All posts by Ben Jefferies

Frankie Dettori: The Living Legend

It isn’t every day that you have the opportunity to meet one of the most successful competitors to ever grace a sport, but to horseracing, Frankie Dettori is exactly that.

The man known to millions simply as ‘Frankie’ has won everything there is to win, from the Derby, to the Breeders Cup, to the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe to the Dubai World Cup and everything in between. The list is endless, with many of those triumphs being repeated on multiple occasions.

However, the achievement that takes the cake, came at Ascot in 1996 on Queen Elizabeth II Stakes day, when Frankie went through the card, winning all seven races, in what was to become the worst day in British bookmaking history. A day which is now fondly remembered as the ‘Magnificent Seven.’

When Frankie met Ben…

Magnitude

Speaking at an in-house event at LadbrokesCoral, Dettori said “I was so made up about equalling the record of six winners [held by Sir Gordon Richards at Chepstow in 1933 and Alec Russell at Bogside in 1957] that I headed into the seventh and final race on the card with a ‘don’t care’ attitude.

“Everyone was telling me that I was going to win again, but I told them that this horse [Fujiyama Crest] has no chance, and that he’s 12/1 for a reason.

“I remember it was a two-mile race and the stalls were in front of the grandstands. The stalls opened to a standing ovation and I headed straight to the front. We led the whole way and as we came off the turn the crowd saw we were leading, everyone was going wild and cheering.

“We reached the three-furlong pole and I decided to kick for home, but we hit the brick wall, I was tired, the horse was tired, and we just about reached the finish line beating Pat [Eddery] to cling on.”

It was a day which reportedly cost the bookmaking industry over £30m and it was ironic that the name of the Italian’s first winner was ‘Wall Street.’ Although, Dettori admitted that in the immediate aftermath of the race, he hadn’t realised the magnitude of his achievement.

‘Unbelievable’

“I don’t think I really realised what I achieved at the time, everybody went crazy and I didn’t realise until I came home,” he recalled.

“The following morning, I was in my underpants, and we used to get our newspapers delivered to us, so I went and opened the front door and it was about five-deep with press and paparazzi. I took the paper and slammed the door shut.

“I couldn’t believe the amount of press, but then I read the newspaper and saw that I had broken the stock market and that punters around the country had won £40m, it was unbelievable.”

In a fitted, tailored suit measured almost as impeccably as his front-running ride on Fujiyama Crest, Dettori laughed before adding: “At least it shows to the poor punters’ that sometimes stupid things like that can happen. But it goes without saying, I promise you, I’ll never do it again.”

Frankie, real name Lanfranco, has been a professional jockey for over three decades and grew up in Milan around horses with his father Gianfranco, who was a jockey in Italy himself.

However, at the age of 13, Dettori chose to leave school and headed to Newmarket, where he landed a job as a stable boy for legendary Italian trainer Luca Cumani, before riding his first winner as a 16-year-old in Turin.

“I loved riding horses and I had enough of living at home and going to school, so I decided to go to Newmarket.

“Thankfully I’ve had 30 wonderful years as a jockey, which has been due to good fortune and the lack of severe injuries. Hopefully, I can last another five years, that would be great.”

Drive and determination

Throughout his career, the Italian has had multiple Group One victories, including winning the Derby twice on board the Peter Chapple-Hyam trained Authorized in 2007 and Golden Horn in 2015 trained by John Gosden.

It is such success that provides Frankie with the drive and determination to continue racing, and for the upcoming season ahead, there are two horses which he is relishing the prospects of riding.

In general, every jockey loves every horse, but the ones you love the most are the ones that give you the best emotions.

“The best one now is Cracksman as he’s still fresh in the memory and has given me some of the biggest thrills. But it’s nerve-wracking, riding the best horses in the biggest races as you don’t want to be the one who messes it up.”

“I saw Enable this morning too and I gave her my customary packet of Polos! She looks well but it’s just light gentle prep work for now.

“Both Cracksman and Enable are the two best horses in the world at present, so it’s very exciting.”

Royal approval

The 47-year-old who is famously known for his flying dismount has ridden over 3,000 career winners, more than any other professional jockey currently in training. But in the earlier stages of his career, Dettori had the privilege of riding horses owned by Her Majesty The Queen.

“It was in my early years, and I was asked to get some of the horses ready for Ascot for which The Queen came to visit to see her horses.

“Before her visit I was informed of the etiquette of meeting her, I was told that you tip your hat, that you don’t talk to her until she speaks to you, and that you reply to her with ‘ma’am’ and that was about it, so I took time out to practice my bow.

“The first day of Royal Ascot she never came, the second day she asked me how the ground was, and on my best behaviour I said “The ground is good, ma’am.” The third day we had a proper conversation, and then we got to the Saturday.

“Normally, you can smell when The Queen is there, loads of people come along flying their flags, but this time, there were no people.

“So, I was with two other jockeys’ talking about cars and sex the usual things! Then as I ran towards the paddock, I completely messed up.

“The Queen was just stood there and caught me completely off-guard and as I ran by I shouted ‘How are ya!’ in a cockney accent and she just opened her arms, shrugged her shoulders and exclaimed ‘I am still here!’.

“But no, she is very sweet, and she is very lovely, and it was a great privilege to have the chance to ride for her.”

Passion still burns

Hearing Dettori speak, it is clear to see that he has been far more than a jockey, and is a huge sporting personality within Britain and across the world.

His enthusiasm, humour and charm has seen him draw a huge following from the wider public to the sport of racing who may not have enjoyed it otherwise.

It will be a huge loss for racing once he retires, but thankfully for now his passion for the game still burns within him.

And there is also Frankie’s 13-year-old son Rocco, who is currently climbing the ranks in the pony racing scene, who could even carry the heavy weight of the Italian flag in years to come.

Dettori jokingly added “According to him [Rocco] he’s already better than me! He is going the right way, but he is only 13 and he’s too busy playing video games, so we’ll have to wait and see.”

Cheltenham Festival 2018 – What’s The Story?

Can it really be 12 months since the cream of national hunt racing’s horses, jockeys and trainers gathered at Prestbury Park for last year’s Cheltenham Festival?

This spring highlight of the British sporting calendar is with us again, and promises to be as action-filled and emotion-soaked as ever.

Thousands will make the short trip across the Irish Sea as racing’s Anglo-Celtic rivalry is renewed, but all will be good-natured, with fans coming together from all corners, pints of Guinness to be shared and new friends to be made.

The beauty of the festival, and indeed the sport, is the people involved and the sheer colour of the occasion. The four days never fails to throw up an incredible story, and it’s often one that goes under the radar.

Elephant Sport provides a lowdown on four of the potential stories that could make the headlines and are worth keeping more than just half an eye on.

4) Altior vs Douvan

A duel racing fans have been waiting for since the festival 12 months ago.

Altior, the winner of the 2017 Arkle and unbeaten over fences in seven starts is trained by Nicky Henderson and represents the English.

In comparison, Irish raider Douvan won the 2016 Arkle and is trained by Willie Mullins. He has lost just once in 10 starts over timber.

His sole defeat came in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the festival last year, where he suffered a pelvic injury and hasn’t been seen since.

Both have had question marks surrounding their fitness. Douvan was expected to make his highly-anticipated seasonal reappearance in the Tingle Creek at Sandown in November, only to be withdrawn just days before.

Altior also suffered a setback, and connections were forced to give him a wind op, which would have been far from ideal to his preparations. However, he has at least had a pipe-opener where he beat Politologue by a comfortable four lengths in what was an impressive victory in the Grade 2 Game Spirit Chase.

As comfortable as Altior’s victory was, it’s questionable whether his first race in 10 months will have left its mark.

It’s also questionable whether the highly-anticipated clash will even take place after Willie Mullins and owner Rich Ricci suggested on Sunday  that Douvan could make a late change to tackle the Ryanair Chase – that is, of course, if he runs at all.

However, there is still a possibility no matter how slim, that the contest could happen and that Douvan and Altior may both finally take their chance in the Queen Mother’s Champion Chase on Wednesday.

If they do, then racing fans could be in for one of the most iconic Anglo-Celtic battles of the festival. Punters should be sure to take a late lunch at work, and to settle down in front of the TV come 3.30pm.

3) Black Corton – Bryony Frost

Black Corton and Bryony Frost have been one of the biggest success stories of the season.

Trained by Paul Nicholls it’s been a long season for Black Corton, who started his campaign at Fontwell in June. Part-owned by Jeremy Kyle, Cheltenham wouldn’t have been on the radar back in the summer.

However, after developing an astounding partnership with Bryony Frost, the pair have won seven times in eight races together as well as winning the public’s hearts in the process.

Their rapid rise has forced the hand of Nicholls to enter them into the RSA Chase, for which bookmakers currently make them third favourites.

2) Sam Spinner – Jedd O’Keeffe/Joe Colliver

Sam Spinner will provide trainer Jedd O’Keeffe with a live chance of landing the Stayers Hurdle.

Currently one of the market leaders, punters have been keen on Sam, particularly since the ‘Beast from the East’ blew in, leaving the forecast going at the festival on the soft side, which is ground which he has proved he handles.

O’Keefe was diagnosed with cancer of the throat in 2011. His ill-health along with the financial crisis meant they were close to closing the yard, but owners Paul and Caron Chapman – who own Sam Spinner –  had recently sold their business and filled half of the yard, overwhelming support which allowed business to resume.

Spinner was bought for a mere £12,600 and regular pilot Joe Colliver will keep the ride for the festival. Colliver, 26, served a three-month prison sentence after perverting the court of justice following a drink driving incident where he paid a friend to take the blame for a car crash.

Colliver described the decision as an ‘ill-judged one’ and has since been trying to rebuild his career as a jockey. A win on board Sam Spinner in the Stayers Hurdle would go a long way to doing just that.

1) Edwulf

Edwulf provided rookie trainer Joseph O’Brien with a grade 1 winner at the Dublin racing festival in the Irish Gold Cup.

But what makes the story so sensational is what took place 12 months before.

After collapsing at last year’s festival, having been pulled up in the National Hunt Chase, Edwulf was on the floor for well over 40 minutes, having a fit and at one stage appearing to be suffering from blindness.

The veterinary staff battled to save his life, but it looked like he might not make it through the night, never mind race again.

It’s also testament to the maturity shown by O’Brien at such an early stage of his training career. Aged just 24, the trainer admitted that they had to give Edwulf plenty of time and patience and he was duly rewarded with a 33/1 grade one winner.

Just a year on from his near-death experience, it’s incredible that Edwulf will even be lining up for the festival’s flagship event, the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Many have already labelled him as ‘the Lazarus horse’, and although he is one of the outsiders, he would be the most popular sight in the winner’s enclosure of the entire week should he perform another miracle to win.

Who would bet against him from writing one of the greatest Festival stories of all-time?

Cheltenham 2018: Sam looks to be a money-spinning wager

The intensive research is complete, the data has been sifted, the numbers crunched, and the hunches backed.

Yes, the 2018 Cheltenham Festival is finally upon us, and despite a host of shorts-odds favourites, there’s still plenty of value to be had at national hunt racing’s showpiece event.

Elephant Sport has drawn up a shortlist of five of the best bets of the week at Prestbury Park.

5) Oxford Blu – Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle – 20/1

Formerly trained by Sir Mark Prescott, Oxford Blu has twice won on the flat, including over 2 miles and 2 furlongs.

He has since made the switch of stables and joined rookie trainer Olly Murphy, who despite his inexperience has been making a name for himself as a shrewd handler who has a good record with ex-flat horses.

Blu has won and has been placed second in just four starts for Murphy so far, and the Fred Winter may well have been the target for some time.

Although he lacks the class of others, he is battle hardened with plenty of experience and has form on both soft and heavy.

It looks likely that champion jockey Richard Johnson may well take the ride and off a mark of 10st 3lbs he looks to be very well handicapped.

With conditions likely to be testing, Olly Murphy’s charge should be staying on strongly when others have cried enough so Oxford Blu looks to have a very solid each way chance.

4) Dortmund Park – Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle – 14/1

Dortmund Park has a lightly raced profile who looks a likely improver off what looks to be a lenient mark of 11st 5lbs.

Trained by Gordon Elliott and owned by the powerful Gigginstown House Stud the five-year-old has had just the four starts with a 50%-win strike rate. Elliot knows what it takes to win the race having won this contest last year with Champagne Classic and Dortmund Park looks a similar type.

Having travelled powerfully in a Grade 1 Novice Hurdle at the Dublin festival, he couldn’t quite finish off his race as powerfully as the winner and finished back in fourth.

However, he drops back two furlongs in distance meaning he should see out the trip strongly and looks to be a live player in the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle.

3) Sam Spinner – Stayers Hurdle – 9/2

Trained by Jedd O’Keeffe with Joe Colliver onboard, Sam Spinner would prove to be an incredible story should he enter the winner’s enclosure.

Currently the joint-favourite alongside Supasundae he still represents value, particularly with the forecast soft-heavy going which he has proven form on – conditions which will cause question marks surrounding the other market principles.

He arguably has the best form in the book and has had nine career starts winning seven times – never failing to finish outside of the top two.

If he hailed from a bigger yard Spinner would undoubtedly go off a much shorter price, and although Joe Colliver is an inexperienced jockey, the 26-year-old has won on the horse four times, so that shouldn’t be so much of a concern.

Although Sam would be a great story, he would also prove to be a big money-spinner should he land the Stayers Hurdle, as he’s many peoples idea of the bet of the week.

2) Un De Sceaux – Ryanair Chase – 11/8

It’s remarkable that people continue to doubt Un De Sceaux despite everything he has achieved to date. Willie Mullins’ 10-year-old has had 20 starts winning an incredible 15 times.

Time and time again we hear that when selecting Cheltenham winners, festival form is one of the key indicators too look at – of which Un De Sceaux has in abundance.

He’s only ever been beaten at Prestbury Park once – where he came second to the brilliant Sprinter Sacre in the Champion Chase – and he’s won an Arkle, as well as last year’s Ryanair – a crown he is attempting to defend.

Just weeks ago he could be backed at around 7/2, a price which would have made him the best bet of the festival.

However, following the ‘beast from the east’ along with the forecast rain providing his ideal soft going conditions, bookmakers have slashed his odds to around the 11/8 mark, and it looks likely that he could yet go off odds-on come race day.

Despite the slim pickings on offer, Un De Sceaux in the Ryanair Chase looks to be the banker of the festival.

1) Our Duke – Gold Cup – 7/1

We couldn’t provide a five to follow without coming up with a selection for the festival’s most prestigious event, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which this year looks on paper to be a wide-open renewal.

Might Bite has had an ideal preparation, and the winner of the King George looks to have a good chance, but history shows he has a tendency to veer across the track up the run-in, which is a major concern.

Native River has had a light campaign targeted at a second crack at the Gold Cup, but stats show it’s very difficult to win the race after failing to win it previously.

Even though the ground should have dried up a bit by Friday, it will probably still be on the slow side, conditions which Native River tends to thrive in.

However, the way in which Our Duke travelled in the Irish Gold Cup at the Dublin festival was eye-catching, until a bad jumping error put a halt to his momentum. Despite the blunder, the winner of the 2017 Irish Grand National ran-on strongly to finish fourth.

Jessica Harrington’s charge made another jumping error when getting the better of Presenting Percy while conceding 7lbs.

But jockey Robbie Power went on record to say Our Duke’s jumping was not a problem and the error was down to a lack of concentration rather than ability, something the extra pace of the Gold Cup will aid.

Another positive is the trainer-jockey partnership of Harrington and Power who took the prize with Sizing John 12 months ago.

In what looks a wide-open contest, should his jumping hold up, at 7/1 Our Duke could blow the field away to land this year’s Gold Cup and provide Harrington and Power with back to back victories in the Festival’s flagship.

Where are the young horse racing fans?

Horseracing continues to struggle to attract new fans despite being the second most popular spectator sport in the UK.

According to Deloitte, six million racegoers attended meetings in 2017, whilst more than half of the top 10 annual events throughout the year were either racing or equestrian-based.

Royal Ascot was the best-attended event of the horseracing calendar, with 294,000 people flooding through the gates over the five-day festival.

Although the industry will be buoyed by the figures published, there is still a fear within it that the sport is on the decline, particularly with an ageing demographic.

Last year, racing entered into a £40m deal with ITV to become the sport’s only terrestrial TV channel, and although viewing figures from their first year have been hit and miss, it has been the epitome of racing’s intentions to engage with a wider audience.

Innovation

Speaking to Elephant Sport, ITV Racing’s lead commentator Richard Hoiles said: “It’s important that we make sure the sport is open and accessible to everyone, and that it doesn’t seem mysterious.

“As a production team, it’s our role to make sure we explain racing terminology, but without coming across as patronising to our more seasoned followers.”

‘We need to show people that racing does have wonderful people involved in it and that it’s a brilliant sport with wonderful colour’
– Oli Bell

Throughout their first year, ITV’s racing coverage has been well-received, but like other sports racing faces a battle to engage with younger audiences.

ITV have proved to be the forward-thinkers in racing coverage over the past 12 months with presenters such as Oli Bell fronting frequent Facebook live videos.

ITV Racing also launched their own Instagram account last month, providing behind the scenes footage of their weekend coverage as well as displaying the colour that comes with a day at the races.

“Racing needs to connect with a younger audience,” said Bell. “There’s a lot of ways in which young people access information, including video content and the way in which they communicate with one another via social media.”

The presenter of ITV Racing’s ‘The Opening Show’ continued: “A lot of people do attend racing which is great, but to keep them more consistently involved, racing needs to be across all forms of technology and to be up to date with the current trends.”

Racing attendances have been pleasing in 2017, but taking statistics at face value can be misleading, and it is often argued that a large percentage of spectators who attend meetings are not necessarily fans of the sport.

Throughout the summer months The Jockey Club include live entertainment following the final race on the card of a meeting and acts already booked in 2018 include the likes of Craig David and Paloma Faith.

Bell admitted that tracks do need to do more to encourage the fans who attend a day at the races primarily for the music.

He said: “I think something more could be done to improve the crossover. An example could be that if spectators arrive in time for the first race and place a bet on the first couple of races that they’re then entitled to a free pint

“We need to show people that racing does have wonderful people involved in it and that it’s a brilliant sport with wonderful colour.”

Racings welfare struggles

The British Horseracing Authority’s head handicapper Phil Smith last week revealed the weights for the 2018 Grand National, meaning the countdown to the biggest spectacle of the racing calendar had well and truly begun.

A large proportion of the public will no doubt be clamouring into betting shops up and down the country to place their once-a-year annual bets come race day, and the world’s most prestigious steeple chase provides a platform for the sport to reach out and introduce racing to potential new fans.

‘We’re not slapdash about welfare, we do care and we don’t race horses for them to get hurt and everyone to shrug their shoulders and move on, everyone cares very much’
– Richard Hoiles

However, despite the sport’s soaring attendances throughout the major meetings and festivals of last year, ITV saw a 17% decline in television viewings for the 2017 Grand National compared to that of the previous year.

This has led some to believe that there has been a shift in the public’s perception of the sport with organisations such as Animal Aid suggesting that racing along with the Grand National itself should be banned.

Following the introduction of the 2006 Animal Welfare Act, the BHA has worked closely with the RSPCA regarding the rules and regulations of the sport.

Section 9 of the Act places ‘a duty of care on people to meet the welfare needs of their animals, including the need to be protected from pain and suffering’ – a law which has to be followed by trainers and jockeys alike.

Worth following

“Welfare issues such as the whip debate continues to haunt racing,” admits Hoiles who was ITV’s lead commentator for the 2017 Grand National.

“The whip in layman’s terms is an instrument that inflicts pain. However, in horse racing, the action of the whip acts as a trigger so that the horse knows it is time to go through with his effort.”

Hoiles continued: “It is also extremely unfortunate that when horses break their legs they often get put down.

“This is due to their bone structure and the fact they can’t be suspended upright without putting weight on for any considerable length of time, except for very clean fractures where they can be set right.

“But there’s a lot of care that goes into that, we’re not slapdash about welfare, we do care and we don’t race horses for them to get hurt and everyone to shrug their shoulders and move on, everyone cares very much.

“But it’s those welfare issues, the care and treatment provided before, during and after that racing needs to go on the front foot with to convince people that it is a sport worth following.”

Sledging in Oslo fuels then dampens the Beijing dream

With the 2018 Winter Games currently taking place Pyeongchang, now is the time to reveal my Olympic ambitions.

It’s a dream fuelled by Britain’s success on the slippery stuff in recent years, and underlined by a trip to the Norwegian capital Oslo to try my hand at sledging.

As an avid sports fan I’ve spent the vast majority of my life trying (and failing) at most sports, but I naively couldn’t help but think this could be the start of something special.

Unlike Norway, Great Britain doesn’t boast a rich heritage when it comes to competing in winter sports. For instance, the 2014 Sochi Olympics saw Team GB leave Russia with four medals – of which just one was gold.

However, despite the poor strike rate, in recent times the likes of Shelley Rudman, Amy Williams and Lizzy Yarnold won a silver followed by two gold medals in the skeleton bobsleigh event from 2006-2014.

Of course, I was going to continue the trend, by whizzing down the Korketrekkeren track – which translates to English as ‘The Corkscrew’ – before later taking up the sport and qualifying for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Freezing but sweating

It is 2km in length and has an elevation drop of 255m. The view looking down the course was somewhat intimidating, and my confidence soon evaporated.

I found that I was somehow sweating, despite the freezing cold -8C temperatures. I had become a barrel of nerves with sweaty palms and full of anxiety who no longer had dreams of making the 2022 Olympics.

All I wanted at that moment was to make it down unscathed.

YouTube Preview Image

I rather cautiously set off, gently dragging my feet along the snow as I approached the first bend, decreasing my speed to prevent my sledge from spinning out of control.

A couple more turns and I was experimenting the different ways of which to manoeuvre myself to take the bends at speed, and before long, somewhat prematurely, my improbable Olympic dream was back on again.

I hurtled around the next few bends as the thrilling pace continued to increase, shifting my bodyweight right and then left, I was now on the same wavelength as Lewis Hamilton, as I was beginning to picture the best possible racing lines.

Turbo-charged

Ben (left) celebrates surviving his icy ordeal

Just like my confidence at the start of the run, the wall to my left seemingly vanished halfway down leaving nothing but a rather severe drop.

I instantly and rather sensibly attempted to decelerate, until approaching a turn I hit a spot of black ice, which propelled the sledge forward causing it to feel as though it had suddenly become turbo-charged.

I lost all composure, the sledge was out of control and before I knew it – much to my relief – and much to the joy of my friend – I went flying into a snow bank on the right; causing him to burst into a fit of hysterical laughter.

I slowly rose to my feet covered head to toe in snow, and with my woollen gloves now soaked through It quickly became apparent that my ambitions of sledging at the highest level wasn’t to be.

So, for now, I think it’s best if I  withdraw my application for the skeleton bobsleigh team for Beijing. In the meantime, does anyone know when the curling try-outs are?

Work tomorrow? Crowd takes Dutch courage as MVG wins again

“Don’t take me home, I just don’t want to go to work, I want to stay here and drink all the beer, please don’t, please don’t take me home.”

The plaintive chant filled the air at Arena MK on a night of darts, drinking and Dutch success otherwise known as the Masters Championship.

I found myself singing along, pitcher of lager in hand, until it dawned on me that I too had work the following morning, at 7:30am to be precise.

As with most of the crowd, however, this panicked thought soon passed, and the party carried on.

It was the first PDC event of the year, pitting the top 16 in the world against each other, and it was the tournament’s fourth successive year of being hosted in Milton Keynes, with Michael Van Gerwen winning the previous three events on the bounce.

Raymond Van Barneveld

Barney Army

The Dutchman headed into the curtain-raiser off the back of a disappointing defeat to Rob Cross in the PDC World Championship semi-final at Alexandra Palace, while it was Cross’ first tournament since his sensational run to the world title.

Both were expected to come through their opening games in comfortable fashion and the pair didn’t disappoint, Cross defeating Ian White 10-3, with MVG beating Kim Huybrechts 10-6.

However, the Barney Army, who were out in force had a scare, but their man, former world champion and two-time Masters runner-up Raymond Van Barneveld, was able to see off the challenge of Dave Chisnall in a final-leg decider to edge through 10-9.

Ally Pally hangover

It was feared that Cross – who’s meteoric rise last year resulted in him ending the season as world No.3 – might suffer a World Championship hangover, and so it proved in his quarter-final.

Mensur Suljovic
Mensur Suljovic

Mensur Suljovic, a notoriously awkward opponent due to his slow throwing rhythm, was able to hang onto the coat-tails of Cross in the early exchanges, coming back from a 4-5 deficit to put together a run of four consecutive winning legs.

The pressure asserted by the Austrian proved to be too much, and the world champion’s frustration on the oche became increasingly apparent.

The Englishman was able to reduce the margin to a single-leg deficit at 9-8, but it proved to be damage limitation as the world No.6 took the 18th leg to send the man from Hastings crashing out.

Cross, who turned professional just a year ago, could only achieve a three-dart average of 99.00, which fell some way short of his world championship final victory over Phil Taylor, where he averaged 107.67.

Going Dutch 

An all-Dutch final between Van Gerwen and Van Barneveld proved to be the spectacle everyone had hoped for.

Bive-time world champion ‘Barney’ raced into a early 4-1 advantage over his compatriot, and then led 5-2.

However Van Gerwen eventually found his best form and put together a string of three successive winning legs to level proceedings at 5-5.

The Barney Army were in full voice as they urged their man to summon up one more big effort and he didn’t disappoint, but MVG went on another winning streak of his own.

The world No.1 took five consecutive legs at 5-8 down to storm into a 10-8 advantage, before doubling out and landing the contest 11-9 in what was an epic seesaw battle full of momentum swings.

His victory meant MVG has still never lost a match on the Milton Keynes stage. The crowd went home elated to set their alarms for the following morning…

Super Bowl LII: Ajayi can provide UK fans with reason to cheer

This year’s Super Bowl is expected to be seen by a TV audience of well over 100 million in the United States alone.

But British NFL fans have more reason than ever for staying up late on Sunday to watch the New England Patriots take on the Philadelphia Eagles in Minneapolis.

London-born running back Jay Ajayi will be taking his place behind the Eagles’ offensive line, with many believing he will have to play a significant role if Philly are to come up with a formula to beat the legendary Pats partnership of head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.

Ajayi, who is also a lifelong Arsenal fan, was born in London in 1993 and moved to Texas at the age of seven.

The 24-year-old first impressed at high school and then became a college star with Boise State, becoming the only player in their history to rush for 200+ yards in three separate games.

In the 2015 NFL draft, he was picked up by the Miami Dolphins, and he began the 2017 season with the Florida outfit.

However, a surprise trade in October saw him move to Philly in a deal which gives Miami a fourth round 2018 draft pick in return.

Foles steps up

The Eagles went on to have a fine campaign, ending the regular season 13-3 and losing only to the Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys.

Philadephia's Nick Foles
Philadephia’s Nick Foles

However, when star quarterback Carson Wentz was sidelined in week 14 with an anterior cruciate ligament injury, Eagles fans feared the worst.

But experienced back-up QB Nick Foles has stepped up, with the help of the NFL’s fourth ranked defence – as well as Ajayi’s explosive running style – and their 38-7 demolition job of the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship game was particularly impressive.

Meanwhile, this will be the eighth Super Bowl for the Brady-Belichick partnership, with victories for the Patriots coming in 2002, 2004, 2005 2015 and 2017.

Despite establishing a winning dynasty since the turn of the century, New England have failed to score a touchdown in the first quarter of seven of those Super Bowls.

Unpredictable

But it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish, and the Patriots – who also went 13-3 in 2017 – have Super Bowl experience in abundance, unlike Philadelphia.

The feared combo of Brady and Belichick

In their two previous appearances in the NFL showpiece, the Eagles lost to the Oakland Raiders way back in 1981, and again (and narrowly) to New England in 2005.

So will it third time lucky for Philly as they attempt to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the first time in their history?

Not if the wily Belichick has anything to do with it. And with Brady now an elder statesman of the game at 40, his coach’s talent for assessing opponents on the day and adjusting his game plan to exploit their weaknesses will be more important than ever.

New England are the favourites in many people’s eyes, but may not have things all their own way.

The combination of the success that Foles has had in the play-action pass game, along with the added dimension Ajayi provides for the Eagles, could just make them unpredictable enough to outfox Belichick, Brady and the Pats.

Darts ditches glamour girls and F1 follows suit

Darts looked distinctly different at the 2018 PDC campaign curtain-raiser, the Masters Championship in Milton Keynes.

But it wasn’t the absence of now-retired multiple world champion Phil Taylor, nor the presence of his newly-crowned successor Phil Cross.

No, it was the decision by the Professional Darts Corporation to stop using walk-on girls with immediate effect.

It was the first time in over 23 years at a televised PDC event that players hadn’t been flanked on their way to the stage by glamorous models.

A statement from the organisers said: “We regularly review all aspects of our events, and this move has been made following feedback from our host broadcasters.”

Tradition?

Walk-on girls have accompanied players to the oche since 1994, just a couple of years after the birth of the PDC in 1992, in its attempt to attract the wider public to the sport with music, glitz and glamour.

Many fans across social media have argued that walk-on girls are therefore part of darts’ tradition and that their role should very much remain.

However, others have rightly suggested that darts has been around for more than just the two decades that the PDC and the walk-on girls have existed, so it’s far from the be all and end all.

A petition addressed to PDC chairman Barry Hearn has since been started in favour of keeping walk-on girls, attracting more than 40,000 signatures.

A tweet from five-time world champion Raymond van Barneveld urging the public to sign the petition read: “I will really miss the girls! For me they are a part of the darts. Sign their petition so they can keep their jobs.”

The models also work at other sporting events, including horse racing, boxing, cycling and as Formula 1 grid girls.

However, F1 has followed in the footsteps of the PDC and announced the withdrawal of models from the sport.

Domino effect

In a statement F1’s managing director of commercial operations Sean Bratches said: “Over the last year, we have looked at a number of areas which we felt needed updating as to be more in tune with our vision for this great sport.

“While the practice of employing grid girls has been a staple of Formula 1 grand prix for decades, we feel this custom does not resonate with our brand values and clearly is at odds with modern day societal norms.”

Leading national charity the Women’s Sport Trust also stated: “We applaud the Professional Darts Corporation for moving with the times and deciding to no longer use walk-on girls. Boxing and cycling… your move.”

As momentum and pressure continues to grow, it remains to be seen whether there is a domino effect which ultimately ends the use of female models in promoting sporting events, but it would come as no surprise should others follow suit.

Impressive Politologue fends off Fox’s challenge

Politologue landed ten-time champion trainer Paul Nicholls his 10th Tingle Creek Chase victory in 19 years as he pipped Fox Norton by half a length at Sandown.

Nicholls’s six-year-old grey gelding finished fourth in the JLT Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival last season, and fell at the last fence when clear in a Grade One at Aintree.

He kicked off this year’s campaign with a seasonal reappearance win at Exeter in the Haldon Gold Cup before setting the record straight by chalking up his first career Grade One success at Sandown Park.

Politologue went into the race as the 7/2 second favourite to Colin Tizzard’s warm 8/13 market leader Fox Norton.

But, it was Ar Mad who bowled along in front, jumping exuberantly throughout while a couple of slight jumping errors on the first circuit meant Robbie Power found himself further back on Fox Norton than he would have liked.

Precision

In comparison, Politologue jumped his obstacles with supreme accuracy allowing him to cruise into the race in the slipstream of the leader, before his rider Harry Cobden allowed him to jump to the front and kick on two fences from home.

Approaching the last Cobden allowed his mount to see a stride before the grey soared over in what proved to be an impeccable display of precision jumping.

Fox Norton was always on the back foot, and although the winning margin was a fast diminishing half a length, Politologue was able to gallop strongly to the line to fend off his challenge.

Politologue at Sandown Park

Nicholls said: “The faster they go and the more he [Politologue] can get a tow into the race the better.

“We tried to make him into a three-miler [for the Cheltenham Gold Cup] but then we went to Aintree [where he fell when clear at the last] and that’s why we’re back at two miles.

“I suspect we’ll go to Ascot with him at the end of January [for the Clarence House Chase] and then on to Cheltenham [for the Queen Mother Champion Chase].”

It was 19-year-old Harry Cobden’s biggest win to date landing a first Grade One of his career in what has been a momentous year for the teenage jockey, after being handed the lucrative ride of Cue Card in last month’s Betfair Chase.

Nicholls said “He’s a really good young jockey and today was a big occasion for him. He’s chilled, and can do the job.”

 

The victory now means Politologue is priced up at 8/1 for the Champion Chase at next year’s Cheltenham Festival, while Fox Norton who will probably step up in distance is the 7/2 market leader for the Ryanair Chase, which is run over an extended two-and-a-half miles.

Outpaced

The Tingle Creek Chase drew a sizeable crowd to Sandown

Elsewhere on the Sandown card, Alan King’s 11/1 outsider Sceau Royal landed the Grade One Henry VIII Novice Chase in emphatic style, despite many thinking it would be a two-horse-race between Finian’s Oscar and Brain Power.

Finian’s Oscar jumped awkwardly and was outpaced early in the race before plugging on to finish a remote third while Brain Power fell at the last, although at the time had just been headed by a strong travelling Sceau Royal, who powered up the run-in to beat the second, North Hill Harvey, by an impressive 11 lengths.

The victory for King’s bay gelding means quotes of 7/1 for the Arkle at next year’s Cheltenham Festival are now available having previously been 25/1 before Saturday’s Grade One success.

A special mention should also go to Sir Valentino, trainer Tom George and connections.

Sir Valentino, who finished third in last season’s Champion Chase, fell at the final fence in Saturday’s feature race, the Tingle Creek, and sadly lost his life as a result.

His Jockey Adrian Heskin chose to miss his last race of the day so he could stay with Valentino until his final moments.