Forge Clear At Newmarket

Newmarket’s Cambridgeshire meeting takes centre stage tomorrow and there looks to be plenty of interesting sorts taking to the Rowley Mile.

We begin with a Listed contest at 1.50 and although wide-open, it isn’t the strongest renewal in terms of class. However there are a number of interesting runners, including Wilamina, who looks potentially useful before a disappointing effort last time out. If you’re willing to line through that performance, then she should be bang there at a nice double figure price. However, the nod goes towards Kevin Ryan’s charge, Ashadihan.

The filly burst onto the scene with a blistering turn of foot during a Haydock maiden victory, before running a huge race to finish second in the Albany. Something was clearly amiss as she flopped in the Albany but she bounced back in style, with a smooth success in a Lingfield Group 3 on her first start of the season.

She ran solid enough raves behind Alice Springs and Qemah on her last two starts at Group 1 level and now a return to tomorrow’s level should allow to go mightily close again. At 6/1, she looks a solid proposition.

It would be a surprise to see Journey turned over in the 2.30, as a reproduction of last year’s form puts her clear of rivals and her efforts this season have suggested she’s retained plenty of ability. She won this race by eight lengths last season and should take the beating yet again.

It’s hard to back against Fair Eva in the Rockfel Stakes, as she is sure to relish the step up to 7f for the first time. Her pedigree (daughter of the mighty Frankel) suggests she will enjoy further in time and although she was turned over by the very smart Queen Kindly at York, the winner had conditions perfect and may turn out to be more suited to a sharp six at this stage.

Her odds aren’t fantastic but it could be a performance to put forward her 1000 Guineas credentials. Exmouth has the potential to be extremely useful but the more experience Fair Eva should have enough to keep her at bay in what looks a safe enough forecast.

Nathra is a worthy favourite in the Shadwell Joel Stakes but it may be worth taking a chance on Forge. Sir Michael Stoute’s charge has ran well in defeat behind Nemoralia, Thikriyaat, Ribchester and Zonderland before he managed to get his head in front at Haydock last time out. He has a similar profile to Confront, who won this race for connections back in 2009. At 5/1, he should give the favourite plenty to think about.

For the rest of the card, Alfarris is an interesting and expensive purchase, who should go well for the in form William Haggas yard. Century Dream holds a Group 1 entry and should progress plenty from his nice Ascot sixth on debut. He looks value against a favourite that was rather flat last time out and could be worth a second glance at a nice enough price, with Simon Crisford’s horses in decent order.

The strong-travelling Dal Harraild is sure to have plenty of supporters in the penultimate race but the consistent Furia Cruzada could be one to stay on best from a gentle pace and with Frankie Dettori in the saddle, an extremely fine judge of pace, a chance can be taken at 5/1.

The ‘lucky last’ just to happens to be the Silver Cambridgeshire, so those who sample the ‘luck’ will be rewarded at a a healthy price. Dawn Mirage has come in for early support for Messrs Haggas and Moore but Freight Train catches the eye for Mark Johnston and Jamie Spencer.

Johnston’s charges are renowned for being extremely tough and this front-running sort could prove hard to pass if coming on for his run at Pontefract last time out. He had flirted with another big performance as he streaked clear before being collared late on, yet with Spencer now on board, he could of interest now fit from that effort.

Selections:

1pt win: 1:50 – Ashadihan @ 6/1 (Various)

1pt win: 3:40 – Forge @ 5/1 (Various)

1pt ew: 5:55 – Freight Train @ 20/1 (Various)

Idaho Can Land Epsom Derby Success

Aidan O’Brien is no stranger to saddling well-fancied runners in Classics on both sides of the Irish Sea. So much so, that a lot of his 2-y-o progeny head the markets before even gracing the racecourse, such is their impeccable breeding.

It’s more of the same this year, as although things haven’t exactly gone smoothly during many Classic preparations, the well-regarded US Army Ranger arrives unbeaten and is likely to go off close to favourite along with Dante winner Wings of Desire.

The vibes have been strong about US Army Ranger and he was still rather green when just seeing off a rather carefully-ridden Port Douglas last time out. He is sure to improve for that run but he is short enough given any greenness will be punished on the unique undulations at Epsom.

O’Brien also had the option – well, he still does – of saddling recent French 2000 Guineas winner, The Gurkha. The manner in which he strode away in the French Classic was visually very impressive, yet he looks to be swerving Epsom where he will head to Royal Ascot.

On a side note, The Gurkha v Galileo Gold v Atwaad will be some race in the St James’ Palace.

Back to Epsom and O’Brien’s string. Beacon Rock landed a Group 3 last week but looks set to swerve Epsom (probably as he’s carrying my ante-post money from last year), while the consistent Deauville ran a nice enough race at York to suggest he could mount a challenge.

This in turn means Idaho may go into the race as AOB’s ‘third-string’.

There was plenty of confidence about the colt as he reappeared in the Derrinstown Derby Trial, a race in which AOB has sent out the winner on nine of the last 16 occasions, with subsequent Derby winners Galileo and High Chaparral among those on the illustrious roll of honour.

Ryan Moore didn’t ride the colt at Leopardstown as connections felt Shogun would have had a better chance had the ground remained on the quicker side, yet it may have been a case of given potential Derby rider Seamie Heffernan a chance to get a feel of riding the colt.

He certainly will have learned a lot as he gave the three-year-old too much to do that day, coming round the bend five-wide before staying on eye-catchingly well close home. He finished third behind Moonlight Magic and Shogun, yet if you ran that race again, it would be fair to suggest he would have solid claims of reversing the form with the winner, who had the run of the race.

Moonlight Magic, incidently, has been given very bullish reviews by Jim Bolger at Breakfast With The Stars, saying he wouldn’t swap his Derby charge with anything. A good sign for those perhaps unlucky in behind?

Four different jockeys have ridden Idaho in his four races, so a return to the plate for Heffernan would be a boost to his chances given he knows his style of running.

He is a son of Galileo out of a Danehill mare, so stamina is no issue and he has ran well on ground ranging from good to heavy, so conditions shouldn’t affect his chances too much.

After scoring on debut, which is somewhat of a surprising rarity for many of O’Brien’s major stars, he could only manage fourth on bottomless ground in a Group 1 at Saint-Cloud. He was subsequently put away for a break and made a nice enough reappearance behind the already race-fit Harzard in the Ballysax Stakes.

It was a nice performance given how uneasy he was at the start and after picking up the running a furlong and a half out, he looked set to stay there until the stamina-proven Harzand (who reappears at Epsom but could be more of a St Leger horse) ran him down close home. The pair pulled clear of the field and it suggested Idaho had retained plenty of ability.

He will stay better than most at Epsom and although he can get a little edgy at the start, he showed signs of maturity on his last racecourse visit.

Given his form figures of 1423, he may not strike as a typical O’Brien Derby horse but at a current 28/1, he is a big enough price to appear each-way value.

He should be finishing best of all down the straight and if he finds his rhythm early enough, he may well do more than run into a place.

Top Selection – Epsom Derby:

Idaho @ 28/1 (Betway, 25/1 Various)

 

 

Griez The Mann For Euro Glory

With this summer’s main event in France edging ever nearer, it looks a perfect time to try and snaffle some early (well, kind of early) value ahead of Euro 2016.

The host nation are always a popular port of call for ante-post investments in the Outright Winner market and that certainly looks a sensible ploy ahead of this year’s tournament, given the embarrassment of riches the French side have in every department.

Starting between the posts, where they have Hugo Lloris or, if needed, Benoit Costil and Steve Mandanda, both equally solid back-up options.

Defensively, there is a perfect mix of experience and youth, with stalwarts like Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna joined by the exciting emerging talent, such as Raphael Varane and Lucas Digne (though Digne may find it hard to break past Koscielny/Mathieu this tournament).

Premier League fans will know all about the midfield with Yohan Cabaye, Lassana Diarra, Moussa Sissoko and breakthrough sensation N’Golo Kante and all gaining a spot in the provisional squad. Solid if not spectacular, wouldn’t you say?

Well the added flair of Blaise Matuidi and the world class Paul Pogba adds the much needed star quality and the latter could be just what France have lacked in recent years. Since Zinedine Zidane bid Les Blues farewell, they have failed to have the star name to carry them in major tournaments.

Pogba was on the peripherals of stardom in Brazil but since then, his game has improved and he has matured into a real talent. He will help provide service to the much maligned French attack and this brings me nicely on to the main source of betting value in the tournament. Antoine Griezmann.

The absence of Karim Benzema looked a real blow to the hosts’ chances but it could turn out to be a blessing in disguise, with the tremendous talent Didier Deschamps men have to fill in.

Of course the Real Madrid man was a guaranteed source of goals but with young hungry talent hoping to prove a point on a big stage, it would be no surprise to see a number of stars step seamlessly into the void left by Benzema.

Kingsley Coman – Social Media’s favourite ‘look at what he’s won at 19, I couldn’t even turn the washing machine on at 19’ star – may have a plethora of big trophies in his cabinet, but this may be one tournament for him to get his chance.

Anthony Martial’s Manchester United performances could see him get a shot in the forward line, alongside the often hit-and-miss Olivier Giroud, while West Ham’s Dimitri Payet has played well enough this season to give Deschamps a real selection headache. Oh, and Andre-Pierre Gignac also makes the provisional squad. Not a bad choice, eh?

Well, one man who is guaranteed to start, fitness permitting, is Antoine Griezmann.

The Atletico Madrid man was waiting in the wings to step in for the injured Franck Ribery in the World Cup and this would have been good major tournament experience and he has since put that to good use on the club stage, shining in this year’s Champions League in particular.

He’s scored seven goals in the competition thus far, including both goals when his side knocked Barcelona out in Madrid, as well as the vital away goal against Bayern Munich.

This came a season after he had netted a total of 22 goals in La Liga season, overtaking Karim Benzema for the highest number of goals scored by a French player in a single Spanish top-division campaign.

Quite simply, Griezmann is consistent and he is a big game player. So will he get the chance to start down the middle for Les Blues? He may be forced to play wide but the chance of him being utilised as the main man has increased in the absence of Benzema.

He is quick, strong, direct and has a real sense for goal. The way his season has gone, he will be relishing the chance to maintain momentum in the aftermath of this Saturday’s Champions League final and he has to be respected in all of the main betting markets.

Right, betting, because that’s why we’re here isn’t it?

It’s a bit of a pain, as the main selection I was basing this entire piece around was a standout 33/1 with William Hill for some time but as I’ve sat down to put pen to paper (or, fingers to keys) the best price is now 22/1. Still, a solid enough price and enough to be considered slight value but it is frustrating.

That bet, is Antoine Griezmann to be top goalscorer and France to win Euro 2016.

Yes, yes, I know. How are you backing someone who has scored just seven times for his country and all of those were in friendlies?

Well, he’s grown massively in terms of talent since the last time he was given a chance to shine in competitive international football and with France set for a deep run, he looks a sensible choice.

There are plenty of creative talents surrounding Griezmann, such as Pogba, Payet and Matuidi, which should lead to sublime service to the forward. If he starts as a ‘9’ he will be tasked with finishing the moves and even if he plays wide as part of a front three, the fluidity of the play will see him have a whole host of opportunities to find the back of the net.

France have a rather favourable task in their group and they will be expected to win every game against Romania, Albania and Switzerland. Games against Romania and Albania in particular offer a real chance to pick up goals and this could ensure Griezmann has a nice head start when entering the knockout phases.

Playing in front of a home crowd can have adverse effects on players at times, yet this doesn’t seem to fit with the French way of football. Les Blues have won the Euros in 1984 and the World Cup in 1998, both of which were held in France. So, can history repeat itself?

Deschamps said they were beginning build-up to the Euros during the last World Cup and with this in mind, the recent maturity of the side must come as no surprise.

Players such as Pogba and Griezmann have gained huge reputations around the world while players like Kante and Payet are playing the best football of their careers.

There is a real depth to the French side and a real buoyant mood surrounding their chances. The 7/2 for the hosts to win the tournament is a fair price and it may be worth investing before the tournament gets under way.

So, plain sailing for the hosts and a star performance from Griezmann? Writing this has convinced myself, so I’m off to top up the blue on Les Blues and reinvest on Griez being the mann (apologies), so best of luck with whatever you decide to back this summer!

(P.s, this was written before Atletico v Real, so if Griezmann gets injured in the final, you may not be hearing from me for a while over the sound of my sobbing.)

Top Selections:

2 points – France to win Euro 2016 @ 7/2 (Paddy Power/Betfair)

1 point – Griezmann top scorer @ 10/1 (Various)

0.5 point – Griezmann/France (Top Scorer/Win) @ 22/1 (Paddy Power)

0.5 point – Griezmann player of the tournament @ 16/1 (Bet365)

Ten to Follow: National Hunt Season

 

The National Hunt season is fast approaching (though large parts of Twitter will damn you for admitting this) and this signifies that wonderful window of opportunity where one and all can unleash their ‘horses to follow’ for the year.

As old favourites are returning, exciting hurdlers and chasers are switching hands and those who have looked set to fulfil tremendous promise are set to be given the chance over the coming months.

It is always an exciting time of the season, with so much anticipation and a wonderful feeling that you could be getting some tremendous early value, with long-term projects around Cheltenham and Aintree followed with great scrutiny.

I’ve narrowed the list down to ten to follow this year and to set it apart from the usual group of animals that appear throughout the masses of lists that have been released and are set to be released, I’ve limited my ten to one per trainer.

This means there is more chance of variety and also stops me from naming 10 Willie Mullins machines that will mop up everything. Oh, and I’ve neglected to take the opportunity to mention Aux Ptits Soins and Yorkhill, not because I don’t rate them, but for the likelihood that they will appear in EVERY horses to follow list this year.

Chap (5-y-o gelding – Gabe Mahon)

First up is the exciting Chap, who created quite an impression on those who risked the rain to enjoy a Summer Nights – Sounds of the 80s evening at Aintree in May. Many could be forgiven for heading over to the stage ahead of an ordinary looking bumper to round off a tricky card, but those who stayed were treated to a performance to remember.

Chap was held up towards the rear by the talented Leo Mahon and it looked a reasonable pace by those up ahead, showed by the pair that raced prominently finished a solid third and fourth behind two that crept into the race. Chap was one of those who crept into the race stylishly, yet with twenty-runners there were still plenty in with a chance entering the final two furlongs.

The five-year-old caught the eye still firmly on the bit and he continued to improve to swoop past the field, taking up the running entering the final furlong up the long Aintree straight. He quickly put the race to bed, scooting clear when asked the question and he hit the line hard, suggesting there was still plenty in the tank.

There will be plenty of opportunity to get to the bottom of the gelding this year and he has the scope to improve when he sees a hurdle. He looks to have huge promise and he is one who may sneak under the radar on his first couple of starts.

Anibale Fly (5-y-o gelding – Tony Martin)

After finishing a close second to Jetstream Jack in a bumper that seen the field massively spread out, Anibale Fly was swiftly purchased by JP McManus to run in the famous green and gold silks. As he was sent-off 25/1 on debut it is fair to say the performance may have been somewhat of a surprise, yet he proved it was no fluke by getting off the mark at the second time of asking, comfortably seeing off six rivals.

He stayed on all the way to the line that day and this meant that he was given his chance in a hit-looking bumper at Fairyhouse on his final start of the season, coming up against a number of highly-rated animals including Au Quart De Tour, Space Cadet and Livelaughlove. It was the latter that gave Tony Martin’s charge most to think about but again, we seen the gelding’s fighting spirit as he nettled gamely all the way to the line to pick up the eventual runner-up, fifty yards from the line.

He crossed the line a length-and-a-quarter ahead of Willie Mullins’ charge and with Tony Martin likely to utilise his gameness over the hurdles this season, he could be in for a big year. He is a rangy gelding who looks suited to the obstacles and the strong-travelling battler could enjoy a stellar season for respected connections.

Limini (4-y-o filly – Willie Mullins)

It was hard to narrow down Willie Mullins’ legions of exciting novices’ to just one, yet after plenty of deliberation I’ve decided to let Limini fly the flag for the yard this year. The French import ran two nice races in defeat over 10f at Chantilly and then Longchamp before making the move across to Willie Mullins’ yard, where he created quite the impression on his sole start for the master handler.

Despite enjoying a lengthy break, the filly was sent off a warm favourite for her first start suggesting there may have been a level of confidence exuding from the stable. She tracked the leaders in fourth under Paul Townend before moving into the race in typical Townend fashion, creeping closer rather stylishly.

She made a mistake two out but was allowed time to find her stride again before she moved third entering the straight, edging into second ahead of the last and then finally edging ahead under hands and heels close home. She beat the battle-hardened Sandymount Duke who had race-fitness on his side and this was an effort that screamed promise.

The Rich Ricci-owned filly may not be allowed to go off too overpriced given her connections but she may well prove worth a close eye in the long-term ante-post markets before she makes her belated reappearance. She could well be the next in a long line of high-class hurdlers heralding from the stable.

Twelve Roses (7-y-o gelding – Kim Bailey)

Kim Bailey has assembled an enviable string for this season and it was hard to narrow it down to just one horse to follow for the year. The selected horse is Twelve Roses, who has become somewhat of a forgotten horse after spending over a year off the track.

The now 7-y-o enjoyed a stellar 2013/14, improving on a nice runner-up effort on debut to finish within a length of subsequent World Hurdle winner More Of That at Wetherby. It was a performance that looks even better in retrospect and he wasn’t disgraced when taking his place in the Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle, a series qualifier, at Newbury, where he finished a nice fourth off a high weight.

He hated the ground when floundering as favourite on Boxing Day at Kempton but after being given a break before an engagement at the Cheltenham Festival, he appeared to grow steadily and appreciate the return to a better surface. He was sent off 66/1 for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle but he massively outrun his odds, staying on bravely to take a never nearer fifth behind Faugheen.

It looks as though a step up to three miles on good ground could be perfect and although he may well need his first run after such a lengthy break, he is worth keeping onside over the course of the season.

Bailey also has the exciting Charbel who has changed hands for a big fee following two victories and a nice fourth in the Punchestown Champion Bumper. He has a lofty reputation and he has scope to improve over a hurdle, so he could be in for a big year.

Moon Racer (6-y-o gelding – David Pipe)

I’ve tried to avoid the obvious choices for this year’s ten to follow but Moon Racer was impossible to leave off, having impressed massively over the course of last season. After springing a 50/1 surprise on debut at Fairyhouse, he was switched stables to David Pipe where he delivered a jaw-dropping performance at Cheltenham last October.

He led under Tom Scudamore and he moved nicely through the race before moving clear in the final couple of furlongs, hitting top gear to put real distance between himself the field. It was an impressive time and connections were extremely bullish in the aftermath, with the view of keeping their start at home until the Festival.

The form of that race worked out nicely with the second and third both going on to win impressively and as he arrived for the Cheltenham bumper, it was no surprise to see the money come. He was sent off 9/2 favourite and somewhat rescued punters with a scintillating success, making up plenty of ground to power clear, crossing the line one-and-a-half lengths ahead of Modus.

He has a real gear change and has plenty of speed to go with his reserves of stamina, so he should enjoy a big season in the novice hurdling ranks. He is well-built and should enjoy the challenge of the obstacles, so with his long-term aim undoubtedly the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, he could be worth following all the way up the hill in March!

Penglai Pavilion (5-y-o gelding – John Ferguson)

John Ferguson has a plethora of unruly flat talent at his disposal this year with plenty of ex-Godolphin animals making the switch to the National Hunt sphere under his tutelage. There are plenty of eye-catchers in the impressive Bloomfields operation but one who is of real interest is the exciting Penglai Pavilion.

Having been trained by Andre Fabre in France during his early years, the son of Monsun fulfilled lofty potential on the level, taking fifth behind Treve in the 2013 Arc. He ran well out in Dubai before failing to land a blow when transferring to Charlie Appleby, although he was still competing at the highest level in extremely competitive group races.

It is interesting that they kept the faith for so long and didn’t attempt to drop him in grade, so the fact the was sent to John Ferguson must mean they have either lost faith in him, or they think he will better equipped over a longer distance and with a hurdle in front of him. I’m backing it’s the latter.

He scored with consummate ease on debut, making steady headway on the sound surface before pulling clear with plenty in hand. It was a performance to take note of and he was given one more outing before being put away for a break and again, he won with tons in hand, pulling clear from a long way out to score at a canter.

The form of those races leave a lot to be desired but he is yet to be tested and clearly has plenty more in the locker. He has valuable experience and the confidence boost of getting back to winning ways will mean he is ready to come out firing this season. His best flat form came on a softer surface but he has shown he can handle good or better over obstacles, so ground is no issue for him. He should mop up plenty of races and although it looks as though he would love the flat track at Aintree, he may well have enough about him to make his presence felt at Prestbury Park.

Cyrus Darius (6-y-o gelding – Malcolm Jefferson)

After a solid enough start when fourth in a Wetherby bumper on debut it was somewhat of a surprise to see what Cyrus Darius would go on to achieve last season. He switched to Malcolm Jefferson’s yard and after a nice enough third in a bumper last November, he was given a short-break before reappearing to tackle some hurdles.

He caused quite the impression on his hurdling bow, lowering the colours of odds-on favourite Course Dismissed at Newcastle, travelling into the race smoothly before pulling clear on the bit. He was heavily eased down and this ensured he was sent off 2/7 for his next start, where he landed the spoils unextended, with 23l, 28l and 16l separating the first four home.

The form of the races didn’t look anything special but the manner in which he had dismissed the field was eye-catching in itself.  He was sent to Aintree for a grade two Novices’ Hurdle and he wasn’t without support, as he was sent off 8/1 in a competitive looiong field.

Despite a mistake at the first (does have one in him, so hopefully Malcolm has sharpened him up) he travelled into the race in typical smooth fashion. With the leaders getting to work pretty seriously from a long way out, Brian Hughes eased the gelding into the race from three out, taking up second, travelling much the best.

He breezed into the lead approaching the last before being given a kick in the belly, moving clear of the field with plenty in hand. He beat some useful rivals, including Vago Collonges, Qewy and Glingerburn, all of whom are well-regarded and look to be horses who warrant their place in graded races.

The manner in which Cyrus Darius cantered past with ease means he can’t be taken likely and given the size and scope of the horse, it would be no surprise to see him make a real high-class chaser. I believe plans haven’t been confirmed as to whether he stays over hurdles or begins a career over fences, but wherever he heads, he is certainly worth following.

Drumlee Sunset (5-y-o gelding – Phillip Hobbs)

There a number of nice novices in the Phillip Hobbs stable this year and there is one of real interest in Drumlee Sunset. The son of Royal Anthem has only been seen once, when running out a ready winner of a competitive bumper, despite hanging left in the straight.

He wrestles for the lead early on in the contest and picked up it over seven furlongs out, with Richard Johnson allowing the gelding to stride on in front. He hung left when asked to assert but he still managed to stay on strongly, powering clear in the final hundred yards to claim a four-and-a-half length success over previous winner O O Seven.

He looked a strong, rangy gelding who will appreciate the test of a hurdle to keep his mind on the task and after performing credibly in the p2p sphere, he should know his job by the time he jumps a hurdle in public. He showcased plenty of talent when stretching out on debut under rules and after being given a lengthy break by the Hobbs team, he should be fit and raring to go this year.

Inner Drive (7-y-o gelding – Alan King)

Alan King didn’t have the greatest of seasons last year but he has a number of animals to keep him excited as we head into this National Hunt season, including the lightly-raced Inner Drive. After finishing a nice second on debut he moved across to the Alan King yard where he didn’t look completely wound-up on his stable debut, finishing second behind Vodka ‘n Tonic.

He was put away for a lengthy break before being brought back for a maiden hurdle at Huntingdon in March this year. He was well-backed and ended up going off favourite, scoring impressively against a field that ended up spread out by some distance.

He lowered the colours of the consistent Thedrinkymeister in a nice enough looking race before being sent to Newbury for a hot looking Novices’’ Hurdle. He took a keen hold after being help up towards the rear, before he made smooth headway into contention approaching three out.

After being urged to close approaching the last, he moved upsides the leader and began to battle it out up the straight. It was his first real eye-to-eye battle and to be fair to him, he held his own very well, only going down by a nose from the respected Rock The Kasbah.

He should come on massively from that effort and on a softer surface, he should enjoy plenty of success in the mid-range hurdling division.

Legend Lady (4-y-o bay filly – Oliver Sherwood)

The final member of the ten to follow for this year is Legend Lady, who may have slipped under the radar despite to excellent runs at the back end of last season. She was given her debut in a fairly average looking Taunton bumper but she managed to turn the race into a procession, travelling beautifully with a bit of cut underfoot before moving clear with a simple shake of the reins from Leighton Aspell.

She must have done enough to impress connections as her next and final engagement of the season came in the Listed Aintree Bumper which rounds off Grand National day. She was sent off at 40/1 but outran her odds to great effect, travelling nicely towards the rear before making nice headway from two furlongs out to run into sixth of nineteen runners.

It was a nice staying-on effort that suggests she may be more suited to further, with two and a half miles looking ideal for a first port of call this season. She has the opportunity to take in another bumper for a rather patient trainer in Oliver Sherwood but she looks to have the scope to progress over hurdles when given the nod later on in the year.

Sherwood is brilliant at placing his horses and it would be no surprise to see her mop up a couple of prizes before progressing to a decent level. She is an exciting filly who could have a touch of star quality about her.

Steven George Gerrard – Liverpool Legend

Steven George Gerrard. The name has become synonymous with Liverpool Football Club and all its success since the late 90’s.

Today, the skipper announced he would be leaving the club that he has shared his entire career with, good times and bad, to depart to sunnier climbs… and who can blame him?

He owes nothing to Liverpool Football Club.

He has stood by them (just about at times) through thick and thin and dug deep to drag his side through games they really shouldn’t have won. He is a freak talent who inspired so many with his raw, dynamic displays from the centre of midfield.

He began his career back in 1998, coming on as a last-minute substitution against Blackburn Rovers. No-one knew just how much influence this short-haired rough-looking youngster would have on the future of the Reds.

He quickly emerged as a versatile performer, slotting in at right-back and right wing-back among his sparse performances in the centre, but when he was given a true chance, he took in typical Gerrard fashion. A mazy run from deep against Sheffield Wednesday seen him drift past Des Walker before slotting home for his first Liverpool goal, one that would be the first of many at his beloved Anfield.

He quickly established himself as a leading talent, putting in hard-hitting performances from the centre of midfield, looking as though he would blossom into a leading midfielder.

I was really getting into football around this time and although I had been to a few games before (hazy memories) the first real game I take crystal clear memories from was the 4-1 victory over Coventry back in 2000.

Steven Gerrard was something else. As a player who was trying to add a physical edge to my game, watching Gerrard would teach more than any coach could. He marauded around the field with such confidence, with big tackles, sharp dashes, magnificent passes and deft finishes. He had it all.

I strolled around the park with my ‘Gerrard 17’ white away shirt, attempting to replicate the maestro. While others were more interested in the Michael Owen and Emile Heskey’s (yes, seriously), I would always be throwing in crunching tackles and turning defence into attack thanks to styling myself (fairly poorly) off Gerrard.

His career took giant strides, as he established himself as one of the first names on the team-sheet for both club and country. In the year of 2001, he won five trophies, scored in the UEFA Cup final and opened his account for the Three Lions with a stunning strike in a 5-1 win over Germany. Not bad, eh?

Then come the captaincy, where he led Liverpool with the armband following Gerard Houllier’s decision that Gerrard was the man to take the Reds forward. He was vocal but didn’t always need to be, as his performances gave his side the added edge to emulate the skipper and up their performance that extra 10%.

He began to turn in world-class performances, week-in, week-out, meaning Liverpool fans became accustomed to match-winning efforts and anything else was considered ‘an off-day’, as his pedestal that fans put him on continued to rise.

Then, in 2005, the performance that ensured he will go down in Liverpool folklore.

At 3-0 down and little hope remaining, Liverpool looked to their skipper (in hope more than expectation) for some inspiration. They soon had it, as he powered in a header, before making gestures to the fans to up the noise and make it a cauldron of red. They hardly had enough time before Vladimir Smicer had scored and Gerrard was brought down after a driving run through the centre. Xabi Alonso converted the penalty at the second time of asking and the rest is history.

Gerrard played almost every position on the park that night, including a match-winning shift at right-back, where he halted the constant attacking threat of the Milan side down the left. He walked off the pitch with all muscles aching, yet still holding belief. Liverpool went on to win on penalties and Gerrard became the first man to lift the trophy Graeme Souness in 1984. And this time… it was for keeps.

The ‘Gerrard Cup Final’ in 2006 was the last time he was really rewarded with the plaudits to match his performance as he led his side to F.A Cup glory. After going 2-0 early on, he responded with a fantastic defensive splitting lofted through ball, which Djibril Cisse converted first time, to get his side back in it. Gerrard then got in on the act himself, rifling home a volley to equalise and give his side momentum for the first time in the game.

It was short-lived however, as Paul Konchesky’s cross found itself lobbing an unsuspecting Pepe Reina and into the back of the net to give West Ham a 3-2 lead, delivering a hammer blow to the Reds’ hopes. As the clock ticked into added time, many had begun to give up, but not Stevie.

As the ball dropped out of the air, with the Cup seemingly heading back to London, Gerrard’s fatigue meant that instead of taking a touch and setting himself up… he simple had to hit it first time. And boy did he hit it.

As the ball nestled past a diving Shaka Hislop, the game was tied and momentum swung back into Liverpool’s favour.

Fitness told at the end of a hard season and the game petered out to a 3-3 draw, with neither side showing too much in extra-time.

Up steps the skipper, to blast in his third goal of the game from the spot and put his side in a commanding position in the shootout. The Reds went on to win thanks to Pepe Reina heroics in the shootout but it will be forever remembered as the ‘Gerrard Final’ as he put in one of the greatest individual performances in recent years. No-one could have won that final for Liverpool apart from Steven Gerrard.

Many thought that would the pinnacle of Steven Gerrard but the skipper continued to prove them wrong. The arrival of Fernando Torres in 2007 seen Gerrard pushed up into a more attacking role behind the Spaniard and the pair struck up a successful partnership for nearly four successful years. Gerrard added a cutting edge to his game with an almost telepathic link-up with Torres, bringing plenty of goals and assists during arguably the peak of both players’ careers.

The 4-0 demolition at Anfield summed the pair up. Frightening. Gerrard led by example, bagging a brace after Torres had opened the scoring and the skipper’s drive and determination seen him swagger around the pitch in complete control, against some superb rivals.

Then came the title challenge of last season. Gerrard was instrumental in getting his side through edgy games, using his experience to retain possession and motivate players who were emotionally and physically drained. He lost his pace over the last few years and although he failed to make driving runs and pitch in with goals from open play, his set-piece finesse won Liverpool plenty of points throughout the run.

Unfortunately Liverpool fell short and his slip which allowed Demba Ba to score and essentially secure three points for Chelsea, which is often revered by fans (most of whom, the result made no difference to, which is baffling) who forget that without the skipper, Liverpool wouldn’t have been in the position to even come close to winning the title. They had massively overachieved.

Over the years Gerrard played a number of roles for the Reds, with his early full-back days behind him, he often slotted in defensive-midfield before making his name as an out-and-out box-to-box midfielder. It was here his true ability was able to shine with his tacking, vision; execution and all-round technical play allowed to take centre-stage. Over the years he changed games with a big tackle, an unbelievable pass or a finish from out of this world.

He dragged Liverpool through games they shouldn’t have won. At times he was surrounded by poor quality players but he made them play above themselves, securing results by taking the game by the scruff of the neck and being relentless with the tempo that he ensured his side played at.

He is without doubt, the greatest midfielder I have had the pleasure of witnessing for Liverpool.

He was fortunate as he had the likes of Didi Hamann, Javier Mascherano, Momo Sissoko and more recently Lucas, to do his ‘dirty work’ in-terms of breaking play up and giving him the confidence to rein with plenty of freedom; however he worked to deserve that. The team realised how much benefit it would be to release the shackles on Gerrard and let him loose on the opposition. He was a freak of a talent.

Now he has made the difficult decision to leave Merseyside and it has been met with a mixture of emotions; sadness, fear, relief and downright angst. He is a hero of the club and one that will be very hard to replace.

However he has made the right decision in leaving Liverpool as it will allow his hero status to live long in the memory and ensures he goes down as a club legend. He is just a local lad with an extremely magnificent talent. Someone who the fans can relate.

In recent weeks and months, Gerrard’s deterioration has become more and more apparent. He is still the greatest passes at the club and his technical ability is second-to-none however his legs have gone.

He hasn’t got the pace to maintain the high-pressing game that Liverpool set-up with under Brendan Rodgers and he was simply a passenger when tried out in the defensive-midfield role. He unbalanced the side and fans and pundits were growing uneasy with Gerrard in the starting eleven, which shouldn’t really have happened given the talent he has.

It would be a sad state of affairs to watch someone who has given so much to the side, rot away his remaining days as a bit-part player, causing more harm than good to the Reds.

So, he has opted to acknowledge he has given Liverpool his best days and as the side looks to move on past the Gerrard era (with much needed help from the board, but that will be for a different post) he has unselfishly decided to step down. He could have easily signed another contract knowing he would be able to collect a nice amount of money to do minimal work but he has opted to shoot off to sunnier climbs and actually make a difference, if expected he is to arrive in the MLS, in a league which lacks the pace and intensity of the Premier League.

He will be in his element, picking up balls and being given time to find his target, something he is still magnificent at. In a game which is less physically taxing over there, he is prolonging his career as he could easily have another three years in the States, cementing himself as a hero over there.

The skipper has led by example for so many years but it is the right time to say goodbye. He has gotten Liverpool Football Club through many dark days and his career is something our generation can look back on with great fondness. I was never fortunate enough to witness Kenny Dalgish playing live for the Reds, but I was told to never expect anyone to get near his achievements or talent in a red shirt. Steven Gerrard did just that.

In a game that is increasingly involved with off-the-field matters, Gerrard delivered on the pitch, making football look so simple. His performances picked Liverpool up from the brink of mid-table mediocrity to push into the top level and challenge for European places, almost singlehandedly at times.

I have no doubt he will warm the Anfield dugout in the future, as a member of backroom staff or maybe even the gaffer. He is one in a million and one that Liverpool were extremely lucky to have.

Steven George Gerrard. Liverpool Legend.

 

Champions League Feature – With Sportingbet’s Mark O’Haire

With the Champions League now becoming a global betting phenomenon, Mark O’Haire from Sportingbet kindly took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about his views on this season’s tournament, and the some of the bets he has come across so far.

 

What are your major tips for this weeks Champions League encounters, and why?

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(Mark): I expected to see Porto shorter than 8/11-4/5ish, if I’m honest. They’ve a superb home record – unbeaten in 19 matches and are notoriously strong at the Dragao in Europe.

Malaga are unbeaten in the Champions League defence but were lucky to be drawn in a fairly comfortable group. Their away record in La Liga is sketchy and Porto have plenty of firepower to break their resolute defence.

Elsewhere, I was a big fan of Galatasaray when the draw was made. Schalke have been out-of-sorts since the Champions League group phase ended in November. I watched them on Saturday and they picked up a credible draw at Mainz which will no doubt give them some belief but a visit to Istanbul will definitely test their character.

 

What is proving popular with your punters?

Outright Bayern Munich are our biggest loser following by Real Madrid and Dortmund. Barcelona are also a small loser but all other runners are decent results for us at Sportingbet.

In this week’s games, Galatasaray have had a lot of interest and could be our worst result. Bayern Munich and Barcelona make up a number of accumulators and would represent poor results for us.

 

What’s the biggest bet that has been wagered on this year’s Champions League?

We’ve a big German punter who’s regularly placed bets around the £200,000 mark this season. He’s been less prolific in the Champions League but did have a winning £40,000 bet on Cluj double chance away at Galatasaray in the group stage at 6/4.

 

What’s the most obscure bet you have witnessed for the Champions League, on the whole?

There’s been a few. Last week one of our punters had £50 on Zlatan Ibrahimovic to be sent off in our Zlatan specials at 40/1. He was given a red card in stoppage time of PSG’s game against Valencia.

But the strangest was probably a £39 bet on the winner of the Champions League to be from Belarus at 250/1!

 

Who is your fancy to win the prize outright, and why?

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Taking price and betting out of the equation, Barcelona are the greatest club team I’ve ever seen with the best player to ever walk the earth so they’ll take all the beating. But my outsider pick ante-post was Juventus and I don’t think any side will enjoy playing against them.

Italian clubs haven’t performed well in Europe over the past few seasons but this Juventus side is head and shoulders above the rest without many weaknesses. I also think they’re being underrated in the markets.

 

Advice:

If you wish to take Mark’s advice, there are some brilliant odds on offer with his very own Sportingbet.

Galatasaray to beat Schalke @ 23/20 (Sportingbet)

Porto to beat Malaga @ 4/6 (Sportingbet)

Juventus to win the Champions League @ 9/1 (Sportingbet)

 

Brendan Rodgers – Why he is the man to take Liverpool forward.

When Brendan Rodgers signed on the dotted line to become Liverpool manager back in June, nobody was expecting miracles. However what has since occurred, has left people questioning whether or not he is the right man for the job. He is.

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Rodgers’ philosophy of tiki-taka football takes a certain amount of time to embed in the players mind, and you also need to have the right type of players to fully get the best out of the rather niche footballing style.

When you take a look at last year’s starting eleven for Liverpool, how many could you say would have easily slotted in to Rodgers’ Swansea side? A handful at best.

Liverpool often adopted a style of play, that revolved around getting the ball launched up to Suarez’ head, and Carroll’s feet, which often left fans questioning what exactly had Dalglish instructed.

There was no fluidity in a solid midfield four that lacked creativity, cutting edge and desire for the most part. However, since Rodgers’ has taken over, he has chosen to try and utilise a 4-3-3 formation going forward, which reverts into a 4-5-1 when the side comes under pressure.

This formation holds promise for the future, as long as certain aspects are adhered to over the January transfer market. Rodgers’ has been questioned after he failed to bring in a clinical finisher, something Liverpool desperately need, with the only attacking player brought in, Fabio Borini, initially flopping then getting injured. However, given freedom in January to open the cheque-book, he may be able to get the best of the formation/tactics.

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Huntelaar, Bent, Sturridge, Llorente and David Villa have all been names banded around, and any one of the five would make a massive difference to the squad. One of the most creative talents in the World, Luis Suarez, has been at his best this season, creating chances out of nothing and scoring goals for fun. However he can still not be called ‘a natural finisher’. To be seen to his best, he needs to be partnered by a strong, powerful, intelligent, goal-scorer.

This would mean Suarez could be pushed slightly wider, with Raheem Sterling occupying the other wing, or he could have Suarez just behind the striker, with two wide men, and two sitting midfielders. Options a plenty, all that is needed is a new striker. Simple.

Well, not quite. The dead wood needs to go, Stewart Downing, Joe Cole etc, who are stealing a massive wage. Then Rodgers can begin to build, and bring in his own touch of small, solid, fluid passers.

Allen was initially signed to be one of these players, after impressing at Swansea, but has struggled to find his feet during the early part of his Anfield career, but under the guidance he is set to blossom into a vital cog in the flow of the tiki-taka engine.

Gerrard, as sad as it may be to admit it, has lost his legs. Gone are the days when he would make a lung-busting 70 yard run to track back and dispossess an opponent, or start the move on the edge of his own box and end up rounding it off with a 20 yard drive, the other end of the pitch.

With his pace slowly dwindling away, he could end up seeing out his career as part of a sitting trio in midfield, alongside Allen and Lucas, who will need to be there to make sure when Gerrard does opt to go forward to join in, they have the discipline to sit and protect the defence in the event of a quick breakaway,

Liverpool’s defence has always been reknowned for being solid, conceding very few goals. However this season, the side have leaked goals, with Pepe Reina coming under pressure for the Number One spot for the first time in his Liverpool career.

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When Reina missed a few weeks through injury, Brad Jones put in a string of brilliant performances between the sticks and instilled confidence in Liverpool fans that if something did happen to Reina, or if his performance levels began to drop, there was an able replacement.

The decline in Reina’s performances have been alarming, and it would be no surprise if the Spaniard was to leave in January, with Arsenal reportedly interested in his services. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if he were to leave in January, as long as the fee was of a considerable size, as Jones has the potential to make the number one spot his for years to come.

The defence finally seems to have solidarity to it, as after Enrique has been brought back to solidify the left-hand side (thankfully after Downing’s rather questionable spell there..) and Johnson has been pushed over to his more familiar right-hand side. The central-defensive partnership of Agger and Skrtel is one of the best in the world on their day, and now they have a more familiar wing-back pairing it is only a matter of time before the defence gels, and gets back to how it was.

There are many talented youth players emerging for Liverpool with the future looking very bright. Sterling, Suso and Shelvey all look as though they will have a major part to play in the success of the club over the next few years, as they all hold the major attributes that will slot in well to the tiki-taka style.

Extremely technically gifted, have lots of flair, creativity and the winning mentality means that they could develop into a strong trio that will link up to great effect. But they do need playing time, and if it can’t be guaranteed at Liverpool, I’m sure many fans would prefer Suso to be loaned out for the remainder of the season, to gain some valuable match experience.

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He looks a star in the making, has the air of something special, in the way he floats passes around the pitch with seemingly no effort. His little touches, flair and ability to create chances in the final third means he is the type of player that Rodgers will get to thrive over the coming years.

Sterling has begun to assert himself into a first-team player, with Shelvey currently on the cusp of taking one of those three midfield places up for grabs. There has been controversy surrounding Sterling a new contract, but there is a lot of confidence behind the fact he will. When he does, he is set to have a massive future at the club, as his fearless, direct running skills with a decent end product are something the side has lacked since dare I say it, Michael Owen.

Whatever way you look at it, you cannot judge Brendan Rodgers just yet, as it will take the squad at least a season to fully adjust to the style of play he wishes to play. He now has the chance to chop and screw the side in the January transfer window, and attempt to kick-start a late push for a European place later on in the season. However no-one can completely judge him at the end of this season, as it is set to be a transitional period for the squad. In two to three years when he has fully influenced the club with his own style of players, training and tactics, then we can begin to judge whether or not it is ‘the Liverpool way’. But until then, get behind your manager and give him the belief that his methods will begin to pay off, in time.

Andy Carroll – The £35 million scapegoat.

On the 31st of January 2011, Andy Carroll signed for Liverpool for a club record £35 million, making him the most expensive English footballer of all-time.

Expectation was high, and straight from the off Carroll had a hard time of things. Replacing Torres who had vacated the number 9 shirt and left to join Chelsea, was never going to be easy, and in reality, Carroll was never going to be able to escape his massive price-tag.

There is no way of getting around that Carroll on the balance of things, is not worth £35 million, but there are very few people that actually are. The club were forced to show their hand and secure an out and out striker to replace Torres, and it was left far too late, meaning they would have to pay over the odds for whoever they purchased. The fact they chose an Englishmen only added to the price-tag, and after such a good start to the season, Kenny took a risk and opted for the big Geordie.

Fans reacted well and were pleased to have an old fashioned English number 9 at the helm, something that had been lacking since the days of Robbie Fowler (completely different styles, I know) and the future looked bright.

Carroll got his first taste of the the Anfield crowd on the 6th March, coming on as a substitute in a 3-1 victory over Manchester United. His first touch brought a massive cheer from 40,000 jubilant reds as he attacked every ball sent his way. He left the pitch in high spirits, not knowing that it would be over a month before he would finally get on the score-sheet for his new club.

He started the game against Manchester City on the 11th of April with massive pressure on his shoulders. The press had not let up in their hounding of both Carroll and Torres whose scoring records had been dreadful since making their switches in January. But against Manchester City, Carroll received something he hadn’t done consistently in the previous month. Balls to attack. He opened his Liverpool account with a sweet 25 yard strike, beating Joe Hart with sheer power. He doubled his tally minutes later as Meireles swung an enticing ball into the 18 yard box, which Carroll attacked with great intent, guiding it into the far corner. The crowd erupted, everything had finally began to click.

Unfortunately they would be the last goals he would score in the 10/11 season and he would have to wait until Exeter City away to bag his next for the club, in the second round of the League Cup. He would go on to score nine goals in the 11/12 season, which looks a poor return on paper, but the goals were of the utmost importance.

He scored the opening goal in a 2-0 victory over Everton at Goodison, which many thought would kick-start his campaign. But unfortunately it didn’t and he went through a confidence sapping mid-season, until finally beginning to hit form late on, scoring a late winner in the F.A Cup Semi-Final against Everton, and also a brilliant individual effort in the Final.

His late season form earned him a place at Euro 2012 in which he impressed when given the chance, scoring a trademark header against Sweden, from a brilliant Gerrard cross. The pair looked to have clicked at points during the season, but never enough together to really get going, which could have been a deciding factor in the demise of Carroll.

Carroll returned to Liverpool and made two substitute appearances for the club at the beginning of the 12/13 season, before a season-long loan to West Ham was confirmed, with the option to buy for £18 million at the end of season.

This is extremely saddening from my point of view as a Liverpool fan, for many reasons.

Many pundits and fans alike have never warmed to him, and always based his performances off his price-tag, a peak he was never going to match. When he was asked to perform, he would always run himself into the ground and challenge across the park, even tracking back to help out with the defence.

Liverpool have never managed to give him the service he really needed to thrive off. At Newcastle, they based their game around him, and getting the ball in the air for him to challenge, a ploy that worked with great success thanks to the service of Barton and Nolan. Liverpool were never going to base their side around a 6″3 Geordie, when the centre of midfield was home to Steven Gerrard.

A passing philosophy has always been at the heart of things for Liverpool and due to Carroll’s height, it seemed for the majority of Dalglish’s reign, that the players didn’t think Carroll was able to join in the passing game, as the ball was always hoofed as high as possible in his direction. Often, this was usually extremely wayward and he would be chasing balls with a very slim chance of keeping in, let alone making anything of. Yet due to his price-tag, he was always the scapegoat.

Yes, he wasn’t perfect and he has missed numerous chances for Liverpool. But these misses were far too over-hyped. Go and watch any team in the Premier League, and strikers would be missing chances twice as easy, but they weren’t well-documented due to the price difference. Every miss would be greeted with a collective groan, as if he was expected to score every chance. Every miss would chip away at Carroll’s ever dwindling confidence, and before you knew it he was in an abyss of woe.

He managed to regain form, and showed what he could do when given the chance towards the end of last season, which coincided with the return to fitness of Steven Gerrard, which was no coincidence. Gerrard was often the only player capable of playing a decent delivery from wide, into Carroll. At Newcastle, they were trained to put the ball on the penalty spot, at Liverpool they were trained to knock the ball about and attempt defence splitting passes. So the initial purchase does beggar belief.

When Brendan Rodgers was made Liverpool manager this summer, it effectively spelt the end of Andy Carroll’s Liverpool career. Known for his tiki-taka philosophy which was used to great effect at Swansea, Rodgers likes to keep the ball on the floor with a two-touch passing style.

Many pundits assumed this would be the end for Carroll who they deemed surplus to demands due to the new tactics set to be employed at the club. With the signing of Fabio Borini from Roma, and strong rumours circling for the arrivals of Clint Dempsey and Daniel Sturridge, the end looked near for Carroll. And it was confirmed tonight that he would leaving.

It is with a tinge of sadness I write this, after adoring the big-man for so many years. He was never given a fair crack at the whip during his time at Liverpool and was often plagued by his over-inflated price-tag. Hopefully he will find his feet at West Ham, and with the service Matt Jarvis and Kevin Nolan will provide, I’m sure he will.

He has a great touch, can turn on a six-pence, deadly in the air, and surprisingly quick for his height. His fastest pace last season was 22.37mph, which ranked him one of the quickest players in the Liverpool squad. Intertwine this with his ability to pluck the ball out of the air, the power he can put into his shots and his heading ability, and you have an old-fashioned number 9.

He is a confidence player, and will love the fact that he will now become first choice striker down at West Ham. Sam Allardyce has worked wonders with tactics involving big, powerful strikers, as shown by his time at Bolton with Kevin Davies, as-well as when he was in charge of Carroll at Newcastle. He will be able to utilise all of Carroll’s abilities both on the floor and in the air. Nolan always had a great partnership with Carroll during their time at Newcastle and this could be a key pairing for West Ham’s battle to avoid relegation. The new signing Matt Jarvis has a wand of a left foot and his service to Carroll will be something the Geordie will be massively looking forward to.

Anyway, it looks as though West Ham will be very keen to keep Carroll at the end of the year, and if he helps them stay up, I am sure that they will fork out the £18 million to make him a permanent Hammer, and it’s something he deserves. Treat him well West Ham.

Best of luck Andy. YNWA.

(Suppose I better put some kind of bet here, to justify it going on a betting page..)

1 point: West Ham to finish top 10 – 13/2 Stan James