Sunday Supplement: The calm before the storm…

Tony Stafford

Tony Stafford

Sunday supplement

By Tony Stafford

With Cheltenham just a week and a bit away, there was hardly likely to be much earth-shattering action on the tracks of this country, and in some ways, with the weather so relentless since Christmas, it has been handy that Flat racing on the various artificial surfaces has been upgraded.

Saturdays at Lingfield have provided competitive fare, some of it decent class, and whoever thought up (or rather borrowed from the Americans) the ‘win and you’re in’ concept for the inaugural Good Friday Championship races, he has richly rewarded the authorities.

Yesterday’s two-mile race there brought out a highly-competitive field of horses rated in the 90’s. As they came pounding up the home straight, the improving Litigant to the fore, I could not help wishing that Great Hall had been on the flight home from Dubai last week rather than languish as a never-to-be-used fourth reserve in the 14-furlong race at Meydan yesterday.

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He apparently has been doing very well over there – who wouldn’t like a 10-week break in the sun away from Wiltshire’s floods? – so the plan ought to be to get him qualified for Good Friday. Lingfield next week and then Kempton on March 31 would provide the necessary numerical qualification, and a rating of 99 should be enough to get him safely into the big one.

The ground at Newbury was extremely testing, so Burton Port’s late check-out after going clear in the day’s big race having shown far more energy than hitherto since joining Jonjo O’Neill, was understandable. Naturally with his connections, the Grand National looks a cinch for this one-time Gold Cup candidate.

The football went as pre-ordained. Arsenal lost at Stoke by a dodgy penalty. Charlie Adam, scourge of Spurs, thought he better be even-handed or –footed to North London, first kicking Arteta on the knee (no response from the ref) then standing on Giroud’s leg when it would have been easier to step over it. Even Mark Hughes was embarrassed enough to take him off. Bet he (Adam) doesn’t get three retrospective games.

I enjoyed the week of head-butts. The one by the Dnipro guy that lost them the game at Spurs, followed two bits of man-handling by Vertongen, which he completed by inching his head just short of the Ukrainian – better things to be this weekend. That provided the small gap into which the Dnipro forehead materialised and Vertongen’s reaction was as delayed and exaggerated as could be.

Alan Pardew, hothead-extraordinaire was in a different category, doing his (and the Hull man’s) nut for no reason at all. His was a true Glasgow kiss, his adversary barely moving before struggling to free himself of his restraining colleagues (and some opponents).

It was enough for the club to announce a £100,000 fine. Interesting. Surely Mike Ashley has the option to sack him for breach of contract. Of all the ways to conclude that amazing eight-year deal, money-man Mike could never have dreamt he’d be given that particular out-game.

Meanwhile Liverpool’s luck held, two defensive errors by Southampton gifting goals and a post intervened, but more pertinently a generous official ignoring yet another Flanagan offence, this time knocking over a forward in the area when he was about to shoot.

Here, I’m required by my contract to point out that Bournemouth won 5-0. [No need. Ahem. Ed]

Cricket was enjoyable, too. England contrived to throw away yet another wining position in the first one-day international in Antigua when crumbling after a mid-innings go-slow. The true cricketing hero of the past two days has been Michael Clarke, bravely fighting through a horror spell of short-pitched bowling early in his knock in South Africa to record yet another century. The Aussies do know how to take advantage when they’re on top.

I’m keeping it short this week, building up for the Festival when I might well come out of punting retirement in a small way. With ground still likely to be testing – plenty of rain around this week – it’ll be a case of making my mind up at the last possible minute.


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