LEADING Ballarat sprinter Matt Wiltshire says a move to Eastern Oval will offer greater benefit for Ballarat Gift athletes and spectators this summer.
Wiltshire says the Gift track can be mowed shorter and rolled, similarly to the Stawell Gift, rather than at Ballarat’s usual Eureka Stadium base which is primarily a football stadium.
And the finish line will send athletes right to the base of what he knows will be a roaring grand stand.
The Ballarat Gift, boasting a $20,000 prize pool for its headline race, is the second richest footrace to Stawell in Victoria.
The two-day meet has been growing in popularity but moves this season to make way for AFL football at Eureka Stadium. But Eastern Oval is a proven popular back-up choice.
This year’s Gift at Eureka Stadium boasted more than 750 entries for the first time since 2009 – when the Gift was last at Eastern Oval and only offering $5000.
Stawell Gift’s 2012 winner Matt Wiltshire was yet to arrive on the Victorian Athletic League circuit back then, but the move to Eastern Oval, during Northern Oval upgrades, was dominated by hometown talent.
Veteran sprinter Rod Mathews won the marquee race with then-Ballarat trained Sarah Byron capturing the women’s gift sash.
Ballarat Athletic Club Shane Woodrow said the Gift had been building steadily since, including a new naming rights sponsor for this season’s event in accounting firm PPT.
Woodrow said the club remained happy with Eureka Stadium but a scheduling clash with the AFL had forced organisers to seek an alternate venue.
Ballarat Gift will make way for an AFL NAB Challenge game between North Melbourne and Carlton at Eureka Stadium on February 15, a week after the Gift weekend.
The AFL fixture comes with strict ground specifications, including a longer grass length than the cut for VAL meets.
“(Eastern Oval) was really popular with all athletes when we last had it here,” Woodrow said.
“It’s well-protected from trees and aesthetically pleasing.”
Wiltshire said the old Eastern Oval grandstand would offer a similar atmosphere and backdrop for runners to popular Gifts in Maryborough and Stawell.
While Wiltshire has enjoyed great success at Eureka Stadium, including a 70m open sash the same season he won Stawell, he could hardly wait to have a serious run on Eastern Oval.
“I’ve never actually had a run here, except for one game of football,” Wiltshire said.
“We’ll be training here, especially the weeks leading into the Gift to get some familiarity with the track ... if you get a good feel for the track, you can focus on running your best on the day.”
Ballarat stables have shown strong signs in the opening meets of the VAL season, including Woodrow who won the VRTA 200m Gift at Meadowglen.
The Ballarat Gift meet sports $36,000 in total prizemoney across February 8 and 9.