From the press box: The thrill of handicap racing

AUSTRALIANS love an underdog that can power from behind and pull off an impressive victory.

There is a real thrill when you stand near the finishing gates of a gift race to watch athletes surge at the line.

Usually you are left holding your breath as you wait for the official call – have those from the tightest marks in red and white been able to hunt down all those before them? Or, were those racing from the front, often in black and unable to gauge their rivals, able to fend the competition off?

Too often, conservative athletics purists take one look at handicap marks and dismiss the sport as a cheap shot at glory.

“We only run real races,” a relatively high-profile runner once told this reporter when asked if his training partners would consider a run in an upcoming Stawell carnival (as a side note, he obviously had failed to recognise his training partners actually had lined up at Stawell in the past).

Runners like Mr “Real Race” are missing the whole point of professional running. It is a different code to track running, like in the Olympic and world championship stage.

Just like weights in horse-racing and staggered starts in cycling and motorsports, professional running aims to ideally have a tight finish together.

An article on Mount Clear sprinter Tara Domaschenz as the backmarker in the Maryborough Women’s Necklace sparked debate among The Courier’s readers this week.

One reader claimed handicap races should not “rate” and that national rankings and qualifying times were more important.

Professional running arrived in Australia on the goldfields where the prize was a nugget

Another wrote they failed to understand how anyone could be proud of running anything short of the full race distance.

Professional running is an equaliser.

It has its origins amid the Industrial Revolution and arrived in Australia on the goldfields where the prize was a nugget.

Any hard-working miner could have a fair crack. Betting rings ensued.

The amateur circuit was about those who could afford to compete purely for the sport. Their earnings came, and still do, from personal sponsorship.

We determined the best in the world by lining top contenders up against each other.

Everyone starts together at the blocks and the title all comes down to who can finish first.

Professional handicapped races are about working your hardest from start to finish.

Foxing attracts big penalties. Even a return from a hiatus will attract a tight mark and it takes time to reach equilibrium on the grass again.

Stewards do not like surprises, especially with big money involved.


Mount Clear sprinter Tara Domaschenz. PICTURE: JUSTIN WHITELOCK

Domaschenz carried the backmark in the Maryborough women’s 120-metre field because she was marked as the best contender in the field.

She started on the two-metre-mark in her heat, giving away 10 metres to her rival out the front.

Running from the back and wearing the red silks is tough. Domaschenz said it was an honour. 

And on the day she came tantalisingly close to pulling off a win.

Top professional runners still train hard while juggling work or school commitments. Most start their campaigns through solid off-season work in winter and have a background in amateur athletics.

Professional running is not a career but is makes athletics much more accessible.

Even so, not just anyone can turn up to events and rely on a generous mark. There are limits.

The bigger the meet, and the more prize money on offer, then the tighter the marks

The bigger the meet, and the more prize money on offer, then the tighter the marks – and the stronger the field.

Not strong or explosive enough? You get easily caught.

Winning can be rare. Big wins drag your mark back and you have to improve your race, hunt more down, to earn another sash.

Australia’s richest and most famous footrace Stawell often imports big names to compete in its headline race – last year it was the former world’s fastest man Asafa Powell, the year before colourful Australian sprinter John Steffensen.

It gives top gift runners, like Ballarat’s Matt Wiltshire, a chance to test how they measure up – not on time, because it’s not the point, but on who can cover the most distance the quickest.

The aim is to reach the finish before a Powell or Steffensen, who are driven by their finely-tuned competitive instinct, egos and responsibility of top billing.

Many world-class athletes use professional running as a fundamental part of their training in just as much a mental challenge as it might be physically.

They have the unfamiliar sensation of racing from behind the pack.

Australian middle-distance Tamsyn Manou (nee Lewis) made Stawell a key date on her race calendar and included it on her farewell tour last year.

Caribbean athletes like Powell or Usain Bolt’s training partner Michael Frater also relish the chance to run competitively on grass, just like they did growing up.

Our top gift runners may never achieve a national qualifying time or Olympic berth. They are still sporting role models, persistence and doing the best you can with the mark you have.

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