More so than ever, competitors in this year’s New Year Sprint will be racing against the ghosts of the past as well as their modern-day rivals in Sunday’s heats at Prestonpans and Tuesday’s final at Musselburgh Racecourse.
This, after all, will be the 150th running of the historic 110m handicap event which was first contested at Powderhall in 1870 and continued uninterrupted through two World Wars and a variety of venues.
Veteran promoter Frank Hanlon, now 74 and calling the shots for the 28th time, has pulled out all the stops to mark the occasion, doubling the first prize to £8,000 and also offering a £20,000 bonus if anyone can beat George McNeill’s legendary world record time of 11.14 seconds.
“I’ve seen every final since 1962, including George McNeill winning in 1970,” said Hanlon, who somehow organised the 2017 Sprint from a hospital bed after injuring both legs and breaking his wrist in a domestic fall. “After doing it for nearly 30 years, I can almost do it in my sleep now. I know what needs to be done and it all falls into place really. I’m still waiting for somebody to take over from me, but nobody’s come along yet. I can’t go on forever, although I’ll probably go on until I’m 99!”
The Sprint is far from a being a one man show, however, as Glenrothes handicapper Adam Crawford has been Robin to Hanlon’s Batman since they joined forces in 1992. This year’s edition will be Crawford’s 40th, and Hanlon added: “He’s always there to help me out, but so are the local boys too. They don’t get paid – they’re just genuine boys who are interested in sport.
“Adam has no vested interest in any of the runners and he’s always been scrupulously fair. Technically, everybody should cross the line at the same time in a handicap, and that’s what Adam tries to ensure.”
Hanlon’s cash incentives, plus the winner’s medal and Eric Liddell Trophy, have attracted a high-class field of 79 sprinters, compared to 66 last year.
Among them are a host of former champions, and one of them, holder Calum McWilliam, is bidding to become the first athlete to claim back-to-back titles since Glasgow’s Willie McFarlane in 1934. McWilliam’s East Kilbride club-mate Greg Kelly could also underline his name in the history books after winning in 2017 and finishing fourth last January.
“Greg Kelly is my favourite,” admitted Hanlon. “It all depends on the conditions of course. It could be frosty and hard underfoot, for example, but I’m happy whoever wins as long as the whole thing is done fairly.”
McWilliam begins his defence in heat two at Meadowmill Sports Centre on Sunday. All 12 heat winners automatically progress to Tuesday’s cross ties (semi-finals), while the eight fastest losers will also book places at Musselburgh. McWilliam’s first problem is that he is off 8.25m this year as opposed to 9.75 last time – a disadvantage of nearly five feet – and he must also outpace three runners who start off 20m or more, including female sprinters Stacey Downie and Natasha Turnbull.
Kelly is off 5.5m in heat six, while two other former champions, Hawick duo Leigh Marshall and Daniel Paxton, will go head-to-head in heat three. 1991 winner Doug Donald, now 59, runs in heat nine and backmarker Cameron Tindle faces a daunting task in heat 11. The 2015 champion is off just 2.5m and will have Durham’s Paul Donaghy starting more than 16m ahead in the next lane. An outsider could be long jumper and 2017 runner-up Jordan Charters, who goes off 11m in the opening heat.
Many of the previously-mentioned, including Tindle off scratch, will contest a special 90m handicap for former winners on Sunday, while Prestonpans also hosts youths’, ladies’ and veterans’ races over the same distance plus youth and open events over 200m and 800m.