In 1994 I painted my face with a Germany flag in the hope Olaf Ludwig might win the 5th stage of the Tour De France. He didn’t, thwarted by Nicola Minali into second place much to my disappointment. My Brother had it right though, brightly clad in the Spanish flag cheering on the indestructible Muguel Indurain to another Tour win. 19 years on it seems unbelievable, given the current state of cycling that I had to disown my own nationality so readily, but with no British rider in the tour’s top 100 in 1994 what else was I suppose to do? How times change!
1996 was a great year for British sport. Nick Faldo won the US Masters, Damon Hill won the F1 title and England won the 5 nations. Us British are seriously spoilt. But is that good enough for the nation who hold sport dearest to their hearts yet harbour an underwhelming pessimism about the actual quality of our sporting ability. Success? in 1996 was typified by our Olympic haul; 1 gold medal, 8 silvers and 6 bronze – 15 medals! In a bare facts comparison the 2012 total reads 29 golds 17 silvers and 19 bronze – 65 medals…50 more! This go me thinking about how far British sport had come in my lifetime and more importantly led me to the conclusion that Great Britain (22nd largest population and wealth according to GDP) is the best sporting nation on the planet.
Lets start with my favourite sports (with the obvious omission of football – please see later in the article for public shaming of the worst run sport in our country.)
Cricket – No ashes win in 1989, 91, 93, 95, 97, 99, 01, 02 then 3 of the last 4 and currently 2-0 up in the recent series. Add to this in the past 5 years England have won the world T20 reached the final of the ICC champions trophy twice and been the best test team in the world. All things I dreamed of whilst being skittled by Akram and Ambrose growing up. We are now at the top of tree and staying there.
Rugby Union – Lions tours haven’t always been successful and neither should I judge this years victory on much, given the weight of the opposition but England have won the world cup and Wales made the semi finals. All of which marks distinct progress from the Lomu bashing we received in my youth.
Golf – From 1996 to 2010 Paul Lawrie was the only British Major winner in golf. Of late they seem to be far more regular; Mcdowell ’10 Mcllroy and Clarke ’11 Mcllroy again in ’12 and Rose in ’13. Add to this mix Mcllroy, Donald and Westwood topping the Golf rankings and the stranglehold Europe have ion the Ryder cup, Golf seems to be riding a similarly lofty wave as other sports.
Cycling – Until 2012 no British rider had ever won the Tour De France in its 98 years! Now we have had 2 in 2 years. Sky ( a british based team) continue to be dominant on the World scene. In Chris Froome Britain has one of the most talented grand tour riders ever and in Bradley Wiggins they have a track and road legend. Never mind the success on the track where British men and women are borderline untouchable, this is another sport where Britain is the current pioneer of progress and success.
This article could genuinely run forever looking at British success. Players in the NBA, Horses winning around the world, rowers dominating regattas, boxers winning world titles. In lots of sports there aren’t many countries that compete; rugby and cricket for example, yet we are always there participating and winning. In sports such as Motor racing where money plays such a huge part, Button and Hamilton are recent world champions. In tennis Andy Murray is the holder of two majors (a last Brit won 1 in the mens game in 1936). In fact there aren’t many sports worldwide that we don’t have a decent crack at and I believe you would be hard pushed to find a nation so successful across the breadth of sports we are in Britain. Come the sailing and the rowing and the cycling at the Olympics we are number 1. All countries have their sporting stars but few can boast such a variety of heroes and heroines across such a diverse demographic; icons who escalated us to 3rd on the medal table at the Olympics and Paralympics. Leaving the Olympics aside we compete and succeed at hockey and swimming and athletics. Obviously not in every meeting we win but it does beg the question has any country got the balance quite as right as us?
Is there any country around the world who has world champions and continued success in Rugby, Cricket, Athletics, Rowing, Cycling, Sailing, Horse Racing and Show Jumping, Boxing the list goes on. Some countries disproportionately fund their sports, others stick to elite programmes but in terms of the most high profile sports worldwide their aren’t many countries who regularly provide more stars currently than Britain, and this certainly hasn’t always been the case. The money that goes into the funding, the way the coaches are trained and the governing bodies are run, surely there is a vast amount of good practice knocking around? Which sadly brings me round to the point of how the one sport in the country is able to continue to fail – Football. How can it fail so badly when other sports have dragged themselves out of the mire and hauled their regimes kicking and screaming into 21st century success. If I was head of the FA, granted I would do a lot of things, but learn something from other governing bodies in Britain would be 2nd on my list after growing a backbone. Only then may we start seeing progress in the so called national game. For if we don’t the hysteria of other successes might just sweep people away!
In the Lion King, Disney’s adaptation of Hamlet, we are told the story of life in an African savannah filled with an array of wildlife and animals. On the current Lions tour to Australia there seems to be a similar array of animals, most notably an elephant in the room; the fact the Lions have been a total disappointment. No one dare say it on twitter or in the press because “we must get behind the boys” however a sporting spectacle which usually sets my pulse raising has provided a standard of rugby that is below par and a brand which is more concerned with not losing than winning. The games have been close and subsequently exciting but it is easy to confuse excitement with satisfaction, we are lucky to be at 1-1 and even luckier David Pocock is absent through injury!
Having said that, I love the Lions, I love the determination and the attitude, the camaraderie and the passion, all of which have been as prevalent in this Lions tour as any before. Tackle after tackle made, bravery and heroics in every minute, however the attacking flair has been non-existent and this has led to tense games decided by a penalty, not by moments of skill and genius. Where is the composure, the class and the skill so regularly associated the best that these rugby proud nations have to offer. In 160 minutes of test match rugby we have scored two tries. The second of which was when Cuthbert (never to be seen again) was set up on a mismatch with a flanker in the centres. Clever rugby yes, but an opportunistic score due to injury. My point being we have created very little, particularly in game 2 where I can’t even remember a moment when we were even close to scoring a try. If Leali’ifano hadn’t been knocked out in the first minute of game 1 we would have certainly lost based on the 14 points squandered by kickers O’connor and Beale, coupled with his excellent record in the second game. It felt a hollow victory in the first game and for me and only an excellent performance in game 3 can win me over. I believe there is one major issue for the lack of quality in the test match performances thus far and it isn’t the scrum, though I would like to make a point on the hotly debated issue. The purpose of a scrum is to restart the game. In the 6 nations this year a scrum resulted in the restarting of the game only 33% of the time!! I don’t know the exact stat but I bet it is around that mark in this Lions test series. Surely it then becomes a farce if the subjective view of a referee is taken to decide which way a penalty is given. This is the most pressing matter in the game of rugby at the moment because at this rate a scrum will obsolete in a few years.
No the biggest issue for the lions is Fear. The weight of expectation is now greater than ever. Travelling fans filling stadiums creating a home atmosphere, immense press coverage, social media support, the lions tour is so huge now that it seems to be effecting the creative mind set of the coach and players. We see the lions kicking penalties and trying to tackle their way to success rather than run some of the exciting plays they have prepared and practiced. Sexton, whilst a player I rate highly has played all of both games and for me is too negative and uncreative. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Farrell come off the bench and make a big impact in the third game with his flat passes and creative angles. It strikes me as the Lions would do well to take a leaf out of Pumba and Timon’s book…Hakuna Matata was their motto. A problem free philosophy of living life with no worries. No expectations. There are some players in red jerseys who look a little like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders and they need their coach to let them express themselves. This is why he has turned to his Welshman. I get it. When in a crisis go to the guys you can trust, but Wales haven’t beaten Australia this decade including 3 games at the Milennium. I have to admit to not buying into the Wales can’t beat Australia hype but I hope the players go out there with freedom and don’t get too tight because of past results. I think Tuilagi could play an important role late in the game. I am happy with Lydiate and O’Brien into the team even though Warbuton looked backed to his best last game. As usual the battle will be fierce up front but the half backs have to play better or we will wind up with the same issues again. Phillips has to step up against Genia.
A last note on the man I haven’t mentioned. For what my opinion is worth the decision ito leave out the best northern hemisphere centre in my lifetime is bizarre. His tackling stats are excellent and defensively he is a rock. His attacking hasn’t been his best but with no battering ram at 12 he is unlikely to be as effective. Roberts is an ideal foil and upon his return O’Driscoll is dropped. Ok he is dropped, harsh, but he can always make an impact from the bench. Use his experience. No, not even in the squad, very odd.
What did O’Driscoll do after being told he was dropped…sulk and moan? No, he led a 2 hour backs training session then went into a school for the rest of the afternoon and did some coaching with children. The man is all class. And on Saturday that is exactly what the Lions need.
First winner on the board and I was pretty bullish about Duntle’s chances so I’m glad she got the job done. I am gutted I didn’t put up Mukhadram having toyed with him and plumping for Red Cadeaux. He very nearly ruined the party in the Prince of Wales.
Little analysis today due to time constraints but plenty of value to be had as usual!
Race 1 – Norfolk
1pt win No nay never @ 5/1
Race 2 – Ribblesdale
1pt win Riposte @ 11/1
Race 3 – Gold Cup
1 pt E/W Earl of Tinsdale @ 14/1
Race 4 – Britannia
.5 pts e/w Granell (40/1)/ So Beloved (16/1) / Queensberry Rules (20/1)
Race 5 – Tercentenary
1 pt Win Chopin @ 6/1 .5pt Straight Forecast Remote to beat Chopin
Race 6 – King George V
1pt E/W Spillway @ 14/1
Not a bad start to the week and whilst no outright winners and only three thirds to our name we are knocking on the door. Gregorian belied odds of 16-1 to run into a place in the first and Pearl Secret followed suit in the second. As I wrote, I suspected Dawn Approach would win and was a decent enough price but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite as close. Some big prices on offer on day two and seeing as I picked the winner in last years hunt cup at 25-1 it only seems fair to repeat the feat.
Race 1 – Jersey Stakes
A tough race to call and the reason being the variety of form to weigh up. Horses are coming into this race from all over the shop; Listed races in England and France, 2000 Guineas, Irish 2000 Guineas it is a real melting pot. However my selection is a Richard Hannon second string and subsequently there is a bit of value. Ninjago won over 6f here in May and apparently ran the second quickest time ever since Ascot reopened. The nagging doubt is the extra furlong but at 25/1 he should make a bold bid.
1 pt each way Ninjago @ 25/1
Race 2 – Duke of Cambridge
The form of Duntle’s Matron stakes success/unsuccess (demoted to second place by the stewards) sets a very high standard. Furthermore I tipped her successfully to win the Sandringham last year and subsequently am not too keen to take her on. She has been racing in higher spheres than nearly all of these and unimaginatively she is my selection.
2 pts win Duntle @ 3/1
Race 3 – Prince of Wales
A fascinating renewal with a slightly under par Camelot bidding to revive his reputation. Al Kazeem’s victory recently can be taken with a pinch of salt given the small field however impressive he looked. The Fugue, in my opinion never gets the job done on the big stage or at least when I support her so she is out of my reckoning. I was inclined to have a little nibble on either Mukhadram or globe trotting Red Cadeaux. Preference is for the latter who stays further than this trip and given Camelot has already been burnt out by Al Kazeem I suspect Windsor Palace will set a good pace and try and get a few struggling leaving Red Cadeux to swoop late. I will back Red Cadeaux each way and also have a little on a Camelot / Red Cadeaux Straight Forecast.
.5 pt each way Red Cadeaux @ 18/1 .5 pt Straight Forecast Camelot to beat Red Cadeaux
Race 4 – Royal Hunt Cup
I could be here all day weighing up the pro’s and con’s of the horses that might win this. A friend of mine will be mortified I am not selecting Stirring Ballad given the profitable success we have had with that horse in the last few years. However you won’t catch me backing any horse at 8/1 for a Hunt Cup. I have picked three horses that are spread across the track to take out the heart ache of backing a horse on the wrong side. Excellent Guest (2nd last year) Moran Gra (4th in the Coventry won by Canford Cliffs) and Field of Dream (4th last year) are drawn 1 / 19 / 33. A decent spread so a decent chance…all at big prices.
.5 pt e/w Excellent Guest @ 16/1 Moran Gra @ 25/1 Field of Dream @ 16/1
Race 5 – Queen Mary
Beldale Memory could prove to be a high class horse and I would like to side with her however there is less value at 7/2 than there is about Ed Walker’s speedster Reroute who beat the Colts on debut and looks primed for another big run at about 7/1
1pt e/w Reroute @ 7/1
Race 6 – Sandringham
With David Wachman taking this prize to Ireland last year with Duntle’s victory it’s hard to see the honours leaving this year. Dermot Weld does not bring runners to Royal Ascot unless he means business and the Khalid Abdullah owned filly Bracing Breeze looks just the sort to improve now stepped up in trip.
1 pt e/w Bracing Breeze @ 7/1
Royal Ascot rolls into town with British sport riding high after a marvelous Merion for England’s Rose and another successful title for Scotland’s Murray. Royal Ascot welcomes a truly international cast again this year further emphasising its ever growing status as one of the worlds most important racing festivals.
Day 1 – Tuesday 18th June
The opening day in terms of pure quality presides over the over 4 days with some of the worlds best racehorses turning out. Animal Kingdom, Shea Shea and Dawn Approach represent the foreign raiders most likely to get into the winners enclosure and inevitably with big reputations comes short prices, the trick if you’re punting is probably to put the 3 in a win treble to prevent any disappointment when 3 short priced favs romp home in the big races.
Race 1 – Queen Anne
Animal Kingdom is the best backed horse of the whole meeting and its easy to see why. Kentucky Derby winner and his last run he won $3.6 million prize pool for scooping the Dubai World Cup. His biggest rivals are Elusive Kate who hasn’t won for a year and Declaration of War who was 5th in the Lockinge…hardly the form to lower the colours of the worlds best! He is now Even money and that is still probably a great price but thats not my game so a bit of each way value could be found with Gregorian. Not been out of the top 2 in his last four starts he does prefer softer ground but I don’t expect the ground to be too quick and that should be just about ok for a decent run out of Gregorian.
0.5 e/w – Gregorian @ 16/1
Race 2 – Kings Stand
Foreign raiders have a decent record in this race but 2/1 over the minmum trip is ludicrously short. There are lots of positive noises coming out of the Reckless Abandon camp and quite rightly given his good run (third) in the Temple stakes. I personally would prefer to back Kingsgate Native at three times the price given he won the race and one of my picks goes to him. The second is Pearl Secret. I have been keenly awaiting his return but it hasn’t come all season and the fact he fronts up his first race in a group 1 at Royal Ascot is slightly concerning. He is also around 14/1 and given his very unexposed profile he is worth chancing each way to return with a bang.
1pt e/w Kingsgate Native and Pearl Secret @ 14/1
Race 3 – Prince of Wales
The big 3 here could produce a spectacular race. Magician and Dawn Approach, winners of the Irish and English 2000 Guineas respectively, clash with Toronado who flopped at HQ. It’s a tricky conundrum; as far as I am concerned Dawn Approach and Magician are very classy and will most likely be a 1-2. At the prices Dawn Approach still looks a decent price however I am happy to sit and watch. Given I am not very open to Trainers excuses when their horses lose I am going to have a cheeky punt on Glory Awaits at 33/1 each way. His second in the guineas is strong form given the horses behind him. He has run well in defeat to Intello subsequent French Derby winner and at about 8 times the price of Toronado its worth a pop he squeaks a place in third.
0.5 each way Glory Awaits @ 33/1
Race 4 – Coventry Stakes
Dawn Approach, Power, Strong Suit, Canford Cliffs, Henrythenavigator. A who’s who of fantastic milers all have one thing in common and that is victory in this race. Basically it pays to stick to the big stables and their first strings. Aiden O’ Brien’s 2 year olds tend to mature a little later and some of his best like Holy Roman Emperor for example missed out here before going on to bigger things. Despite Stubbs looking very impressive in Ireland I am happy to swerve him for what Richard Hughes described as “our coventry horse”. And he should know so for that reason the vote goes to Championship.
2 pts win Championship @ 6/1
Race 5 – Ascot Stakes
A tricky race because lots of horses try this longer trip for the first time. I am sticking with Justification who got the Leviathan tip for the Chester cup but was unlucky in running. O’Brien rarely keeps horses in training unless he thinks they have some good prizes in them and this galloping type may love this extended trip. Ironically Apache is a horse who last year was favourite for the King George V stakes here at Royal Ascot last year. Now with a new stable he is 40/1 for this and dropped to a low mark by the handicapper he may have a chance. His pedigree screams long distances and I think he could be worth chancing.
1 point win Jusitification @ 7/1
0.5 each way Apache @ 40/1
Race 6 – Windsor Castle Stakes
Anticipated can strike a 2 year old double for the Hughes Hannon team and get the vote ahead of Ben Hall who is worthy of each way support.
1 point win Anticipated @ 6/1
0.5 each way Ben Hall @ 16/1
Special Bet – 0.5pt win double Anticipated and Championship @ 42/1
A tremendously busy period of sport is around the corner and with the incredible success of the Royal Ascot selection over the last two years (profit of over 300 points) my head is firmly in the book trying to see how I can pull the winners out the bag.
In the meantime we will have to settle for some ICC champions trophy cricket, Lions Rugby and the US Open. The Lions have looked good but with a tour of this nature time is the biggest killer. As time wears on injuries appear and of biggest interest will actually be who starts at 10 in the midweek team! It can’t be Farrell or Sexton so most likely poor old Hogg who has looked great on the tour so far and surely would be reserve full back gets the graaveyard shift after a decent performance this week deputising for the absent 3rd fly half. I predict a series whitewash although I suspect the first test will be a tight affair. With Pocock missing Australia are hugely weakened and the stand in 6 and 7 are going to have to be awesome to inspire a victory.
The ICC champions trophy is a nice quick format without the dross and subsequently makes for a good spectacle. I backed a WI vs India final and was feeling good about the two teams I think have the most match winners in their team. However WI were a bit disappointing yesterday and quite frankly India are going to take some stopping…barring a good death bowler they have few weaknesses.
I haven’t looked into the US open that much I must admit. To be honest you can over think golf tipping a little. The main protagonists will be there or there abouts. Woods and Kuchar are the only two multiple winners on the PGA tour this year. Don’t look too far from them. However 20/1 isn’t what golf punting is all about and I put a fiver each way a few weeks ago on a player who I reckon will go well at 150/1. The reason was simple Kuchar was romping home in the memorial tournament a few weeks ago but one guy chased him pretty close. He birdied 17, boomed a drive down 18 then hit his approach (not an easy one at all) to about 2 foot for a birdie to put the pressure on Kuch. Kuchar to his credit holed a pressure putt at 17 and a cracker to birdie 18 to win. It was the way Kevin Chappell finished, his attitude, calmness under pressure to still go for his shots which made me sit up an take note. Then I checked his precious US open stats and he finished 10th last year and 3rd in 2011! Good enough for me so he is my sole tip. Back him to lead after first round an each way overall!
Epson Derby and Oaks Preview: Not so much a ‘New Approach’ but a different approach towards selecting a classic winner
It’s classic weekend at Epsom and one of the best meetings in the flat season calendar. In my opinion the hill (the grass area in the middle of the track) is the best free day out in all of sport and if you haven’t sampled derby day it’s definitely the place to start!
This year is an interesting renewal of both the male and female classics but for potentially different reasons
Friday – The Oaks ; the premier horse race for 3 year old fillies (girls)
The horse I really liked initially was Moth. She finished like a train in the 1000 guineas and her stealthy late progress hasn’t gone unnoticed by bookmakers who have her in at 3/1. Ralph Beckett’s Secret Gesture heads the market and while her lingfield win was impressive enough I’m not convinced the lingfield trials produce that many classic winners. There are two coincidental factors about my selection. Firstly she is trained by the same man as the favourite and secondly her sire is none other than New Approach (see later in the article). Talent is a filly with plenty of her name sake and is currently sitting around 16/1 having won a good race at Newmarket over 10f. Obviously Beckett fancies SG more as stable jock Jim Crowley has opted for her but Talent is by no means a pace maker and there on merit. Richard Hughes is a very positive booking and I think she will go well at big odds.
Saturday – The Derby : the colts equivalent for 3 year old male horses only.
I am disappointed that telescope picked up an injury and subsequently hasn’t showed enough to run as I was quite bullish about him a few months ago. If he’d gone to York and won the Dante he would be vying for favouritism. As it is he missed it and the horse who did win it is 20/1! I find this baffling seeing as the Dante is widely regarded as the premier trial for Epsom. These things do go in circles though. Sometimes the derrinstown in Ireland is the big one then the onus changed to the Dante and recently the 2000 guineas seems to be a big pointer. However what the Guineas doesn’t show is stamina and an ability to go around corners. The only reason Libertarian is 20/1 is because he is trained by Elaine and Karl Burke and not Aiden O’Brien. I know big trainers tend to win the big prizes but with Magician not running and Dawn Approach (who’s father New Approach won the derby) having possible stamina doubts to couple his inhibiting price I think an each way punt on Libertarian is a more practical and heart warming selection. Lets hope the New Approach does sire a classic winner at Epsom this weekend but hopefully his work will be done on Friday!
It’s the first classic of the 2013 flat season and it looks set to be a really interesting contest. Dawn approach is the clear champion juvenile but 2 year old form isn’t 3 year old form and we haven’t seen him yet this year so at the prices I would prefer to wade into Toronado who couldn’t have been more impressive in the Craven Stakes. He has trained on and looks very impressive. Factor in that Hannon’s current classic crop are very strong with Sky Lantern and Olympic Glory for this one to be the best means he is very good.
In a similar vain Hot Snap laid down the marker for the ladies when breezing past her rivals in the Nell Gwyn. She did look to idle in front a touch but Henry Cecil mentioned this horse as one to watch in Frankel’s absence and it would be a surprise to see her bolt up on Sunday.
I would be fearful of Aiden O’Briens horses given his remarkable guineas record and his 3 horses in the guineas are all intriguing but don’t quite look classy enough to lower Dawn Approach or Tornado’s colours. However it is an Aiden O’Brien 5 year old who has taken my eye for a future engagement and that is Justification in the Chester Cup. Countrywide Flame the favourite has very strong form – none least his 3rd to Hurricane Fly at the festival, Overturn produced a victory at Chester after placing in a champion hurdle. However Justification off a featherweight has the class to possibly run in a group 1 later in the season and if that is the case winning a handicap off this low mark shoudl be a doddle! He is entered into the Gold cup and the Coronation and whilst this doesn’t mean he is a group 1 one performer the sheer fact he has only had 6 races and is a 5 year old and is still in training is very intriguing. Yeats didn’t develop til late having been favourite for the Derby and whilst Justification may not be the new Yeats he may very well be a bargain at 7-1 to win a handicap.
2pts win Toronado – 2000 Guineas @ 5/2
2 pts win Hot Snap – 1000 Guineas @ 11/4
2 pt win double Toronado and Hot Snap @ 12/1
2 pts E/W Justification – Chester Cup – 7/1
The upcoming Flat Racing and Cricket season as well the annual melting pot of fantastic sport over the summer months is easily enough motivation to lure Sports Leviathan out of a brief hiatus to reaffirm his position as Britain’s best loved sports blogger, well a sports blogger from Britain at the very least.
The most pressing matter on the SL agenda is the upcoming US Masters golf which takes place at the beautiful Augusta National Golf Course in Georgia this weekend. The only major where the venue remains the same and subsequently repeat winners can be a regular occurrence; Nicklaus (6) Palmer (4) Woods (4). However with Tiger Wood’s stock in decline over the past 5 years and with him not winning the Masters since 2005 it has left the door ajar for some big breakthrough wins for new kids on the block; Trevor Immelman, Zach Johnson, Charl Schwartzel and last years hero Bubba Watson. Gambling on the majors was a good punt because despite Tiger’s dip in form his Masters price was always too short and subsequently there was a lot of value around and whilst it is true again this year he probably warrants the general 4/1 quote as the World Number 1. If Tiger brings to the table the game he has showed so far this year he is going to be very difficult to beat however he still hasn’t won a big one since his return and it is continually worth taking him on until he does. I think he will definitely win the US Open this year but this is the Masters and it is a weekend unlike any other, so lets see if we can adopt Mowlgli’s bold approach in Kipling’s The Jungle Book and bravely tame the tiger.
Pick 1 – Bo Van Pelt – Price 110/1
The first selection is based on one stat but one which I think would be foolish to overlook. To be fair it’s just the score he posted in his last competitive round here. A 64 which at one point looked as though he was going to break the course record. He was 8th 2 years ago and 15th last year, he clearly can go very low. Vise a vie 110/1 each way is way to big.
Pick 2 – Jason Dufner – Price 70/1
I think Dufner is one of the most underrated of the American newbies. He is a very good player who’s main drawback is he has challenged in several majors and seemingly choked. With a Ryder cup under his belt and a bit more experience after winning twice last season he knows how to get it done. There is some suggestion Augusta isn’t great for him but he has made the cut both times he’s played and of the young American guns he’s who I’m keen to side with.
Pick 3 – Branden Grace – price 200/1
This is a left field selection on first glance on the basis that only Fuzzy Zoeller has won his Augusta debut but Grace is a man who loves winning. 4 victories on the tour last year and I just love the way when he gets a lead he pulverises fields. Wining is a habit and if he gets into a good position I would back him to hang in there. South African’s are flying at this venue. Immelmann, Oosthuizen and Schwartzel (won on only 2nd start) have all gone well in the last decade and Grace at 24 could spring onto the scene in a big way at a big price. Even if he makes top 5 the lure of 50/1 to do so is well worth siding with.
Pick 4 – Ian Poulter – price 50/1
Gutsy poults has shown Augusta is a course he likes. Two top tens in the last three years and an ever growing appetite for major success Poulter can build on his WGC wins with the major victory he craves. I actually think Augusta is his best chance of a major. The atmosphere and occasion are right up his street and he has really got to grips with the greens the last few years. I think he will go well again this year and although I probably fancy his pal Justin Rose a little more, at double the odds and a seemingly steelier character Poults gets the vote.
On top of the four picks I have a few selections for first round leader. Getting off to a flyer in the first round but not having the consistency to win a major is a situation many players flirt with.
Bo Van Pelt – 80/1. Shot a 65 in 2011 and a 64 last round he played here. Could spring back on the scene at a venue he likes.
Nicolas Colsaerts 80/1. A birdie machine and went very low in one round at the Ryder Cup. Quiros showed a few years ago that a big driver and European form can get you off to a strong start and Colsaerts fits the bill on debut.
David Toms 150/1. Had a mini resurgence last year and a veteran of this course. He has shot a 65 here and these days seems to play well in majors for the first two rounds and fades away, so this could be another of those times.
Before I begin my assessment of the Lance Armstrong debacle some context is necessary as a preface. I am a fan of Cycling and have been for at least a decade. However this year’s Tour De France was the first year I genuinely felt it was clean. Slower average speeds, lots of the protagonists cracking and on a more regular basis illustrated the point. It wasn’t just because there was a British 1-2 and I now feel cycling is suddenly clean, but there is a scientific argument to suggest cycling is cleaner now than ever (in the last decade). Despite watching the tour every year and enjoying it, there was always suspicion and a feeling, that any one of the men could have been on drugs, yet still I enjoyed it. In hindsight this seems wrong and a bit weird, however the viewers and supporters want stories of brave Thomas Voeckler and the heroic assents of Pantani and Virenque, as well as duels between Schleck and Contandor and the resurrection of a man with Cancer, but at what price? This article examines the ‘acceptance’ of drug taking in Cycling and analyses if there is a case for it, ultimately the conclusion is unequivocal; Taking drugs is cheating and if you cheat, there is no place for you in professional sport.
Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace is not only the biggest decline of a sportsman professionally but also a catastrophic and sad deterioration of a reputation that duped millions of people worldwide. Yellow bands, books, Livestrong products, Discovery Channel and US Postal service bikes and equipment all built upon a reputation of an honest, cancer survivor who propelled himself to worldwide stardom with a rags to riches story of the highest order. It wasn’t the first time a Texan duped a nation but unlike George W Bush, he was likeable and inspirational. The admission of cheating not only takes away from all his achievements but raises important issues about the efficacy of Cycling as a professional sport. It is a phenomenally popular sport in the UK for example. The velodrome sold out before nearly all other Olympic events and 3 of the past 5 Sports personalities have been Cyclists! The market is there, but the sport has to be clean, really clean (that isn’t judged by a lack of positive tests) for it to be valued again. Put simply, Ben Johnson is widely remembered for cheating. He was lambasted and embarrassed for far smaller crimes than Armstrong. His reputation is in tatters and will never recover. The Armstrong scandal is Everest to Johnson’s Snowdon in comparison.
The difference between Wiggins and Armstrong
There are many differences, one has won a Tour De France for Example. People refer to Wiggins as someone who just tells it like it is…honest. That is a far cry from Armstrong who has lied and cheating as a norm for the past decade and for the first time I do genuinely believe a cyclist. Can you imagine the fall out if Wiggins was on drugs? The memories and enjoyment wasted on ‘just another cycling cheat’. He isn’t I am sure of it, but my judgement for what it is worth is based on the same media interviews and behind the scenes footage Lance Armstrong’s success was based on. There is for me however one big difference and that is the schedule, something for which for me was the biggest pointer towards Armstrong’s cheating. A normal sportsman trains for a season, tapering their training to ensure they are at their peak for the biggest event i.e the Olympics, the Tour De France, even horse racing at Cheltenham. Wiggins has his warm weather training in the Canaries, enters in and last year won all of the main stage based prep races; Paris-Nice, Cirterium Dauphine and Tour De Romandie. His training plan incorporated these big races and including the Olympics Wiggins showed his strength all year consistently being tested after each stage. In contrast these were not races that Armstrong took part in – he never won any of them despite these being the best pointers towards who is in the best shape and likely to be high up on GC in the tour. Why? His answer to Oprah was that it was easy to take drugs because out of competition he was never tested. And easy it was, train all year on drugs building up your fitness, never enter the prep races citing that you are gaining an advantage by practicing on the Tour route instead. People called him “clever”. Prep yourself on the main mountains on the tour route so you know what to expect when the race comes around, a step ahead of the game. But alarm bells would ring if Rory Mcllroy said I am not playing in any prep tournaments because I am just playing Augusta this year to ensure I win the Masters! It would appear ludicrous and a bit weird. They are different I accept but either way Armstrongs absence from the regular season of Cycling to then show up and scoop the main prize in France every year in my eyes is what sets Wiggins and Armstrong apart.
It’s not about the bike, its about the drugs
I personally don’t care how sophisticated and extensive the drug scam was. It happened and he cheated. The 80’s was a bad time for drugs in cycling and Paul Kimmage author of the excellent ‘Rough Ride’ has always been one of Armstrong’s avid opponents. Again he was right, the sport he loved still wasn’t clean. But how about this argument ‘well everyone is on it so it is a level playing field’. Firstly it isn’t level unless every single cyclist is cheating, which they weren’t. ‘ I did what I had to do to win the tour’. Not acceptable, if you cheat you take away someone else’s glory. Even if that is the person who finished in 20th place. I bet there are some Tour De France’s over the past 15 years where the real winner was placed around 40th – as they didn’t cheat. They are the real winner and subsequently deserve the accolade. Lifetime bans should be enforced, no remorseful sorry and I have changed, people deserve a second chance. Prevention is better than cure. Make the punishment harsh enough that people won’t contemplate cheating. However if it is a level playing field and they are all cheating then similarities can be drawn with formula 1. They all have a car, they have a team with mechanics and engineers. Yet some cars go faster than others. The ones with most money have the best engineers and technology and subsequently out perform the others. Drivers are important but not imperative. Cycling over the past 15 years and in particular in the Armstrong era allowed teams with a lot of money and resources dominate the sport, with Armstrong as a figurehead. Sure his ability was needed for ultimate success just like Vettel’s is in F1 but how different is the comparison? Saying Competitive cycle is uncompetive because of drugs opens up the F1 debate because 75% of the cars that start the race can’t physically win it! I personally don’t accept the idea that being the best cheat is still worthy of recognition and for me sport ceases to become sport when the outcome is so severely tainted by external factors. Football is edging that way with the financial gulf between major clubs and smaller ones however is not in the mire cycling faces. Cycling is a test of stamina, endurance and tactics. Once you take drugs you are a cheat and your professionalism is gone. Armstrong will never get that back.
Whilst there are counter arguments, mainly by cycling fans who aren’t too keen on erasing the fond memories Lance Armstrong brought to their lives sadly this situation is black and white. The UCI has a huge job on its hands to rebrand the sport as one which isn’t exclusive to doping cheats. I dare say had charismatic Bradley Wiggins not emerged the sport would be in even bigger turmoil, certainly in England. The next few years will probably be the making or breaking of one of the world’s most gruelling sports and the UCI need to ensure people aren’t talking about 3 letter words like EPO well unless it’s MOD.