Date: 21st March 2018

Past Winners Pick their Ones to Watch

The Victorian Athletic League has announced the handicaps for all athletes competing in this year’s Stawell Gift Carnival, held over Easter from Saturday March 31 to Monday April 2.

In a field of over 1700 entries and 677 runners, VAL CEO Tom Burbidge believes the result this year is wide open due to several factors including the Commonwealth Games and the return of Olympic sprinter Josh Ross.

“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,” said Tom.  “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.”

All eyes will be on twice-winner Josh Ross (2003/2005) as he returns after a ten-year break from competitive athletics.  He will run off 1.5m which he wasn’t expecting nor prepared for.

“I’m extremely happy with my handicap, I’m a little shocked because I expected scratch. 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!” said Ross on hearing of his mark.  Ross will be trying make history by being the first at Stawell to win the Open Gift three times.

Also off the 1.5m mark is 21 year old Melbourne sprinter Michael Romanin who outran a class field to claim the 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 Stawell Gift Open winner Matt Rizzo received the handicap he expected.  “4.5m is exactly what we wanted,” said Rizzo.  “My coach Matt Carter and I are happy with 4.5m and we believe I can be competitive off that mark.  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. 

“It’s fantastic that Josh Ross will be back competing at Central Park. You can never forget that magical run in 2005, where he shocked the field and made history, becoming a two-time Stawell Gift champion. That 2005 race is something I look back on most times before I compete. I have the utmost respect for Josh and wish him luck throughout this year’s Carnival.” 

2017 Australia Post Women’s Gift winner Liv Ryan has been given the handicap she expected which is 4.5m even though she was “hoping for more.”

2015 Stawell Gift Murray Goodwin who is out of contention this year as he is competing at the Commonwealth Games, believes the 2018 rendition of the Stawell Gift looks like it will be as intriguing as ever.

“I expect it to be much more tightly contested than last year when Matthew Rizzo really was a class act all weekend and separated himself out from the rest of the competitors.

“Rizzo can indeed be competitive again, but obviously runs now off a significantly tighter mark. He’s shown throughout the year he can continue to improve and is relishing the backmarker positions. I expect him to final and if he gets his trademark start will make things very interesting.

“The one I believe he’ll be trying to run down is Gary Finegan (5.25). Highly experienced and has the right mark now to be my number 1 selection. Has raced himself into great form over the last few months, placing in the Qld Open 100m State Championships and winning the Euroa Gift after making the big decision to be away from his family in America.

“The other I have on my podium is Jacob Despard (4.5).  He comes from the that super crop of Australian juniors including Hale, Browning and Williams – all Comm Games bound – and he will have taken a lot from a season of mixing it with Australia’s top sprinters regularly. The whole of Tassie will be cheering him on.

“Others in my final include Dale Woodhams (8) who looked very good recently – Kevin Brittain (9) who gets a nice lift leading on from Parkdale – and one I’ve always had time for Daniel Sonsini (7.25) who could be the forgotten man in this year’s race.

“It should be a fantastic race!” concluded Murray Goodwin.

Lauren Wells, 400m champion also commenting from the Gold Coast on her missing the great race this year, said.  “I’m sad that I won’t be at Stawell this Easter due to Commonwealth Games commitments, but I will still have a close eye on the results. 

“In the Women’s Gift I think Sophia Fighera (5.25) and her sister Sienna (5.5), as well as the POD squad (trainer Peter O’Dwyer) athletes including Tara Domaschenz (5) and Holly Dobbyn (3) will be the ones to watch. 

“In the Men’s Open I will be cheering my training partner Brendan Matthews (7.5) who is trying to make his 4th final. His strongest opposition will be last year’s winner Matt Rizzo (4.5) and I wouldn’t discount Jacob Despard (4.5), Gary Finegan (5.25) and Dale Woodhams (8).

“I wish all of the athletes the very best and look forward to being back again in 2019,” said Lauren.

Luke Versace, former Stawell Gift winner and current Patron of the Stawell Athletic Club favours Gary Finegan, Matt Rizzo, Dale Woodhams, Jacob Despard as well as Albury’s Hayden Wyllie, winner of the Wangaratta Gift and the Bendigo Gift 70m this year on 9.75.

Jason Richardson, former Stawell Gift winner and Channel 7 presenter, mentioned several high performing athletes as “ones to watch” including Matt Rizzo, Dale Woodhams and Jacob Despard in the Open Gift and Alexia Loizou, Laura Downie, Tara Domaschenz, Pam Austin and Mia Gross in the Women’s Gift.

Alexia Loizou, 19, from Victoria’s Frankston South trained by Matt Carter and Bron Loizou, is a national and state title holder and this is her first Stawell Gift. Her handicap is 5.25m due to her recent good form at St Albans, Northcote, Sandringham, Geelong and Avondale Heights Gifts.

Laura Downie, the 26-yearold from Riverside in Tasmania trained by Andrew Robinson is the current TAL Female Sprinter of the Year 2017/18 and reached the semi-finals in last year’s Womens Gift runs off 7.75m.

Tara Domaschenz (5), runner up at the Ballarat Gift, will be “doing everything in her control to get to the start line of the Women’s Gift final but knows it will be a challenge.  “There are a few girls in with a good shot,” said Tara.

Pam Austin returned to athletics after a four year break this year to win the women’s 100m at the Daylesford Gift in January and has been given 10.5.

Geelong teenager Mia Gross is backmarker on 1.75m, with West Australian teenager Amy Tolcon and Jessica Payne just ahead of her on 2m.

Mia Gross is the Australian Under 20 junior champion for 100m and the Victorian U18 200m and 400m champion.   On her experience at Stawell, Mia said: “We have always come and just watched the Gift.  I never thought I would be good enough to run and then one day Mum announced she was just going to enter me in the 200m and the U/18 100m.  I didn’t make it past the heat in the 100m, I had to give Liv Ryan a big head start and she ended up winning the 100m.  I won the Jack Donaldson 200m in 2016. I couldn’t believe I scraped though.  I entered in 2017 but unfortunately had a hamstring injury so I could only watch.” 

Mia believes her handicap of 1.75m is fair.  “I knew I would be a backmarker.  I just hope that all the handicaps are correct!  I know that I have to run the fastest I have ever run to get through, I can’t make any mistakes and have to improve on getting out of the blocks faster. I’m costing my family a fortune while competing in athletics so I need to try and help them out and pay for my upcoming trips.”

Mia’s family have always lived in Torquay but due to all the travelling moved into Geelong last December.  “I train with the Gulli track squad at Deakin Uni I was born on 18/4/2001 so I’ll be 17 soon!”

Stawell Athletic Club’s Luke Versace also rates Mia’s chances of a place in the final, along with Pam Austin, adding Adelaide Robertson (8), Sophia Fighera (5.25) and 2014 Stawell Gift winner Holly Dobbyn (3) into that group.

Three days of action-packed racing, activities and entertainment make up the 2018 Stawell Gift Carnival. The off-track action is headlined by Fashions on the Field which takes centre stage on Easter Saturday (March 31) with $2500 in prize money and gifts up for grabs. Easter Sunday is Cadbury® Family Day at Stawell with The Cadbury® Easter Egg Hunt headlining a fantastic schedule of child-friendly activities including an athletics clinic, an animal nursery and plenty of other organised fun for the kids.
Tickets can be purchased online in advance of the Stawell Gift here. Adult concession tickets start from just $12, while Child tickets are free on Cadbury® Family Day.

The 2018 Stawell Gift will be broadcast on Channel 7 from 11.30am – 2.30pm AEST on Monday April 2.

For further information, please contact Jane Owen at 360 Sport and Entertainment on 0407936005/

About the Stawell Gift

The Stawell Gift Carnival is one of Australia’s most iconic sporting events, which incorporates the famous 120 Metre handicap foot race known as the Stawell Gift. Run on grass, athletes are handicapped according to form and ability and start off varying marks accordingly. Competitors in the men’s and women’s 120 Metre Gifts compete for a massive $40,000 first prize each as well as a place in Australian sporting folklore. 2017 winners were Matt Rizzo and Liv Ryan. The Stawell Gift is conducted each Easter in Stawell, Victoria. The 2018 carnival will take place from Saturday March 31 – Monday April 2, 2018. More information is available at


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