Cheltenham Festival 2016, Horse Racing

Sprinter Sacre Joins the All-Time Greats

History was made yesterday as Sprinter Scare reclaimed the Queen Mother Champion Chase three years after first wowing crowds in 2013. The seven year old star was a virtuoso combination of poise, speed and showmanship and the public simply adored him. Fast forward three years to a tougher version of Sprinter Sacre, one who has almost had to start from scratch, yet one who could still overcome one of Willie Mullins A-Team, in Un de Sceaux.

Cheltenham horses, particularly the speedsters, simply do not come back but, the ‘Sprinter defied all conventional logic with a composed race that for a mile and a half appeared to be run completely within Un de Sceaux’ comfort zone. However, as the two kicked around the home turn, Sprinter Sacre stormed clear, and even some fairly shoddy late jumping was not going to prevent a victory that was as impressive as it was emotional. Indeed, Nico de Boinville – who is having an amazing 12 months – was afforded the luxury of easing home with three and a half lengths to spare.

Willie Mullins should comfortably amass the most winners at this year’s Festival, but the single most outstanding training effort belongs to Nicky Henderson and his incredible rejuvenation of a true all-time great, Sprinter Sacre.

Thursday 17th March – Feature Race: World Hurdle

There’s point in dancing around the fact that the third day of Cheltenham is, by any comparisons, the weakest day’s racing. Nonetheless, the feature World Hurdle – three miles over the smaller obstacles – could today showcase a real star of the future in Thistlecrack. Even the name alone is fantastically onomatopoeic. Trainer, Colin Tizzard, a former dairy farmer from Dorset, saddles today’s banker as well as Cue Card in tomorrow’s Gold Cup, the latter pursuing a £1 million bonus.

Thistlecrack

Colin Tizzard’s superstar in the making, Thistlecrack could dazzle the Cheltenham crowd today.

 

The World Hurdle is known to throw up some superstars, like Big Bucks or ‘The Monster’, Inglis Drever, horses who dominate the race for years and endear themselves to the racing public. Thistlecrack possesses all this potential and more, with Tizzard believing he has the potential to compete in Gold Cups of the future.

Today however, the rapidly improving stayer must repel last year’s winner, Cole Harden and Irish hope, Alpha des Obeaux. The latter fell when probably beaten, at the second last at Aintree last April but there is no questioning his improvement in the meantime. However, Thistlecrack has also improved and for many punters, British ones in particular, this fella’ is this week’s get out of jail free card.

At 6/5 there’s little value here – although many journalists have observed that these are actually probably generous – so we suggest a small bet on one-two forecast of Thistlecrack and Alpha des Obeaux at 17/2. Colin Tizzard has two huge days ahead of him. Thistlecrack should set the ball rolling for him in impressive style.

If, like us, you’ve taken a good old fashioned pummelling with the bookies over the last few days, then perhaps confidence is low. Nonetheless, we have a few tentative selections for you and all at decent each-way prices.

We’re going to sidestep the opener, where decent arguments can be made for a half dozen of the entries, and move instead to The Pertemps Final Handicap Hurdle. J.P. McManus’ Leave at Dawn heads the market but our preference is for Cup Final, trained by the king of Cheltenham – at least for another few years – Nicky Henderson. He looks likely to have the three-mile trip and was fairly handy in his most recent victory in Musselburgh. A lot of bookies are paying five places on this race, so there’s definitely some value in Cup Final at 10/1.

Rich Ricci has come in for plenty of flak from punters in recent days for the very late deferral of Vautour to the Ryanair Chase. Ricci effectively said Gold Cup or nothing for last year’s incredible, JLT Novices’ Chase victor but, a u-turn in midweek means Vautour steps back in trip. No matter how hard Michael O’ Leary tries, this race has failed to capture the heart of punters and this week’s renewal will do nothing to quiet the doubters.

Vautour

Vautour’s late defection has caused consternation among punters. Ruby Walsh will be hoping to guide the sublime performer to a third Cheltenham victory.

Apparently, Vautour has only being firing on 90% at home in recent weeks so, rather than risk him in the Gold Cup – where he may not make the trip anyway – connections have dropped him back to the handier option in the Ryanair. Vautour should have the measure of his rivals but he’s too short a price and there may be each-way value here. We’ve a huge soft spot for Road to Riches – third in last year’s Gold Cup – and frankly with the better ground, we’re perplexed that he’s most likely going to be diverted from the main event. If Djakadam who was second last year has the Gold Cup form, then surely Road to Riches should enter that equation. In any event, he won’t be our preference if he lines up this afternoon as the feeling is that this trip doesn’t suit him.

We’ll have a small each-way look at Josses Hill, placed in the last two year’s at the festival. Not near the class of Vautour, and sometimes a bit of a head-the-ball with his jumping, we’ll take him each-way at 18/1.

All the talk in the Dawn Run Novices Hurdle has been for Limini and given the astounding quality of Willie Mullins’ mares and her performances to date, it’s hard to argue with the market. Still, like the disillusioned eejits that we are, we’ll plump for the impressive English filly, Bloody Mary, available at a very tempting 12/1.

And, finally, in the day’s finale, the Kim Muir, we’ll just about take David Pipe’s Doctor Harper over Gordon Elliott’s Cause of Causes.

It may be a flat enough day in comparison to the rest of the Festival but in Thistlecrack, we may be seeing a star in the making.

Beannachtaí na Féile Padraig!

S.U.S. Tips – Thursday 17th March, 2016

14:10 – Pertemps Final – Cup Final e/w @ 10/1

14:50 – Ryanair Chase – Josses Hill e/w @ 18/1

15:30 – World Hurdle – Thistlecrack @ 11/8

16:50 – Dawn Run Novices Hurdle – Bloody Mary e/w @ 12/1

17:30 – Kim Muir – Doctor Harper e/w @ 11/2

Standard
Cheltenham Festival 2016, Horse Racing

Cheltenham has a New A.P. to Hail

Annie Power banished the ghosts of last year with a brilliant, gutsy performance in yesterday’s showpiece, Champion Hurdle. The classy mare, so unfortunate last year, destroyed all comers to completely justify her connections decision to introduce her as a late substitute for the absent, Faugheen.

We’re no experts but it would seem that the seven pounds allowance over her male rivals may have proven irrelevant in the end as Annie Power absolutely whipped her opposition.  Ruby Walsh dared the field to catch his mount after a gutsy charge from the front, but it was only after soaring over last year’s nemesis that he could be sure of victory.

With a few strokes of luck –last year’s infamous denouement and a narrow defeat to More of That in the 2014 World Hurdle –  this could have been a third consecutive victory at the Festival for Annie Power. As it was, owner Rich Ricci was left in tears while Walsh, not famed for his cheery disposition, looked outwardly elated at the mare’s victory.

Annie Power, the Cheltenham nomad, will probably be elsewhere next year – perhaps attempting to emulate Dawn Run –  but the feeling is after this that she is simply too good not to race against the boys every year.

Walsh enjoyed a three-timer with Douvan’s predicted facile victory in the Arkle Chase merely enhancing an already stellar reputation. Vroum Vroum Mag, herself a substitute in the Mares Hurdle, was also comfortable in securing a remarkable eighth consecutive mare’s title at the festival for Mullins. Min may have been overturned in the day’s opener but for the canny punters who chose Un de Sceaux tomorrow over the untested novice, a fairly hefty accumulator is still on.

Cheltenham’s all-time leading trainer Nicky Henderson struck gold early with Altior, but it was all about the Mullins and Walsh show after that. Willie Mullins has some real headaches going into next year’s festival but, good headaches mind you, like the ones Leonardo di Caprio endures in Miami night clubs.

Having, as usual, ignored our own advice to avoid the handicaps, we had, what one could only describe as a shocking day’s gambling but, the beauty of Cheltenham is that there is always tomorrow!

So, to Day 2, which will be highlighted by the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

Wednesday 16th March – Feature Race: Queen Mother Champion Chase

Right, time to salvage some dignity. And money! First up is the Neptune Investments Novice Hurdle and on paper, this appears to be a two-way duel between Yorkhill, another from the dream-team combo of Mullins and Walsh, and Alan King’s Yanworth. The latter has long been touted as one to watch at the Festival and our bias lies here as we’ve tied Yanworth in with Douvan and Thistlecrack to hopefully make our week.

Short priced novices from Closutton, like Yorkhill (2/1), generally perform well at Cheltenham, but Yanworth was extraordinarily impressive in January and should open Alan King’s Festival account.

Next up is our Festival Nap, More of That in the RSA Chase. Now, admittedly, we got him at 5/1 a while back but we’re still keen on him at 13/8. Winner of the World Hurdle in 2014, after a thrilling battle with Annie Power, the JP McManus-owned eight-year-old has taken wonderfully to the larger obstacles and is unbeaten at Prestbury Park. His main threat is No More Heroes, a Grade One winner himself who will be looking to open the account for Gigginstown Stud and Bryan Copper. If More of That is the horse his performances suggest, then he should have too much here.   

More of That

More of That and Barry Geraghty, seen here after winning the 2014, will be hoping to deliver today in the RSA Chase.

2016 Queen Mother Champion Chase

The Champion Chase brings together the best chasing sprinters in racing and tomorrow’s renewal represents an interesting contest between a rising star and one of the most beloved horses to ever grace the winners’ enclosure at Cheltenham

2015’s Arkle winner, Un de Sceaux, has been imperious when he’s remained upright, with a fall at Christmas being the only blip on his radar in 2015. He’s a justifiable odds-on favourite and clearly the one to beat but, tomorrow he comes up against the rejuvenated darling of Prestbury Park, Sprinter Sacre.

Nicky Henderson’s charge gave one of the most complete two-mile performances ever in winning the Champion Chase in 2013, and it appeared that he would dominate the division like no other before him. But, horse-racing is fraught with peril and when Sprinter Sacre was found to have a serious heart condition in 2014 it appeared the end was nigh. Last year’s failure to finish here wasn’t exactly a beacon of optimism but, lo and behold, the ‘Sprinter looks something like his old self, and while rekindling the brilliance of 2013 is simply impossible, he should go close.

Sprinter Sacre will see plenty of bets just before the off, not necessarily because punters believe he will win, but because they love him and want him to provide one final spine-tingling Cheltenham moment.

Sprinter

Can Sprinter Sacre can repeat his heroics of 2013 in today’s Champion Chase?

Last year’s winner, Dodging Bullets, has received no love at all this year and is available at 14/1 but it’s hard to get excited about him on this year’s form. Then there is the 2014 winner, Sire de Grugy, who though honest as Donald Trump is ignorant, couldn’t get close to Un de Sceaux at Ascot in January.

The market without Un de Sceaux presents some interesting propositions and we’ve had a very small bet on Sizing Granite at 16/1 and he has plenty of scope to improve after his move to Colm Murphy’s yard.

Still, barring a fall or a Phoenix-like resurgence from Sprinter Sacre, it is almost impossible to look past Un de Sceaux and the relentless march of Team Mullins.

Un de Sceaux

Un de Sceaux and Ruby Walsh are formidable favourites for the Champion Chase.

Finally, to the one of the most enjoyable gambling/lucky-dip experiences of the week, the Champion Bumper. Moon Racer made a thrilling (and enriching) burst from nowhere last year to take the Bumper inside the last half furlong to send many a punter home happy.

Augusta Kate appears to be the leading light for Willie Mullins, while Aidan Coleman’s mount, High Bridge is one we really expect to be in the mix. However, our vote goes to New To This Town who had second-favourite Davenir d’Une Vie behind him in his recent Gowran victory. Jessica Harrington doesn’t usually get involved in the Bumper unless she means business – Jezki one of two that’s travelled in the last 13 years – so she must really like New To This Town’s chances. Having Barry Geraghty on board is always a good thing too. A more obscure one to watch is Very Much So, who returns to the track after almost two years out.

We’ll be back on Thursday when guilt-free lunchtime pints will be the order of the day!

Happy hunting!

S.U.S. Picks – 16th March 2016

13:30 – Neptune Investments Novice Hurdle

Yanworth @ 6/4

14: 10 – RSA Chase

More of That @ 7/4

15:30 – Queen Mother Champion Chase

Sizing Granite (without Un de Sceaux) 10/1

17:30 – Champion Bumper

New to This Town @ 11/1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standard
Cheltenham Festival 2016, Horse Racing

Cheltenham 2016 – Day One Preview

Faugheen’s absence creates a vacuum and there’s a Thief we like the look of….

The sun is out, for the first time in three months people actually look happy and Ireland offloaded the ball. Which means it must be March and time for the showpiece of national hunt racing, the Cheltenham Festival. 2015 was all about A.P. McCoy’s long goodbye, the relentless dominance of the Willie Mullins/Ruby Walsh tandem, an unheralded novice and the most infamous fall in recent Cheltenham history.

Sadly, this year’s festival has already been blighted by injury, meaning punters will be denied sight of defending champions ‘The Machine’, Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle and last year’s Gold Cup winner, the surprise package, Coneygree.

At just eight years old, Faugheen is probably just one more Festival victory away from legendary status, but after a minor suspensory injury, Rich Ricci’s superstar will have to keep his powder dry until 2017. Meanwhile, Coneygree – who led all from the off last year – had his season curtailed after a serious enough injury to his hock in December. One still feels that Coneygree was never given the credit he deserved, perhaps because he doesn’t reside at Closutton or Ditcheat but, petty personal grievances aside, he should hopefully bounce back next year to contest the main event once more.

The great question surrounding Cheltenham of late is just how much dominance Willie Mullins will enjoy this year. His one-two from last year’s Champion Hurdle – Faugheen and Arctic Fire – are absent meaning a reshuffle of the champion trainer’s pack. Annie Power moves into Champion Hurdle favouritism while, after much bouncing around, Vroum Vroum Mag will be entrusted to continue the Mullins’ stranglehold in the Mares Hurdle.

We’ll be back every day to give you a preview and our picks of the day, and even at this late stage, we’ll do our best to identify some value. Oh, and just so you know, we won’t be tipping Victoria Pendleton on Pacha du Polder.

Tuesday 15th March 2016 – Feature Race: Champion Hurdle

For many of those who travel in their droves to the Cotswold each spring, the highlight of the week comes with the starter’s simple act of raising the white flag to commence the festival opening, Supreme Novices Hurdle. A gleeful roar, full of boundless optimism rises into the Gloucestershire air as the best novice hurdlers set the week’s actions in motion.

As has been the case in recent years, Willie Mullins saddles the favourite for the Supreme Novices Hurdle in Min. The Ricci-owned horse has dominated in his two starts this year and his chances appear to have been enhanced by recent form lines. Mullins seems very keen on Min but Ruby Walsh less so and there are those out there who feel his previous victories may have been significantly aided by the heavy Irish winter ground.

Min could go off at as high as 2/1 but he will be expected to set the tone for the inevitable Mullins day-one accumulator featuring future superstar, Douvan, Vroum Vroum Mag and Annie Power.

Despite the perceived lack of acclaim for Min, he coasted in his last two victories and his opposition that day has gone on to record impressive victories of their own.

The home charge will be led by Nicky Henderson’s pair of Altior and Buveur d’Air with Supasundae fancied by many as an each way chance.

Tombstone was a favourite of many punters over the winter but there has been little love of late for Gordon Elliott’s horse, after a poor showing on Irish Gold Cup day, where he was well beaten by Bleu et Rouge. However, fitted with a hood in the hope of getting his mood right, we can’t ignore a small each-way bet with the 14/1 on offer.

Still, with this much uncertainty, you may be best off following to the trend of recent years and abiding by the Mullins-Walsh tandem, though Altior will push Min very close.

Douvan (2/5) is untouchable –and unbackable –  in the Arkle and, barring a fall, will romp home by as much as he and Ruby Walsh wish.

2016 Champion Hurdle

Annie P

All eyes will be on Annie and Ruby in tomorrow’s Champion Hurdle.

Up until Willie Mullins’ unfortunate announcement in February, the 2016 Champion Hurdle debate circled around how much air there would be between Faugheen and the field. ‘The Machine’ is gone for now, however, so a reshuffle has seen Annie Power supplemented into Tuesday’s big race and straight to the top of the market. Arctic Fire’s subsequent withdrawal means the race is without last year’s first two home.

Of course, anyone with even a fleeting interest in Cheltenham will know that Annie Power came down at the last when leading last year, saving the bookies an estimated £40 million. That Glen’s Melody went on to complete a day one four-timer anyway for Willie Mullins was lost in the chaos for many.

Still winless at this great meeting – a valiant second to More of That in the 2014 World Hurdle notwithstanding – AP (the horse) represents a valid favourite and will be aided here by her seven-pound claim over her male counterparts.

Ruby Walsh also had the option of piloting the doughty  Nichols Canyon who can claim to be the only hurdler to ever take down Faugheen. That Faugheen spectacularly overturned this result is largely defunct at this point with the former’s tussle with Identity Thief a good indication of the small margins that separate this field.

Nichols Canyon dogged it out that day in a mudbath, but we’re inclined to think that the quick-drying ground will suit Identity Thief. The six-year-old landed a hugely impressive victory in Newcastle in November and he will have come on for his recent battle with Nichols Canyon. The ground is forecast as soft, soft to good in places so the omens look good for Identity Thief

Of the British hopes, The New One, fancied by many two years ago, holds the most promise for us and he’ll attract plenty of attention on the day. However, we’ve been keen on Identity Thief for a while now, and in a wide open race, he gets the nod.

In the Mares Hurdle, we’re remaining loyal to last year’s pick, Polly Peachum. After profiting on the bad luck of Annie Power in 2015, the Nicky Henderson-trained mare was desperately unlucky herself to be pipped on the line by Glen’s Melody. The challenge doesn’t get much easier this year with the introduction of Vroum Vroum Mag. Nonetheless, Polly Peachum will be smarting from last year, and while the favourite brings tremendous form to the Festival she has yet to prove her worth up the menacing hill.

Polly P

Polly Peachum (r) was narrowly pipped in the 2015 Mares Hurdle by Glen’s Melody (l).

We’re cheating a little in the National Hunt Chase by offering two tips. Our first comes in the shape of Gordon Elliott’s, Noble Endeavour. It was always the Co. Meath trainer’s hope that this promising seven-year-old would compete in this four-miler and with Jamie Codd on board, he has a huge chance. At 6/1, Noble Endeavor is hardly great value – the value in the handicaps is gone at this point, with punter confusion exacerbated by a lot of late declarations – but Elliott is pretty sweet on him and he was only narrowly beaten by the absent Killultagh Vic at last year’s festival.

Beware, however, of the hammering that Irish horses take from the British handicapper and, at 16/1, home hope, Local Show is a very appealing each-way shot.

Remember, follow the courage of your convictions but do not bet just for the sake of it. Unless you like the horse’s name. Or his colours.

We’ll be back tomorrow when we try to crack the Champion Bumper, and consider whether there might be some value in opposing Un de Sceaux in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

Best of luck!

S.U.S. Picks 15th March 2016

(1) 13:30 Supreme Novices Hurdle

Tombstone e/w @ 14/1

(2) 15:30 Champion Hurdle

Identity Thief @ 6/1

(3) 16:10 Mares Hurdle

Polly Peachum e/w @ 6/1

(4) 16:50 Cross Country Chase

(i) Noble Endeavor e/w @ 6/1

(ii) Local Show e/w @ 16/1

 

 

 

 

 

Standard
#Boxing, Boxing, Football, Gaelic Games, Golf, Horse Racing, NFL/Rugby, Republic of Ireland/FIFA, Rugby Union, Soccer, UFC

Straight Up Sport Predictions 2016

2015 was, by any comparable standards, an excellent sporting year. In the murky world of sporting politics, there was also the welcome downfall of FIFA kingpin Sepp Blatter and the lurking snake Michel Platini. Meanwhile, we were treated to the rather unsurprising revelations that Russian athletics was involved in systematic doping and Lord Sebastian Coe is a bit of a dick.

The highlights included the New England Patriots winning their fourth Superbowl after a botched play call by Seattle Seahawks on the New England one-yard line. Almost one year later none of Pete Carroll, Darrell Blevins, Russell Wilson or the latter’s usual play-caller, God, have been willing to take responsibility for not giving the ball to this man (this clip comes with a Tipper Gore warning!)

Willie Mullins dominated Cheltenham and but for this fateful fall – horse and jockey will be back with a vengeance in 2016 – the punters, for once, would have had the bookies running for cover.

Ireland secured back-to-back Six Nations championships for the first time ever after the most dramatic day in tournament history, though the year ended on a diminuendo after an injury-depleted side, with the wrong man at out-half, fell to an inspired Argentina.

Meanwhile, Andy Lee dropped his WBO middleweight title in mildly controversial circumstances to Billy Joe Saunders. It was terribly disappointing that the champion did not get an opportunity to make either of his first two defences on Irish soil. Had Lee fought Saunders in Limerick the likelihood is that he would have retained his title, as boxing historically favours a hometown champion in a tight fight.

Carl Frampton twice retained his IBF super-bantamweight championship, while it would be remiss of us not to mention Conor McGregor’s stunning knockout of Jose Aldo in Las Vegas last month.

Whether you care to admit it or not, the country’s greatest success in 2015 was the qualification for Euro 2016. After the 1-1 draw at home to Scotland in June, dreams of a French summer lay in tatters. We remember agreeing as much with a few friends in a Cambridge pub on that dank afternoon.

But, then, along came Shane Long, Irish folk-hero Jon Walters and a few dollops of luck and qualification was realised after a relatively straightforward dispatching of Bosnia. A group comprising Belgium, Italy and Sweden looks ominous but that is June’s problem.

So, to 2016 and a combination of a few of our hopes and predictions for the sporting year ahead.

  1. After much humming and hawing, Manchester United finally rid themselves of Louis van Gaal.

There can’t be a Manchester United fan out there who will miss the dull, turgid aimless crap that has cost the Dutchman £250 million to manufacture. Rumour has it that Ryan Giggs has been in cahoots with Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish to launch a coup, though, at this point, it seems another despot, Jose Mourinho, will take the reins of this great club. All the while, Sir Matt Busby turns in his grave.

 

LVG

The end is nigh for Louis van Gaal.  (Courtesy of Getty Images)

 

  1. Thanks to the incompetence of others, Arsenal win the Premier League and Arsene Wenger claims that he has been vindicated in investing in a series of shite strikers.

Arsenal definitely have previous when it comes to choking in the second half of the season but at present they appear to be the most error-free side, which by extension makes them the most likely to win the league.

Wenger, to his credit, has been arguably the second best manager of the Premier League era but his sometimes delusional stubbornness has cost the team in the past. Yes, the board love him because the club is in the black but, let’s be honest, the fans couldn’t give a shit about that. They want to win the Premier League.

If Arsenal don’t win this year’s league, then they could be facing a very lengthy drought. There would be a sense of irony as well as a perfect example of the farcical treatment of modern day managers if Manchester City regained the title before coldly sacking Manuel Pellegrini. However, we can see Arsenal just about falling over the line though North London rivals, Spurs, will pose a serious threat.

  1. People accept that Irish club rugby had a great run, stop whining and focus on the international team.

The media of late have been lamenting the death of Irish rugby mainly due to the fact that the French and English look set to dominate the European game for the foreseeable future. Now, first of all, let’s accept that the provinces have seen their fair share of benefactors down the years while the Pro 12 was in an advantageous position regarding qualification to the old Heineken Cup.

We’re definitely not apologists for the European Champions Cup – for one thing, the BT Sport coverage is stomach-churningly ‘old-boy’ and elitist –  and the chips are quite clearly stacked in favour of the shaky Anglo-French alliance. However, like many before them, the Irish provinces have been punching above their weight for years. And, rather than whinge, let’s celebrate this fact.

Many of our finest rugby journalists have gotten in a tizzy of late over the potential downfall of the national side given the perilous state of Irish sides in Europe.

Well, we give you Example A, Wales. Bar the odd good season for Ospreys, Scarlets or Cardiff, the Welsh have a dismal record in Europe. Their domestic game just about keeps its head above water and many of their finest players have departed for more rewarding, foreign bounties.

Yet, for the last eight years, Wales have been a major player, both in the Six Nations and the World Cup. They were probably screwed by Alain Rolland in 2011 and in October their injury-ravaged side came desperately close to toppling South Africa in London.

Ireland need to strike a balance – and lest we forget, Ulster still have a great chance of making this year’s Champions Cup quarter-finals – but Wales have proven that it is possible to produce a top-class national side even when the domestic game is not exactly flourishing.

The next two years should see something of a changing of the guard and there is an abundance of talent coming through; Tadhg Furlong, Stuart McCloskey, Jack McGrath, Kieran Marmion, Jack O’ Donoghue, Garry Ringrose and CJ Stander. Meanwhile, there are the resurgent Craig Gilroy, Paddy Jackson, Tommy O’ Donnell and Andrew Trimble. Not to mention, the currently sidelined Iain Henderson, Robbie Henshaw and Peter O’ Mahony. Little cause for worry, then.

Iain H

With youngsters like Iain Henderson set to take on the mantle, Irish international rugby is in very safe hands.

The provinces may be entering a fallow period but the next four years appear genuinely promising for our international side.

  1. The All-Ireland Football Championship is overshadowed by further ridiculous disciplinary hearings and successful appeals.

The important thing to remember as an inter-county Gaelic football player is that a red card is just a speed bump and a suspension can be overturned if you shout loud enough. One of the most irritating aspects of Gaelic football is that players, and by extension, their managers and county boards refuse to accept suspensions after clearly breaching on-field rules.

Connolly & Keegan

Remember, kids, you can’t get suspended for this. (Photo courtesy of sportsjoe.ie)

Last year’s clear examples were Mayo’s Kevin Keane and, of course, Diarmuid Connolly’s ridiculous, though successful, overnight appeal against his red card for punching Lee Keegan. The technicalities of that case are mind numbing but the lesson is clear: If you get sent off in the 2016 All-Ireland Football Championship, you’ll be the laughing stock of the summer if you can’t get your suspension overturned.

  1. The Republic of Ireland escape the ‘Group of Death’

By our nature, we are strangely complex characters, in that we convey optimism and pessimism in equal measures, usually in the same conversation.

An example being:

“You see the draw for the Euros?”

“Yeah it’s a fucker of a group, couldn’t be tougher.”

“Do you reckon we’ll get out, though?”

“Ah yeah, don’t see why not. Sure, Sweden only have Zlatan. Belgium are a bunch of whinging bastards. And, to be fair, Italy must be getting old at this stage.”

“Yeah, fair point.”

And that is the logic that we will be applying this summer. Remember, Sweden are ranked below Ireland in the admittedly oft-maligned FIFA World Rankings, Belgium do not have tournament pedigree. And, Italy? Well, there’s always Ray Houghton’s roly-poly in Giant Stadium.

  1. Gennady Golovkin gets a chance to decimate a middleweight world champion.

Broken record and all that, we know. Throughout 2015, GGG has grown exasperated as Golden Boy and Roc Nation protected their Latin-American cash-cows, for fear of them taking a beating that would see their market value plummet.

Not this year, though. Golovkin has relocated to Los Angeles and L.A.’s Central American fight community – the majority of the US boxing community – already love him. Golovkin fights in the tradition of the great Mexican boxers and the fans have warmed to this immediately.

To be clear, until his last few fights, GGG has only beaten what’s put in front of him and usually it’s been brave fodder who need a pay cheque. But it’s the way he’s beaten them. Toe-to-toe, stand and deliver. He may yet be found out by a younger, though more experienced in terms of quality of opponent, Saul Alvarez. Or by the erratic, though hugely talented, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. But, either way, let’s see it happen.

Say what you want about Andy Lee but, at least, he had shown his willingness to go straight for Golovkin had he beaten Saunders. Golovkin has been well handled by HBO and promoter, Tom Loeffler in 2015. The all-important US fan base has been carefully cultivated and for Alvarez, Saunders, Cotto and Chavez Jr., excuses are now thin on the ground.

The Four Kings never avoided each other and that’s what made the 80s the golden era of middleweight boxing. After the most overhyped, underwhelming fight of this or any other era took place between Mayweather and Pacquiao last summer, boxing fans deserve Golovkin and Alvarez in 2016.

  1. People will finally realise that Roy Hodgson is a spoofer of Frank Abignale Jr. proportions.

Children of the 90s will recall the brilliant Stephen Spielberg produced cartoon sketch show, Animaniacs. Fronted by the Warner Brothers, Wakko, Yakko and their sweet little sister, Dot, the show also featured the wonderfully, simplistic Chicken Boo sketch.

Each week, the titular Boo would arrive into town, and, thanks to some excellent costumes and a propensity to stay silent, deceive people into thinking he was, for example, a spy or a sheriff. On each occasion, one apoplectic member of the group would plead, unsuccessfully, with his friends to recognise that this was a chicken in their midst, not a man. Eventually, in the last act, Boo’s costume would come off, his true identity would be revealed and he’d be run out of town.

Now,  Roy Hodgson is obviously no chicken but he has provided a masterclass in deceiving people by basically saying nothing and being a gentleman throughout his reign as England football manager.

Remember, this is the man who said before the 2014 World Cup that he believed he had that could win the tournament. Of course, what followed was England’s worst World Cup performance since 1958, which for someone like Graham Taylor would have meant an immediate sacking.

 

Roy Hodgson

That’s a man who knows he’s getting away with murder. Sorry, soon to be, Sir Roy!

 

Now, on one hand, you have to admire the F.A. for their trust in the manager, and invariably international managers get more time in the job due to the fact that they have a specific set of players from which to choose and no transfer window.

However, the odd aspect of Hodgson’s reign is that he is being hailed as this extraordinary motivator and tactician when, in reality, he has done very little with what is actually a very talented squad.

Hodgson, unsurprisingly, wanted his England contract extension to be finalised before Euro 2016 but FA Chief Executive, Martin Glenn has decided otherwise. Sorry Roy, but Chicken Boo always got found out.

  1. Djakadam wins a first Cheltenham Gold Cup for Willie Mullins.

It would hardly be a shock to suggest that the Gold Cup will be one of the racing highlights of the year but we feel this year’s renewal will be one to capture the entire sporting public’s imagination.

Even in the unfortunate absence of last year’s brilliant winner Coneygree – we will forever be loyal followers of the gutsy, Mark Bradstock trained nine-year-old –  this year’s renewal of the Cheltenham Gold Cup promises to be an absolutely thrilling contest.

The King George at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day revealed a couple of interesting pointers: Vautour is a classy horse but he may not have three miles in him; Don Cossack is probably the best of the lot but as his fall proved, you’ve got to jump them (see Annie Power); Cue Card is having a remarkable season but has question marks remaining over whether he can do it at Prestbury Park.

 

Djakadam

Djakadam and Ruby Walsh, seen here after winning last year’s Thyestes Chase in Gowran park. The pair may just finally end Willie Mullins’ wait for a maiden victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

 

Meanwhile, last year’s second and this year’s favourite, the Willie Mullins trained, Djakadam, was merely an observer over Christmas. It appears at this stage he will take the route through the long grass via the Cotswold Chase, a route less popular for Gold Cup contenders in recent years.

Recent renewals have been hard to call perhaps because of a perceived dearth of quality. This year, however, there can be no question as to the depth in the field. And, it may finally see Willie Mullins win the one he so dearly desires.

  1. Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth will each win a major, while Tiger will, sadly, call it a day.

The depth of talent in golf is most probably at an all-time high. After his glorious 2014, it appeared that McIlroy would enjoy a reign something akin to Tiger but Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and an unfortunate game of five-a-side put paid to that.

It’s virtually impossible to separate the three, the Official World Rankings aside, so it would come as no great surprise if each of the big three took home a major this year. McIlroy is hurt by the fact that he still has not mastered Augusta but his form at the back end of the year was excellent and for the first time in a while, he may feel that he has something to prove to himself.

Rickie Fowler, Branden Grace, Shane Lowry and the rarely mentioned around here, Brooks Koepka, will have something to say but the battle between Day, McIlroy and Spieth will be the story of 2016.

In other news, Golfing Tiger is dead. Long live Golfing Tiger.

Tiger Woods

2016 may see the retirement of probably the greatest, and definitely the most influential golfer of all time, Tiger Woods. Vintage era Tiger was simply untouchable. (Photo By Jamie Squire/Getty Images for Golfweek)

  1. Conor McGregor continues to dominate U.F.C.

Anyone who has visited these parts before will know how we feel about Conor McGregor. However, to ignore his spectacular 2015, which culminated with the outrageous 13-second knockout of U.F.C. legend, Jose Aldo would be plain ignorant.

Thus far, he has does everything he has promised inside the octagon, and is the unquestioned king of the U.F.C. featherweight division. The jump to lightweight looks likely as he has acknowledged the difficulty of making 145lb as a relatively big featherweight at 5ft 9″.

Aldo McGregor

Conor McGregor delivered on his promise to dominate the UFC featherweight division, culminating in his 13 second K.O. of Jose Aldo. Now, in 2016, it’s up to the lightweight division. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

Nonetheless, while U.F.C. fans and Dana White bow down to kiss McGregor’s feet, it will be interesting to see whether ‘the Notorious’ will have to join the queue before getting a shot at the lightweight champion, Rafael dos Anjos.

To McGregor’s credit, he lives and may someday die by the sword and, for this reason, all eyes will be on John Kavanagh’s star turn in 2016.

Standard
Horse Racing

Jockeys: None Tougher

The recently announced retirement of A.P. McCoy, jump racing’s leading race winner of all time, first past the post 4330 times and counting, and arguably National Hunt Racing’s greatest jockey of all time has been met with the sort of effusive praise and celebration that is reserved for Irish sport’s national treasures; O’Driscoll, O’ Gara, Carey, McGrath and surely in the near future Shefflin.

The fanfare surrounding McCoy’s imminent departure is in many ways all the more impressive as horse racing does not enjoy the same universal appeal and popularity as soccer, GAA or rugby, despite what the hardcore racing man or woman will tell you. True the Grand National, Gold Cup and to a lesser extent the Derby capture the imagination of the country but these are three of several thousand races televised races in a year. However certain jockeys like McCoy, Ruby Walsh, Barry Geraghty, and Lester Piggott and Richard Dunwoody before them transcend all sport.

There is something undeniably unique about the jockey. The skill set possessed is remarkable: the obvious things like incredible fitness, balance, timing and gutsiness are there for all to see. But then there is the endlessly impressive mental toughness and ability to endure incredible physical pain, while most of the time dehydrated and massively underweight.

More so today than ever before, an incredible emphasis is placed on nutrition and sports science but it is my understanding that in horse racing the horse is the focus of this practice. Presumably it does not take a sports scientist to tell the jockey to starve yourself, smoke like a trooper to subside the pangs of hunger and learn to love the sauna to ensure you can make weight. The demands are incredible, the risks even more so and it’s very difficult to think of another sport where the human participant puts themselves at such risk both physically and mentally, while simultaneously applying their unique skill-set.

A quote of McCoy’s which appeared in many publications in recent weeks jumps out and is surely a line one will only hear from a jockey, and particularly a national hunt one, in terms of the attitude towards competing when the body has been physically beaten to a pulp. Speaking about possibly riding 300 winners this year, the Champion Jockey stated,

“…I got injured at Worcester one day – I dislocated my collarbone, I punctured my lung and I broke a couple of ribs – and the crazy thing about it was I went back racing three days later thinking I could get through it.”

Unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably, for McCoy he broke the dislocated collarbone not long after and was required to stand down for……. three weeks. Frankly, that alone I find hard to fathom. The commitment, desire and plain old fashioned toughness shown by these men is something to truly marvel.

Despite his seemingly endless stream of personal achievements in the realms of both chasing and hurdling, perhaps what A.P. McCoy will be best remembered for is the true grit and almost superhuman threshold for pain, arguably unique amongst jockeys, that set him apart from even his own band of brothers.

Standard