Australia's best: Top athletes to vie for Stawell Gift glory

STAWELL will welcome some of the nation’s best athletes to Central Park for the 2014 Australia Post Stawell Gift carnival at the weekend.

Reigning Stawell Gift winner Andrew Robinson will return to defend his crown, while Australia’s fastest female sprinter Melissa Breen will run against the men.

Breen has her sights set on becoming the first female Stawell Gift semi-finalist.

She will also compete in the Strickland Family Women’s Gift against 2014 Commonwealth Games team-mate Lauren Wells.

More than 170 athletes are set to contest the 133rd running of the iconic race, however 2012 winner Matthew Wiltshire has withdrawn through injury.

Victorian 100-metre champion Joel Bee will start the 120-metre race as the backmarker from 0.75 metres, while Robinson will run from 3.5 metres and Breen from the limit mark of 10 metres.

Jana Pittman will make her first appearance at Stawell in the Lorraine Donnan 400-metre Women’s Handicap after competing at the 2014 Winter Olympics, while John Steffensen will return to Central Park for the WH Earle Handicap 550-metre event.

Former Stawell Gift winner Jason Richardson – who won the southern hemisphere’s richest, most prestigious footrace in 1993 and will commentate this year’s event for ONE – said it was an exciting time for everyone involved.

“This is such a great time of the year for anyone who’s been in the privileged position like me of winning the race that everyone in this sport loves to win,” he said.

“There’s $40,000 in prize money for the winner, but as much as that’s nice, the chance to get your name in the history book is what everyone strives for.”

Richardson said it was almost impossible to predict who would win.

“You need to have the right handicap, the right preparation and the ability to win this great race,” he said.

“It’s one of those unique Australian sporting events – getting people’s predictions is almost useless.” 

Stawell Athletic Club president Jeremy Irvine said the club was prepared for a busy weekend after 12 months of hard work.

“We’re hoping for an increase on last year’s crowd, that’s always the goal,” he said.

“All our entries are up this year, so if that translates into people coming through the gate, that’s always good.”

Ararat athlete and coach Marcus Cooper will contest two events, with a number of his charges competing across the weekend.

Cooper said his athletes were ready to go.

“We’ve had a really good season and lots of success, which has been really good,” he said. 

“I’ve got five guys this year having their first run up there and it’s a matter of keeping them calm and telling them to enjoy it.”

Ararat athlete Tiffany Boatman – who last month won the Flack Advisory 400-metre Women’s Black Pearl in Bendigo – will run in the women’s gift alongside stablemate Sarah Blizzard.

Fraser Heard and Jacqui Scott will both run in under-20 finals.

Gates open at 9am.

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