By MELANIE WHELAN –
FIST-pumping through the gates, Craig Mair knew he had the $16,000 Ballarat Gift sash.
Ask him about what unfolded and the Melbourne stable master is not sure how exactly it happened at Eastern Oval on Sunday afternoon.
Mair won the Albury-Wodonga Gift last week, so stewards pulled him back two metres to the 12m mark, then he backed it up again by taking out the Freight Bar and Restaurant Ballarat Gift title.
The 38-year-old is back racing after a two-month hiatus – mostly, he says, to help nurse his ageing body through the Victorian Athletic League season – and was stunned with the result.
“I thought this field was way too hot for me to win, and that Albury would be too good,” Mair said.
“To be honest, this final is the biggest race I’ve ever been in. I’ve never made a final like Ballarat before.
“To win it is mind-boggling. I’m still not sure how I did it.”
Mair stumbled on the blocks – he recalled that clearly post-race – in the lane next to one of the VAL’s best starters in 70m specialist Darren Whittaker, who was also on 12m.
However, Mair held off his chasers to clock a winning time of 12.36 seconds, with Stawell Gift finalist Christopher Innes-Wong (7.5m) second and in-form backmarker Tim Eschebach (6.75m) in third position.
Mair said his young stable, including Ballarat Women’s Gift finalist Keely Henderson, was the key to his stellar form.
“They’re all young, mostly 16 and 17-year-old kids, and we do a lot of racing,” he said.
“Honestly, they’re probably why I’m running so well, (but) I’m really competitive and I just want to beat them.”
Fellow VAL trainer Mark Hipworth was similarly working to set the tone for his stable in the final.
The 55-year-old did not place in the Gift final but earlier captured the open 1600m sash and was surrounded by his fluoro-clad charges.
“For me, setting an example is the essence of sport,” Hipworth said.
“It’s lovely to win – and obviously seeing what it means to them – but it’s about a lifestyle and running is a wonderful way of life.”
Hipworth has won over every VAL distance except 70m, and said the 1600m win felt as good as, if not better, than every other sash he had won.
Ballarat did not have a home-town sprinter in the Gift final.
Key hope Sam Baird, in his return meet, was run out in third in semi-final one, with only the top two placegetters in each semi advancing to the final.
Stuart Rooke and Edward Ware claimed those spots, wiping out not just Baird but fellow Ballarat hopes Liam Procaccino, Shane Woodrow and Peter O’Dwyer.
Ballarat’s Nathan Dixon also reached the semi-finals.