"There’s no doubt what happened. In my opinion the trainer gave her an easy day."
These are the words of Brian Marantelli, director of the Victorian Athletic League and chief steward of the Stawell Gift, speaking exclusively to The Huffington Post Australia about the lead-up run of 15-year-old Talia Martin 12 days before she won the Stawell Gift.
More of what Marantelli had to say in a minute. But first, a recap:
- Martin won Australia's most prestigious foot race, the 120m Stawell Gift, on Easter Monday. For this she received a hefty prize of $40,000.
- Twelve days earlier she had competed in a race at the nearby town of Ararat. She ran poorly, being eliminated in the heats.
- When Martin won her Stawell Gift heat on Easter Saturday in a blistering 13.697 seconds, the dramatic form turnaround left seasoned sport-watchers scratching their heads.
“She ran a particular time and when she got here she ran seven metres quicker which is more than most runners improve in a lifetime,” Marantelli said.
“In our sport that’s called improvement at extreme range, with extreme range being four metres, so she was well off the chart in terms of improvement in a short space of time."
Stewards fined Martin $2,000. She appealed and the fine was reduced to $500 plus the first $1,500 of any prizemoney -- which we now know she won lots of.
Section 16.38 of the Victorian Athletic League regulations explains why Martin was fined:
16.38 An Athlete will be guilty of an offence where it is established that their performance in any
event conducted by the VAL constitutes:
a) inconsistent running;
b) an unsatisfactory performance; and/or
c) not trying to win.
Martin's team attributed Talia's bad run at Ararat to to emotional distress at the recent death of her aunt Barb. Speaking to The Huffington Post Australia, Marantelli had this to say on the matter:
"Her mistake was running at Ararat 12 days before the Stawell Gift because leading up to the Stawell gift her form had been reasonable. At Ararat she put in an absolute shocker. Then suddenly she went to Stawell 12 days later and improved out of sight," he said.
The Gift is a unique event. It's a sprint run over 120 metres on grass at a dinky little showground in the western Victorian town of Stawell, population 6,000 plus flies, in the shadow of the Grampians mountain range.
The race dates back to 1878. A big part of its attraction -- and indeed its very raison d'être -- is betting. Sports betting is part of the everyday culture of all sports nowadays, but it was once limited almost entirely to creatures with four legs. The Stawell Gift was always an exception. You could legally bet on its two-legged protagonists with on-course bookmakers.
This always made for great intrigue and here's why. The Gift is a handicap. That means that the faster runners start from further back in a staggered start. It's a bit like the way the best-credentialed horses carry the most weight in the Melbourne Cup, which is also a handicap.
So here's how some people have allegedly played it over the years. They run slowly in lead-up races, thus receiving a small handicap for the Stawell Gift. Then they run like the wind and claim the hefty cash prize.
There's another reason to run "dead" in your lead-ups (that's racing parlance for not trying your hardest). If your form reads poorly, your friends and family will in theory be able to snap up much better odds about you winning the main event. It's the oldest trick in racing's very thick book of sneaky moves.
Like we say, that's how some have allegedly played it in the past. No one is suggesting Talia Martin's connections engineered a sting. But as Marantelli said, he believes the trainer gave her an easy day in Ararat.
"The trainer and her father have both said at the appeal we made a mistake, they admit to that," Marantelli said.
Marantelli explained that if Martin had run a really quick time at Ararat (known as a "ceiling time"), she would have received a penalty (handicap) at Stawell. But no such time was achieved.
Martin won Monday's Stawell Gift in a proverbial "bob of the heads", which means by centimetres in a photo finish. Had she run a ceiling time at Ararat, she would likely have started with an extra metre-and-a-half handicap, which would have made all the difference. Indeed she would have missed the podium altogether.
Marantelli, who comes from a line of western Victorian bookmakers, said that there were no unusual betting patterns surrounding Martin's victory.
"I spoke to a few of the bookies. I don’t think they [Martin's supporters] won any reasonable money. The "stable" are mums and dads not really into gambling or anything like that. There were a couple of people who backed her at 25-1 on the Friday night [before the Stawell Gift].
Teenage athletes are renowned for vast performance improvements in short spaces of time as their bodies grow. As for whether Talia Martin will keep improving enough to defend her Stawell Gift crown next year, that's another story. Brian Marantelli, for one, is sceptical
"When you win win the Stawell Gift you get about four metres [handicap]. She'll be running against some pretty good runners."