Talia Martin is only 15, but the way she won the Stawell Gift – and took home the $40,000 winner's cheque – had all the hallmarks of a sting from her grandparents' era, according to long-time Stawell Gift organiser David Culbert.
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Talia Martin's controversial win
Fifteen-year-old Talia Martin won the Stawell Gift on Monday but has been fined $2000 by stewards who questioned her âextremeâ improvement in recent weeks.
Martin won Monday's women's Gift but was fined $2000 for the extraordinary improvement in her time compared with two weeks ago in Ararat. In Stawell, she ran seven metres quicker than she had in Ararat.
That race in Ararat came as she was dealing with the death of an aunt, but her times throughout this year over 120 metres on grass at gifts around the state suggest she was consistently running 14.5 seconds. She won the Gift on Monday - off a 13-metre handicap - in 13.7 seconds.
Martin ran 14.7 seconds from a mark of 11.5 metres (108.5 metres) in Maryborough on January 1, 14.41 when she won her heat from the same mark in Ballarat in February and followed up with a run of 14.56 when she finished sixth in her semi-final there. Her handicap of 13 metres for Stawell was largely set on those times. In Ararat she finished third in 12.59 in a 100-metre race from a mark of 9.5 metres.
Martin's odds with the bookmakers plunged from $21 on Friday to $5 before she ran Saturday to finally be odds on at $1.80 on Monday for the final.
"By the time Saturday came around we had her pretty short because she was taken out a bit by then. We took a couple of grand on her at $21 on Friday night so she came in to about $4 or $5 by Saturday," said John Henry, who sets the odds for bookmaker Geoff Miles at the track
"That was with us, I am not sure if they took much off Les (bookmaker Montgomery)."
Stawell Gift chief steward Brian Marantelli said an improvement of that size – between Martin's race time in Ararat and her race time in the Stawell Gift – is often not achievable over a lifetime, let alone in a matter of weeks.
Culbert, a former Olympian, said: "You cannot run 14.5 consistently all year - not just Ararat - then come to the Stawell Gift and run 13.7 and expect to get away with it and everyone to say that is fine."
With national record-holder Melissa Breen in the race in Stawell, running from scratch, all runners were given a handicapping lift, but Martin's handicap was still significant at 13 metres.
That was why alarmed stewards moved in on Saturday when she posted a time so significantly better than her earlier form. A quicker run in Ararat two weeks ago might not have given them time to alter the handicapping but similar times to Stawell all year would have.
"This has all the hallmarks of a 1960s Stawell Gift sting," said Culbert, whose management company was a long-term facilitator of the event.
"Read the history of the winners of the men's Gift and they are filled with stories of stings. This is what pro running has been about - beating the handicapper.
"But I think we have progressed past that where that behaviour is OK. The sponsor is paying $40,000 for first prize and it's fantastic because the women's event has been the biggest story for two years now since they lifted the prize money to be on par with the men's, but you cannot have someone come from the clouds and run seven metres quicker than she has been handicapped on."
Martin's coach, Peter O'Dwyer, a pro running veteran of the Gift, has coached the past three women's gift winners - coincidentally all teenagers. Last year's winner was his daughter Grace.
He said Martin had won the junior Stawell Gift in the past two years as a 13- and 14-year-old, which proved she was a class athlete and her form exposed to handicappers.
"If you have a look at it, she has improved three metres in 12 months. If you can't improve a 15-year-old three metres in 12 months, you might as well give coaching away," O'Dwyer said.
He said when she ran in Maryborough and Ballarat she ran off 11.5 metres and all runners were given a two metres lift in Stawell because of Breen running.
"The controversy is really around the Ararat race and we only went there because we are local family training squad in Ballarat. We saw how the death of her aunt affected her there. After that run I thought 'well, she won't get up for Stawell' but she wanted to compete," O'Dwyer said.
"You saw how she won the race. She has a big heart. She is only 43 kilos but she is so strong. Bouncing back from the death of her aunt to win the Stawell Gift, she will not be worried by this controversy."
Marantelli said on Monday the stewards initially fined Martin $2000 but that O'Dywer and Martin's father appealed the severity of the fine - not the finding - and the appeals body reduced the fine to $500 plus the first $1500 of any prize money she might win.
He said they had no capacity under the rules to alter her handicap. A handicap could only be changed if it emerged a runner did not declare a personal best, Marantelli said.
Culbert said the rules needed to be changed.
"The officers of the sport need to ensure that this cannot happen again. It's too easy to get away with $40k. They have to change the rules to be able to disqualify a runner and say, 'Thanks very much, you are out'.
"That's the easiest thing to do – to just be able to reassess it and say sorry you are out. Or you can run but you can't win prize money."
In recent years, the rules relating to novice runners have varied. Traditionally, novice runners were awarded an arbitrary mark of seven metres in their first year, with a metre added each year if they did not improve over ensuing 12-month periods. That would have meant Martin ran from seven metres last year and eight metres this year; instead this year she ran from 13 metres.