Greg Kelly partied like it was 2017 after winning yesterday’s 150th New Year Sprint in a blanket finish at Musselburgh Racecourse to reclaim the title he lost last year to his East Kilbride club-mate and training partner Calum McWilliam.
Defending champion McWilliam was attempting to become the first back-to-back winner of the iconic 110m handicap since Willie McFarlane in 1934, but the weight of history proved too much although he fought bravely to reach his fourth successive final. He eventually finished seventh behind surprise medallists Douglas Young (Kelso) and Alessandro Schenini (Giffnock), who both scraped through to the final as fastest losers. In fourth place, 17-year-old Lasswade kid Murray Blair announced himself as a possible champion of the future.
Kelly and Pitreavie’s Billy Doyle went quickest in Sunday’s qualifying heats at Prestonpans and the switch from synthetic track to grass did not slow them down. Kelly took yesterday’s opening cross-tie (semi-final) in 11.79secs and Doyle won race two in 11.89. McWilliam and Hawick’s James Parker were adjudged to have dead-heated in semi three, although McWilliam clearly crossed the line first, and Blair then followed up Sunday’s sizzling heat time with an 11.85 clocking to win semi-final four. The three fastest losers who also advanced to the final were Young, Schenini and Carlisle’s Joe Connelly, but it was the end of the road for female trio Stacey Downie, Rianna Sterricks and Megan Busby-Bell, who all had dreams of emulating 2016 champion Jazmine Tomlinson.
A tight schedule meant the eight finalists had barely an hour between semis and final and although the limited recovery time and bitter conditions caused Connolly to pull a muscle, the other seven all rose to the occasion. Holder McWilliam made little impression despite bettering last year’s winning mark, while Doyle failed to reproduce his qualifying form. Up front, surprise packages Young and Schenini and teenager Blair were split by just 0.06secs as they battled to make the medal podium, but Kelly breasted the tape a full metre clear, posting an outstanding winning time of 11.50 off a start of just 5.5m.
“I really wanted to become a double winner because it hasn’t been done for a long time,” said Kelly as he clutched the Eric Liddell Trophy and a cheque for £8,000. “I went into the event as favourite, so that put more pressure on me, but I ran a smooth race in the semi-final. I won it quite comfortably and was easing down towards the end. I just wanted to get the job done and get through to the final.
“My physio Davie is constantly helping me, so my legs felt good for the final. I was very nervous, but I had a belief that I would do it and you need that. You can’t have any doubts.
“I got out of the blocks well and felt strong and bouncy. I probably thought I’d won it with about ten metres to go. Some of the other guys were still level with me, but I knew I’d pass them. I’m sure I’ll come back to try and defend it next year, but it’ll be very difficult to win again.”
Despite losing his crown, McWilliam conceded: “I can’t complain overall. It was my goal to reach my fourth final, so I’m very satisfied that I did that. The short gap between the semi and the final wasn’t an issue because we train for that. I felt I had more to give after the semi-final, but it was tough being out there in lane eight.”
At just 17, Blair reacted in a mature fashion after finishing fourth in 11.65 off a start of 11m. Having been drawn in cross-tie four, he had less recovery time than Kelly, but Blair admitted: “I stretched out okay between the two races, so my legs didn’t feel tight for the final and I felt really good at the start. I ran well in the semi, but it was a tough final with a lot of very good runners in it. Any one of the eight had a chance to win it. This was my first year here and hopefully I’ll be back again next January.”