his advancing years, it had sapped a fair bit of energy from his aching body.
Higgins knew full well that Cusack was more of an explosive sprinter and didn’t have the same stamina as he did.
So he chose the longer trip of 300 yards for the second race. From the start, he was in control, and held Cusack at bay, to level the series at one-all.
The crowd was now at fever-pitch, and money was changing hands everywhere, in anticipation of the deciding race, over 200 yards.
To the dismay of the locals, Higgins made it somewhat of an anti-climax with a relatively easy win. The champion had been dethroned – the first defeat he had suffered in a career which had extended over a decade and a half.
Despite being vanquished, Tommy Cusack lost no respect from the sporting public, and continued to be regarded as a hero.
He was keen on all sports, was a foundation member of the Wangaratta Football Club in 1864 and a pioneer for all of the fine local athletes who have made their name at the ANA Carnival over almost 100 years………