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PROTRACK » GENERAL » Stawell Gift 2016: The day white-hot favourite Neil King was toppled

Stawell Gift 2016: The day white-hot favourite Neil King was toppled

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Stawell Gift 2016: The day white-hot favourite Neil King was toppled

By Tim Lane
The Age
March 26, 2016

A weekly column can have its origins in unexpected places: this one comes from a visit to a menswear store in a seaside resort favoured by many Melburnians.

Had the writer not failed to pack a sweater for a weekend away, the encounter wouldn't have occurred.

The blue number on special was quickly chosen, then the conversation warmed up. The boss follows the Tigers and was apprehensive, but relaxed when he began talking about the Stawell Gift.

Chris Brown ran there for the first time as a 20-year-old and came third. It was 1976, the year of Neil King.

Not that King won the Gift, but it's his story that has been told ever since. For he was the white-hot favourite who failed to salute. The story is etched in the mythology of the famous old event, notably told with enlightening background by Len Johnson in this paper back in 2004.

To understand how overwhelming a favourite King was, the sports pages of The Age from the morning of the final speak eloquently. Under a headline "It looks a gift for nifty Neil", the paper's reporter – on assignment in faraway Stawell – delivered the following: "If anyone ever had a mortgage on an event it is Neil King … the hottest favourite in the 99-year history of the professional foot running classic."

King had won his heat by 12 metres on Easter Saturday, clocking 11.7 seconds. He was half a second faster than the next best through the 25 heats. According to the aforementioned Age reporter: "He was 4/6 before his heat, no quote after his heat – and even money with the proverbial broken leg."

Chris Brown had won a novice race at Keilor that year and Stawell was on the radar. He'd never been to pro running's Mecca and says: "The old man said you better go up there and have a training run." Come Easter, Brown didn't show his hand on Saturday, winning his heat in 12.5. King was more than three-quarters of a second faster.

On Sunday, Brown's younger brothers went to the track and were surprised to see King there, watching the action. When they returned to their motel and told Chris, he felt it was "a bit odd, but maybe it was his way".

King told Len Johnson in 2004: "I'm a cocky person. I am an extrovert by nature. I won the heat and thought: 'How easy is this'." He then overheard someone in the dining room say it's all very well to run that time in a heat, but he'll be thinking about it all weekend.

Which the pipe-smoking King proceeded to do. Brown calls it "the weekend worry … I've seen eight or 10 who should've won but didn't". When King ran what he described as "a very average semi", he admitted "it threw every bit of negativity into me".

Brown won the first of the five semi-finals in 12.2. By the time King had won his in 12 flat, and Allen Pollock had clocked 12.1, the complexion of things – in the runners' minds, at least – had changed. King described running the final "like a chased rabbit" and he was beaten by Pollock, with Brown third.

That year's five finalists had all stepped up from winning novice-class events, with a resultant handicapping benefit. King points out that Stawell is unique in that it can thrust an athlete with little competitive experience under the spotlight unlike, say, an Olympic final in which the favourite is necessarily a hardened competitor.

When Len Johnson interviewed him, King used a powerful image: describing the distraction it would provide if a runner's lane was elevated 20 metres above ground level. And that "if you then elevated it between two skyscrapers, you'd be lucky to crawl down the track. At Stawell, I was distracted by the skyscrapers."

So it was that the hottest favourite in Stawell's long history was beaten. For Neil King, though, it inspired four victories in six years as a coach on the famous grass track. He also forged a career as a sports administrator, becoming chief executive of Athletics Australia and later, briefly, at Geelong Football Club.

Chris Brown's love affair with Stawell has been longer lasting still. When I spoke to him on Good Friday, he was stuck in traffic at Beaufort while making his annual pilgrimage for the Easter Gift. He didn't ever make another final but was runner-up at Bendigo in '83 and won the 1986 Rye Gift.

As for the reporter who covered Stawell for The Age in 1976, well, Mike Sheahan forged a useful career too. Not that his footy tipping was always his strongest point, but it's doubtful he ever declared an absolute certainty after witnessing the 1976 Stawell Gift.

Interesting to note that as the second half of the VFL split round was played on Easter Monday that year, the back page of The Age reveals Mike tipping two of the three winners (no one predicted Melbourne to upset the Bombers at Windy Hill), while stalwarts Percy Beames and Ron Carter went winless. The young bloke was on his way.

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