It’s 1939 and a young railway clerk from Ballarat is lining up in the 20th heat of the world’s richest footrace — The Stawell Gift. It’s a race that has become famous throughout the land and attracts competitors from all over the Commonwealth as well as huge crowds to the otherwise sleepy country town of Stawell.
Len Sprague, the Ballarat Flyer, was up against one of the hottest favourites for the race in years, a New South Welshman by the name of R.C Auswild. No one in the 22,000-strong crowd at Central Park that day gave the young Sprague any hope of progressing past his heat; all the attention was on Auswild — and so too was the money. A late betting plunge saw Auswild’s odds shorten to unbackable favouritism, and the predicted speed of his victory would be matched by the bookmakers silly enough to take on the red-hot favourite as they bolted from the bookies’ ring in a hasty exit.
But nobody told the young man Sprague that he was racing for the minor placings.
Sprague caused the biggest boilover of the day by holding off the favourite to win his heat, with the loudest cheers coming from the bookmakers. He went on to win the Gift over 130 yards and did it under duress, suffering from fallen arches on both feet that required extensive bandaging before each race, and then went on to win the 75-yard Sprint Handicap to prove his Gift win was no fluke.
In 1941, Sprague set a world record time of 21.1 sec for the 220-yard Steward’s Purse at the Stawell Gift meeting before serving his time in the RAAF as a sergeant instructor. In 1946 this future Stawell Gift Hall of Famer was invited to participate in one of the biggest athletics carnivals the Mornington Peninsula had ever seen to be held at Alexandra Park. He accepted and the Peninsula was abuzz with excitement.
The town of Mornington and the organising committee went all out to make sure that Alexandra Park would be a fitting venue to stage a race pitting Sprague, the Australian Professional Runners Champion, winner of the Stawell Gift and Port Fairy Gift and many more, against the best young athletes the region had to offer. The main race of the day was to be The Mornington Gift with a first prize purse of £52, making it one of the richest foot races of its day, enough to attract runners from all corners of the state and country.
The whole Peninsula community got behind the organising committee headed by Mornington Football Club president A.C. Campbell, with advertisements placed in the Frankston and Mornington Standard newspapers. The winner’s sash, donated by J.H Livock of Main St, would be presented by shire president and Toorak MP Cr R. B. Hamilton and his wife.
Five thousand people were expected to attend the big day, with provisions for more than 2000 cars being made at Alexandra Park in what one scribe at the time described as “one of the greatest events in Mornington’s history” and “the most splendid advertisement the seaside town has undertaken”.
The athletics carnival held at Alexandra Park on Boxing Day 1945 was a big deal for the region, a chance to show the rest of the state that the Mornington Peninsula was not a backwater but a thriving community capable of organising and holding major events. And the day did not disappoint.
History will show that the great champion Len Sprague won the blue-ribbon event of the day — the Mornington Gift — by a whisker from O’Brien with unnamed runner just a heartbeat behind. Other events on the card included the Beleura and Peninsula Handicap, the Mt Martha Mile and the 180-yards hurdle. The Victorian Ex-Servicemen’s Brass Band played and everyone had a great time — with the possible exception of the bookies because on this occasion the favourite did win the day.