Ross back for gift
Dual Stawell Gift winner Josh Ross will run off 1.5-metres in the famous footrace as he returns from a 10-year absence from competitive athletics.
The mark has taken Ross, who expected to be off scratch considering his previous success at the event, by surprise.
“I’m extremely happy with my handicap. I’m a little shocked because I expected scratch,” he said.
“I always enjoy the challenge of running off the mark of honour, however 1.5m is still going to be a big challenge, but I’m looking forward to it.”
Ross is trying to create history by being the first at the Stawell Easter weekend carnival to win the open gift three times.
Victorian Athletic League announced handicaps for all athletes competing in the carnival at Central Park from Saturday until Monday.
League secretary Tom Burbridge said racing was wide open this year.
“Of course you never know with the Stawell Gift, it is all part of the anticipation around this iconic grand final of our professional league,” he said.
“We have tried to make the individual gifts more competitive during the past two seasons and as a result we’ve seen more athletes from interstate attend more of the smaller meetings throughout the season.
“But the Stawell Gift is the pinnacle event with some 20 heats in the open gift alone.”
Also off the 1.5m mark is 21-year-old Melbourne sprinter Michael Romanin who outran a class field to claim first prize in the Maryborough Gift in January.
Romanin also won last year’s Bendigo Gift and was fifth in the 2017 Stawell Gift.
Last year’s open gift winner Matt Rizzo received 4.5 metres, a mark he expected and ‘exactly what we wanted’.
“My coach Matt Carter and I believe I can be competitive off that mark,” he said.
“However, it’s never a guarantee. There is a handful of quality athletes behind me and in front of me, so this year will be super competitive.”
Last year’s women’s gift winner Liv Ryan will also run off 4.5 metres.
Former open gift winner Murray Goodwin, missing from Stawell action this year because of Commonwealth Games commitments, said he expected a tighter contest than last year.
“Rizzo can indeed be competitive again, but obviously now runs off a significantly tighter mark. He’s shown throughout the year he can continue to improve and is relishing the backmarker positions,” he said.
“I expect him to final and if he gets his trademark start will make things very interesting. He’ll be trying to run down Gary Finegan, 5.25, who is highly experienced and has the right mark now to be my number-one selection.
“The other I have on my podium is Jacob Despard, 4.5. He comes from the super crop of Australian juniors and will have taken a lot from a season of mixing it with Australia’s top sprinters. The whole of Tassie will be cheering him on.
“Others in my final include Dale Woodams, 8, Kevin Brittain, 9, and one I’ve always had time for, Daniel Sonsini, 7.25. “It should be a fantastic race.” Lauren Wells, 400m champion and also with Commonwealth commitments, said she would also keep a close eye on results from Queensland.
“In the women’s gift I think Sophia Fighera, 5.25, as well athletes including Tara Domaschenz, 5, and Holly Dobbyn, 3, will be the ones to watch,” she said.
Three days of action-packed racing, activities and entertainment make up the 2018 Stawell Gift Carnival.
Fashions on the field headlines offtrack action, which takes centre stage on Easter Saturday with $2500 in prize money and gifts up for grabs. Easter Sunday is family day at Stawell with an Easter egg hunt headlining a schedule of child-friendly activities including an athletics clinic, an animal nursery among other activities.