Cheltenham Festival 2016: could Mullins and Pendleton steal the show?

The Cheltenham Festival begins on Tuesday with Irish trainer Willie Mullins looking set to enjoy a historic week.

The Stan James Champion Hurdle is the highlight on Day One and despite Mullins seeing Faugheen and Arctic Fire ruled out of the race he still has the race favorite in the shape of Annie Power.

The mare gets a 7lb sex allowance from the rest of the field, but there are plenty of dangers in the 12-strong field.

Nichols Canyon is an underrated horse but has won six Grade 1s, while The New One was unlucky not win this race in 2014. Identity Thief and My Tent Or Yours are also not without a chance.

Chief supporting race on the opening day is the Racing Post Arkle Trophy, for which Mullins’ Douvan is a hot favourite. A superb jumper with a massive engine it would be a major surprise to see him beaten.

Mullins also has the favourite for the big race on Day Two, with Un De Sceaux hotly fancied to take the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.

With previous winners Sprinter Sacre, Sire De Grugy and Dodging Bullets in opposition, Mullins’ charge won’t have things his own way.

The opening race on the second day sees Alan King’s Yarnworth rated as a potential banker of the meeting by many pundits.

Fourth in the Champion Bumper last season, Yarnworth has reeled off four impressive wins this season and should be hard to beat. Mullins’ Yorkhill is likely to Yarnworth’s main rival.

Elsewhere on the card, Gordon Elliott’s No More Heroes could be hard to beat in the RSA Chase, while Jessica Harrington’s New To This Town is worth keeping an eye on in the closing bumper.

The Ryanair World Hurdle takes centre stage on Day Three, with Colin Tizzard’s Thistlecrack a hot favourite to lift the stayers’ crown.

Last year’s winner Cole Harden is back to try and claim a second successive win, while Alpha Des Obeaux and Saphir Du Rheu are other possible dangers.

The decision to switch Vautour out of Gold Cup and into the Ryanair Chase looks a shrewd move, with the 2 mile 5 furlong distance sure to suit Mullins’ horse much better.

Friday’s Gold Cup looks a competitive affair and Mullins’ horses are again in the thick of things. Last year’s runner-up Djakadam and Don Poli give the Irish trainer a strong hand, while Elliot’s Don Cossack looks a class act.

Tizzard’s stable star Cue Card has looked a different proposition after a successful wind operation and victory in the Gold Cup would secure a £1 million bonus for owner Jean Bishop after previous wins at Haydock and Kempton. Whether the horse truly stays and extended 3 º miles remains to be seen.

With former Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton taking her place aboard the Paul Nicholls-trained Pacha da Polder in the St James’s Place Foxhunter Chase Challenge Cup, the race is ensured of heavy media attention.

The race for amateur riders is always an interesting spectacle, but Pendleton’s inclusion in the race has been heavily criticised.

Former top jockey John Francome described Pendleton’s recent fall from the horse at Fakenham as ‘an accident waiting to happen’, but she responded in style to record her first victory aboard the same animal just over a week later at Wincanton.

Last year’s winning jockey Nina Carberry rides the favourite On the Fringe and with numerous other experienced jockeys in the field a Pendelton win seems unlikely – simply completing the course just seven months after her first competitive ride would be a major achievement.

India overwhelming favorites at home in 2016 World Twenty20

The ICC World Twenty20 2016 starts on Tuesday, when hosts and favourites India face New Zealand in Nagpur.

The build-up to the sixth edition of the tournament has been marred by security rows and ticketing problems, but all that will be forgotten by the passionate Indian fans as they look to roar Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s team to glory.

In addition to New Zealand, India will face Pakistan, Bangladesh and Australia in the group stage and they should progress through with ease.

India won its first warm-up match against West Indies, before losing narrowly to South Africa, but after their dominant performance in winning the recent Asia Cup they head into this tournament as favourites.

Dhoni has tried to keep expectations in check, saying the 2007 champions ‘are looking to make a slow and steady progress, rather than thinking too far ahead’ but with home advantage and a raucous crowd behind them India are a force to be reckoned with.

Australia is yet to get to grips with the shortened version of the game and they still appear to be in a state of flux.

A recent series win in South Africa is a good result, but conditions in Johannesburg are vastly different from what the team will face in India.

Shane Watson and David Warner are class acts with the bat, but with the selectors still uncertain of their best batting order and star bowler Mitchell Starc missing though injury, Australia don’t leap out as likely winners of the competition.

New Zealand enter a new phase in their history with inspirational captain Brendon McCullum now retired.

The Black Caps struggled against England’s spinners in their warm-up game, but having won their last four T20 meetings with India it would be dangerous to write them off.

Pakistan played poorly in the Asia Cup and their batting remains a problem, but with a strong bowling attack they could cause a surprise or two.

With wins against Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the Asia Cup, Bangladesh proved they have the ability to be competitive, but whether they can see off the likes of India, New Zealand and Australia is another matter.

South Africa, England Sri Lanka, West Indies and Afghanistan make up the second group, and it’s the South Africans who will offer the biggest challenge to India’s hopes in the later stages of the tournament.

Batsman Quinton de Kock loves batting in India and his ability to tear into bowling attacks marks him down as one of the team’s most valuable players, while spinners Imran Tahir and Aaron Phangiso are an excellent spin duo.

Their victory against India in their warm-up game shows they are a team to be feared and while historical doubts over their mental strength during tournaments still remain, the South Africans should at least reach the final four.

England’s new attacking approach has improved their fortunes in one-day cricket and they will hope to continue that form in the T20 version of the game.

Jason Roy, Alex Hales and Joe Root are a solid top three and with Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler to back them up, England could rack up some big scores.

Their seam attack looks a little lightweight, placing a lot of pressure on spinners Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid. A place in the last four shouldn’t be beyond England.

With Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara gone from their batting line-up, Sri Lanka face a difficult task in defending the title they won in 2014.

Series defeats in New Zealand and India, coupled with a poor showing at the Asia Cup, where they lost to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have left the Sri Lankans in disarray and a second successive T20 win seems unlikely.

West Indies were ranked as the ICC No 1 T20 team not that long ago and with Chris Gayle in their line-up anything is possible.

Batsmen Dwayne Bravo and Lendl Simmons are quality T20 performers, but with Jerome Taylor the only recognised strike bowler they will need other players to step up to the mark if they are to challenge the likes of India and South Africa.

Afghanistan’s rise from cricketing obscurity has been well-documented, but victory against Zimbabwe to qualify for the tournament proper was fully deserved.

What their team lacks in consistency it makes up for in heart, and anyone taking them lightly could be in for a rude awakening.

What is Meldonium and how many more athletes will be suspended like Sharapova?

The news of Maria Sharapova’s failed drug test has seen the world’s gaze focus on the little-known meldonium, with fears that a host of other Russian sports stars are set for a similar fate.

The tennis star has been at the center of media attention over the last 24 hours, with the level of blame that should be applied to the 28-year-old still to be determined.

Sharapova has been banned indefinitely by the International Tennis Federation as an investigation takes place, while the affluent sportswoman has seen backing from major sponsors such as Nike and Porsche rescinded.

However, the Russian star claimed that she had been prescribed meldonium for health issues, spanning back to 2006.

“I was getting sick very often, and I had a deficiency in magnesium and a family history of diabetes, and there were signs of diabetes,” Sharapova said.

“That is one of the medications, along with others, that I received. I was first given the substance back in 2006. I had several health issues going on at the time.”

Meldonium is a drug that is prescribed to help deal with heart problems and blood flow, and as such the reasoning behind Sharapova’s use of it adds up.

Despite this, the World Anti-Doping Agency stated as long as six months ago that meldonium was set to be banned, even if this only came into effect on January 1.

Former WADA chief Dick Pound stated that Sharapova and her advisors should have acted quicker.

“You are taking something on a list. I am sorry, that is a big mistake – of course she should have known,” he said.

“She is taking something that is not generally permitted in her country of residence [USA] for medical purposes, so she says, so there must be a doctor following this.

“All the tennis players were given notification of it and she has a medical team somewhere. That is reckless beyond description.”

Meldonium is manufactured by Latvian company Grindeks, who state its course of treatment should be four-to-six weeks. It is recommended to be used no more than for three periods per year.

Sharapova’s attorney John Haggerty has been quick to defend the Russian, stating she used mildronate, which contains meldonium, only when prescribed by her doctor.

Although the tennis star is facing a ban of up to four years, Russian Tennis Federation president Shamil Tarpischev believes Sharapova should still be allowed to compete in this summer’s Olympic Games.

“I think that it’s nonsense,” he said.

“Athletes take what their physiotherapists advise them. I believe that Sharapova will still have a chance to play at the Olympics though we will see how things are going to develop.”

Sharapova is seemingly set to be followed by some of her compatriots in testing positive for meldonium.

The prohibited substance was found in a doping test of Russian bicycle racer Eduard Vorganov last month, while former European ice dancing champion and Olympic gold medallist Ekaterina Bobrova has also failed a test this year.

Russian speed skater Pavel Kulizhnikov’s coach, Dmitry Dorofeev, has confessed that the athlete has tested positive for meldonium, without stating specifics of when this happened.

The Russian sports minister has said Sharapova’s case could be the tip of the iceberg.

“There won’t be a huge wave but I suspect there could be several more cases,” he said.

“Maybe this will wake up our trainers and federation a bit. Unfortunately, a lot of athletes took this medicine.”

Despite Sharapova’s claims that she used meldonium for medical reasons, German anti-doping expert Mario Thevis confirmed the drug can “facilitate recovery and enhance physical as well as mental workload capabilities.”

Just how much Sharapova knew about the impact of meldonium remains to be seen and whether it is the tennis star or those advising her that should face the brunt of disciplinary action is to be determined.

However, some prominent members of the sports community have backed Sharapova and showed her sympathy.

Tennis world number one Serena Williams, who has had a hex over the Russian on the court, extended her support for Sharapova.

“I think most people are surprised and shocked by Maria,” she said.

“But, at the same time, I think most people were happy that she was up front and very honest, and showed a lot of courage to admit to what she had done and what she had neglected to look at in terms of the list at the end of the year.

“It’s just taking responsibility, which she admitted she was willing to do, and I just hope for the best for everyone in that situation.”

Bryant and the Lakers stun Curry’s Warriors

The Golden State Warriors were brought down to earth with a resounding bump on Sunday as the Los Angeles Lakers secured a 112-95 victory to become only the sixth team to beat them this season.

Jordan Clarkson bagged 25 points, with D’Angelo Russell adding 21 to cause one of the biggest shocks in NBA history.

The Lakers went into the game with a 12-51 record, but produced a polished performance that restricted Warriors’ star man Steph Curry to just 18 points.

Warriors are now 55-6 for the season, leaving them one game ahead of the pace set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls for the best regular season record in league history.

Michael Jordan’s team were 54-7 after 61 games and with a run of six home games to come the Warriors could easily stay ahead of the game as they enter the final straight.

The defeat was the Warriors first since a 32-point at Portland Trail Blazers on February 19 and head coach Steve Kerr didn’t make any excuses after the game.

“We got what we deserved,” he said. “When the ball doesn’t go in, you have to win with energy and defense and toughness and we didn’t have any of that.”

“We looked like the millennials tonight. We couldn’t focus. We weren’t ready. Zero attention span on either end.”

With Curry and Klay Thompson struggling to hit three-pointers – they were a combined 1 from 18 on the night – Warriors offensive performance ranked as one of their worst of the season.

Overall the team hit just four out of 30 three-point attempts, but Curry refused to criticize his teammates.

“I would say 24 of them were good shots that just missed – it happens,” said Curry.

“We haven’t brought our A-plus game, but we’ve found different ways to win. That’s what we’ve been most proud of this year.”

“Today could have been the same story had we made shots in the third quarter and not dug ourselves such a huge hole.”

For Lakers’ legend Kobe Bryant the game was a final chance to pit his wits against the NBA’s latest star.

“We executed the game plan very well. We paid attention to detail very well,” Bryant said. “For the young guys, it’s extremely important to see the results of it.”

“As they grow, they start trusting that more and more, they start trusting the process more and more. From that aspect, it was a big game.”

The Warriors are back in action on Monday night at home to Orlando Magic.

Legendary QB Peyton Manning retires from the NFL

Denver Broncos’ quarterback Peyton Manning has announced his retirement from the NFL.

Manning, who turns 40 later this month, made four trips to the Super Bowl and won two titles.

The five-time MVP retires as the NFL’s all-time leader in passing touchdowns (539), passing yards (71,940) and quarterback wins (186, tied with Brett Favre).

In an emotional press conference to announce his retirement Manning said: “There’s something about 18 years – it’s a good number. I thought about it a lot, prayed about it a lot, and like I said, it was just the right time.”

“Today I retire – I revere football, I love the game. So you don’t need to wonder if I’ll miss it. Absolutely I will.”

“I’ll even miss the Patriots fans in Foxboro. And they should miss me, because they sure did get a lot of wins off me!”

“Football has taught me not to be led by obstructions and setbacks but instead to be led by dreams. I fought the good fight. I have finished my football race. After 18 years, it is time.”

“God bless all of you, and God bless football”

After a season dogged by injury, Manning bounced back in stunning style to lead the Broncos to a 24-10 victory against Carolina Panthers at Super Bowl 50.

Broncos’ CEO Joe Ellis and GM John Elway praised Manning’s contribution to the sport, while New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady took to Facebook to praise his rival.

“Congratulations Peyton, on an incredible career,” wrote Brady. “You changed the game forever and made everyone around you better. It’s been an honor.”

Manning first came to prominence in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts, leading them to success at Super Bowl 41.

After undergoing neck fusion surgery in 2011, Manning missed the entire season and was subsequently released by the Colts, but he was quickly snapped up by the Broncos.

Manning went 50-15 in Denver, during which time the Broncos reached two Super Bowls.

His college coach, Phillip Fulmer, said Manning was one of the finest players of his generation.

“I’ve said this a lot of times to people, he didn’t get better each game. He got better every meeting, every practice, every period in practice,” he said.

“He was the most incredible player that I’ve ever seen of taking it from the film room to the practice field and then from the practice field to the game.”

“People don’t realize, it’s hard to always be the best player. For almost all his years, he had to be the best player.”

“At Indianapolis, he never had a great defense around him. In my opinion, if he had been on teams like this last Broncos team a team not even as good on defense the guy might have six or seven Super Bowls.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell described Manning as “a great representative of the NFL both on the field and in his community,” adding, “we are forever grateful for Peyton’s unmatched contributions to the game and know his success will continue in the next phase of his life.”

Manning is unlikely to be short of offers now he has called time on his career, with ESPN, FOX, NBC and CBS all saying they would love to work with him if he decides to go into broadcasting, while it’s understood he may eventually become an NFL owner.

Trump gets backing from US sports stars in bid to win Republican nomination

NASCAR CEO Brian France has joined a number of leading names from US sports and given his backing to Donald Trump as he seeks the Republican nomination.

France, along with current drivers Chase Elliott, Ryan Newman, and David Ragan plus Hall of Fame driver Bill Elliott, have pledged their support to Trump ahead of the latest round of presidential election primaries.

“I’ve known Donald for over 20 years,” France said at a rally in Valdosta, Ga. “I’m going to tell you one thing: you know about his winning and success. He wins with his family. Any of his children, you’d be proud to have in your family. That’s how I judge a winner.

“Mr Trump is changing politics forever and his leadership and strength are desperately needed. He has had an incredible career and achieved tremendous success. That is what we need for our country.”

France joins the likes of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, UFC boss Dana White and ex-Atlanta Braves relief pitcher John Rocker in going public with their backing of Trump.

Given Rocker’s comments back in 1999 which caused a stir with the likes of Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, his stance maybe shouldn’t be a surprise.

“The biggest thing I don’t like about New York are the foreigners,” said Rocker. “I’m not a very big fan of foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English.

“Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people and everything up there. How the hell did they get in this country?”

Brady isn’t the only NFL personality to give his backing to Trump, with former players Hershcel Walker and Terrell Owens along with ex-Chicago Bears boss Mike Ditka lending their support to him.

Even NBA legend Dennis Rodman has got in the act, firing back at Ted Cruz after being called out by Trump’s rival on Twitter.

Former heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson has also thrown his weight behind Trump during an interview with FOX 5 New York.

He said: “If you want to get this city out of a dump, you better vote on Trump. OK? He’s an underdog and no one likes the fact that he is winning. I know Trump. This is a good thing. Vote on Trump.”