For many of a certain generation, New Year in Edinburgh was about first footing, Hogmanay celebrations at the Tron in the High Street, the Hearts-Hibs derby and the Powderhall Sprint. While change inevitably accompanies the passing of time, it is gratifying to note that the Sprint will celebrate its 150th anniversary today, the world’s oldest continuous track event.
Now referred to as the New Year Sprint, the finals take place at Musselburgh Racecourse alongside the National Hunt meeting, with a special prize of £8,000 for the winner on this landmark occasion.
Although Powderhall Stadium no longer exists, it is central to the story of the Sprint and remains its spiritual home.
In the mid-Victorian era, before football developed, professional running events became hugely popular, with the potential betting wins from handicap races attracting thousands of punters. Its popularity grew in Edinburgh and, by the 1860s, the capital had three venues, the Royal Patent Gymnasium Grounds, near Scotland Street, the Portobello Recreation Grounds and the Newington Running Grounds, the latter two of only short duration.
Recognising a gap in this market, a syndicate led by CR Bauchope was formed in 1869 to develop Powderhall Stadium as “an up-to-date athletic enclosure”. Bauchope was a noted amateur athlete and Edinburgh University’s inaugural sports champion in 1866.
The first New Year Sprint was held over two days in 1870, attracting a crowd of 25,000, and continued there till the centenary event in 1970, regularly featuring world-class sprinters.
Fittingly, the winners of the first and last Powderhall Sprints were two of the very best of their eras, Dan Wight, of Jedburgh, and George McNeill, of Tranent. Other winnerssuch as Willie McFarlane, of Glasgow, who won in 1933 and 1934, the latter off scratch and Ricky Dunbar of Edinburgh (1963) were at least Olympic class while Australia’s Jack Donaldson (the “Blue Streak”) who was unlucky not to win, was also in the same bracket.
The American Barney Ewell, silver medallist in both sprints at the 1948 Olympics, was another star performer in 1950, by then a professional.
From 1971 to 1998, the Sprint was held at Meadowbank where world-class winners included Americans “Kipper” Bell and Bill Snoddy while Edinburgh’s European champion, Herioter Doug Walker, won the 125th event, the first featuring amateurs. Since 1999, the finals have been held at Musselburgh where winners included Watson’s College pupil Ben Robbins, now a professional rugby player, in 2013 and Jazmine Tomlinson, the first female winner, in 2016.
One person who holds Powderhall memories particularly dearly is Edinburgh’s Sammy Cain, at nearly 94 believed to be the oldest surviving winner of the Sprint. His day of days came in 1945 when, aged 19, he confounded the odds to run off with the Blue Riband of professional sprinting on his debut. A talented young footballer at Bellevue school and for juvenile team Broughton Athletic, he was also a useful boxer, having won a Scottish boys’ title.
Although he never competed in athletics, his pace was noted at football training, leading to one of his club’s officials, Adolph Theurer (later a well-known city councillor) asking him to run a trial against his brother, Bill, who was training for Powderhall. lt took place at Hawkhill, Leith, with Sammy coming a distant second and thinking his sprinting career was over before it started.
However, George McKinlay had different ideas. He was a former sprinter and then coach who had observed the trial and saw potential in him. His overriding ambition was to train a Powderhall winner, never having won it himself.
Taking Sammy under his wing, he educated the youngster in how to run, how to move his arms, lift his knees and keep his head steady. Occasionally, he timed runs but never told Sammy the results. He casually mentioned maybe entering him for Powderhall but made light of it.
Sammy knew nothing about the event, far less the betting involved and the secrecy that shrouded it. That was until one night training at Hawkhill he saw figures concealed in nearby bushes with binoculars, bookies weighing up form for the Sprint.
Runners began training in balaclavas to thwart identification and form being gauged. All this represented the great unknown for the naïve novice who then learned he had been entered and was off five-and-a-half yards.
En route to the stadium, he could not find his name among the entrants, only to be told by McKinlay he was running as R. Gordon – ‘R’ for Richard, his elder brother. and ‘Gordon’, his younger brother.
On arrival Sammy was shocked at what seemed thousands of people milling around, punters, bookies, athletes and trainers. Once his heat was underway, his nerves calmed and he won comfortably.
The next day he won his cross tie to reach the final in which the favourite was D. Craven of Blaydon off six yards, 2-5 on while he was 5-2 against. The stadium stilled as the runners went to their marks only for it to erupt once they were off.
Thanks to a great start (McKinlay said he ‘flew out of the holes like a bird’) he edged ahead of Craven, winning by half a yard. Punters swarmed everywhere to claim winnings and many pressed notes into Sammy’s hand in appreciation. He could barely comprehend the collective jubilation and the enormity of what he had achieved. A first prize of £100 plus £300 as his share of the betting winnings was a fortune for a young man earning about £3 per week. Later he was feted in his local dance hall.
Family and work circumstances meant he was unable to continue running to any significant degree but he harbours fond memories of life in the fast lane. Although the days of big crowds and multiple bookies’ stances have gone, the New Year Sprint endures still as an iconic event. Much praise is due to promoter Frank Hanlon from Bonnyrigg who has invested large sums from his own pocket to keep it alive.
Showing considerable prescience, DA Jamieson, an authority on professional running, wrote in 1943: “Probably the sport will ultimately die out… its survival must depend on the sympathetic attitude of private individuals…”
It has, however, survived, although it may now be nearing life -support status. Having predated the Open Golf Championship, the first football and rugby internationals, the first Scottish Cup and League, Wimbledon, the first Scottish and British athletics championships, it is to be hoped it will continue as an integral part of Scottish sporting culture.