Greg Kelly’s bid for an historic hat-trick fell at the first hurdle yesterday as the defending New Year Sprint champion narrowly failed to reach tomorrow’s semi-finals at Musselburgh Racecourse.
The 20-year-old finance student from East Kilbride was attempting to become the first three-time winner of the world-famous 110m handicap and the first man to claim back-to-back titles since Willie McFarlane in 1934, but Kelly’s quest ended in yesterday’s qualifying heats at Meadowmill Sports Centre in Prestonpans.
It was always a big ask for him after veteran handicapper Adam Crawford reduced last January’s start by fully three metres, and Kelly was never in contention in heat eight as Lasswade’s Murray Blair, fourth last year, capitalised on his 7.5m lead over Kelly and raced home in 11.42secs.
The champion salvaged second place but soon learned that his time of 11.83 had missed out on a fastest loser spot by barely 0.07secs.
“I’m just gutted, but you have to accept it’s not going to happen for you every year,” shrugged Kelly.
“I feel I could have done some damage on Wednesday (in the semis and final), but you have to get through to Wednesday first.
“Sometimes the heats are tougher than the final, and although my heat was the fourth-fastest overall, I wasn’t close enough to the winner.
“I got out of the starting blocks fairly well but didn’t feel I had another gear there. I really should have run a tenth or two faster, which wouldn’t have won the heat but would’ve got me through as a fastest loser. The race is definitely on the agenda again next year. I can’t imagine not doing it next year.”
2018 champion Calum McWilliam can still give East Kilbride coach Gordon Bury a fourth straight title after scraping through as a fastest loser in 11.66 despite finishing only fourth in heat five behind his club-mate Iain McEwan.
“I’ve had a virus this past week and didn’t really run all that well today, but Wednesday is another day,” warned McWilliam.
“I got off to a decent enough start, but I struggled a bit in the closing stages of the race. I finished fourth in a blanket finish and didn’t think my time would give me any chance of qualifying, but I got through as a fastest loser. It was a mixed bag for our club, though, as Greg just missed out.”
Unlike his friend and training partner Kelly, McWilliam lives to fight another day, although yesterday’s evidence points to a new winner on Wednesday afternoon. Central’s Ian Horsburgh posted the quickest time of the day (11.30) in heat six and Kilbarchan’s Krishawn Aitken and Giffnock’s Kyle McLean both ran 11.37 in race two.
Edinburgh’s Stacey Downie clocked a swift 11.41 when beating pre-event favourite Douglas Young in heat three, although last year’s runner-up from Kelso did enough to progress in 11.48.
Capital sprinter Sarah Malone caused quite a stir in the opening heat as she outpaced her boyfriend Alessandro Schenini to win in 11.52. Schenini, third in last year’s final, survived the embarrassment and advanced to the semis as a fastest loser, while Edinburgh’s Kieran Kivlin also went through in the same way.