East Kilbride’s Calum McWilliam made it third-time lucky by winning the 149th New Year Sprint at Musselburgh Racecourse, pushing his club-mate and defending champion Greg Kelly down into fourth place as he failed to become the first repeat winner since Willie McFarlane back in 1934.
McWilliam, 22, had been unplaced in the last two New Year finals, but he was always likely to challenge again after veteran handicapper Adam Crawford gave him a generous 9.75 metre start for the classic 110m handicap.
McWilliam won his qualifying heat on Saturday, although others grabbed the attention by going faster in other heats, but he put down a clear marker in yesterday’s fourth cross-tie (semi-final) when he pipped promoter Frank Hanlon’s pre-event tip Ryan Houten in a photo finish in 11.54 seconds.
That made him the quickest of the eight qualifiers, although Houten, Alex Young and Kelly were equally impressive, while Saturday’s 90m winner William Hutchison only just scraped through as one of the fastest losers after being outpaced by Kelly in the opening cross-tie. Of the golden oldies, 61-year-old former footballer Graeme Armstrong narrowly failed to progress and 1991 champion Doug Donald, now 58, also missed out.
The final was contested in wet and windy conditions after the weather suddenly worsened, but McWilliam focused on his lane and overtook Hutchison and Lasswade’s Keiran Reilly before holding off Kelly’s desperate late surge to break the tape first in 11.80secs, with Hutchison second, Houten third and Kelly out of the medals in fourth.
“It’s still a bit surreal. I never thought it would come true,” smiled McWilliam after accepting the winner’s crystal trophy and a cheque for £4,000. “I’ve been in the last three finals here, so it was third time lucky. It all worked out perfectly this time. I was just trying to focus and keep tunnel vision, as my coach always tells me. I knew I had it with about 20 metres to go and when I crossed the line I realised it was me.
“I’ve got some indoor races coming up for Glasgow Caledonian University and I’ll probably do some Highland Games this summer. For me, it’s all about going for titles rather than chasing fast times.”
For runner-up Hutchison, second place represented a triumph over adversity, and he explained: “I was injured, with my knee in half, at the start of the year, but I decided to come back for a laugh, training once a week. I really enjoyed winning the 90m on Saturday, but running four races in total was hard going. I was lucky to get through the semi-final, but I was very happy to qualify and I did all I could in the final. It was really good fun.”
Following his gallant title defence, deposed champion Kelly said: “I’m happy with my race. It was always going to be tough, starting from over three metres further back than last year. I was only sixth or seventh-fastest in the heats on Saturday, but I took it slightly easier then. I had to go harder in today’s cross-tie and treat it like a final, going full-out. Beating one of the favourites (Hutchison) boosted my confidence. All the finalists were within two tenths of a second, so I knew it was going to be a blanket finish, and that’s exactly what you want from the New Year Sprint. At least my training partner won, so full credit to him.”