Ed Chamberlin: Festival focus
Ed Chamberlin reflects on the Premier League title race and looks ahead to the Cheltenham Festival - and his debut as a racehorse owner.
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It's already been quite a week in the Barclays Premier League with a thrilling midweek programme and the end of the January Transfer window.
It's a hectic day on Sky Sports News but also a frantic one on the Sky Bet trading floor as they somehow manage to price up all the potential deals. All sorts could happen before 11pm.
It's been another excellent week for Manchester United, who shortened up to 1/5 from 4/11 to win the title after they edged past Southampton to go seven points clear at the top, while Manchester City were frustrated at QPR on Tuesday night.
- Premier League
This week summed up the top of the table in a nutshell - United have been by far the best team this season at digging out results when not playing well.
Before the match at the Etihad we have West Brom (5/2) against Tottenham (21/10) - we'll be live from 1pm on Sky Sports HD1.
Last weekend's sport is going to take some beating. FA Cup shocks galore, yet more brilliance from Messi and Ronaldo, and sensational racing at Cheltenham.
But this weekend promises to be even better with the Premier League back in action, more Cheltenham Festival clues in Britain and Ireland, plus the start of the Super League and Six Nations - and that's all before Superbowl XLVII.
I grew up watching the Joe Montana/Jerry Rice era and had a couple of memorable trips to Candlestick Park so it's great to see the 49ers back in the Super Bowl.
They are Sky Bet's favourites to win the Vince Lombardi Trophy and have to give up 3.5pts on the handicap (San Francisco 10/11, Baltimore 10/11).
I'd be lying if I said I knew a whole lot about the sport but I'm looking forward to watching the Super Bowl when I get back from the Etihad and I'll be cheering on the 49ers and backing Colin Kaepernick to win the MVP award.
I'm not sure about the quality of the competition after the numerous drubbings the home nations took to the Southern Hemisphere sides in the autumn. England play France at Twickenham so have a great opportunity to win it and will be out to prove that the win against the All Blacks was not a fluke.
With no Premier League football last weekend I was able to enjoy a superb day's racing at Cheltenham. It was as good as any day at a Festival with a mercurial performance from Sprinter Sacre and a number of thrilling finishes up the famous hill. It was also nearly a very profitable one with only The New One letting down doubles, trebles and yankees. Wretched AP McCoy!
However, as AP said after lifting At Fishers Cross across the line with an inspired piece of riding, not all the best horses were winning on that desperate ground on Saturday. I think that certainly applied to The New One, who showed a brilliant turn of foot to go clear as they turned for home.
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I said last week that I fancied him for the Neptune before Saturday and that expensive defeat has done nothing to dampen my enthusiasm. I have added him to my ante-post portfolio - he's 9/2 with Sky Bet - alongside Un Atout at 7/1 in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
Sprinter Sacre was imperious again and the one horse to glide through the horrible ground. On a day when races were slogs and battles, he floated to victory. Pure class. He rightly had racing fans purring and is down to 2/7 with Sky Bet to win the Champion Chase.
My sadness is that the race promises to be a procession - Cue Card, Finian's Rainbow, Sizing Europe (who would be a standout bet at 8/1 for the Ryanair if you knew that was his target) could all go elsewhere - and a turn-off for some punters so Nicky Henderson's star won't get the media attention he deserves. What tells the story at the moment is that very few people in my department at Sky have even heard of Sprinter Sacre.
I'm convinced that, in order to capture the sporting public's imagination, he needs a rival and the one horse who can save the race is Flemenstar. He runs in the Irish Hennessy over three miles next weekend, which will decide his Festival target. A big part of me hopes he doesn't stay as I'd love to see Flemenstar run back over two miles as I think he's a machine.
The hype and build-up for Sprinter Sacre v Flemenstar would be terrific and surely capture sports fans' imaginations, plus lift the winner to superstar status.
The hardest Championship puzzle to solve at the moment is the Champion Hurdle, which is shaping up like a fiercely-competitive renewal.
Another piece was fitted into the jigsaw on Sunday with Hurricane Fly's facile win at Leopardstown, which I don't think told us anything new but saw Sky Bet shorten him to 5/2 favourite.
He's clearly back in good form but likely to face a totally different test to beating similar horses in small fields in Ireland. He's a fantastic horse and entitled to be favourite but this looks a much deeper Champion Hurdle to the one Hurricane Fly won two seasons ago and I couldn't back him at that price. Darlan has been a favourite of mine since AP gave him as his horse for us to follow last season.
The Champion jockey thinks the form of his Christmas Hurdle win isn't up to much but I also sense he thinks this horse is a bit special. Darlan is set to run at Sandown on Saturday and will hopefully confirm his credentials. My worry with Darlan is whether Cheltenham really suits him. He's been high class on flat tracks but I don't think either of his runs at Cheltenham so far has seen him at his best.
That's a sentiment I thought also applied to Darlan's stablemate Grandouet (6/1). I used to think he was a flat-track bridle horse. The International at Cheltenham changed all that. I thought he would struggle to give weight to Zarkandar (6/1) after a long absence and on ground he didn't like so thought he ran a blinder in second and I was particularly impressed by what he found off the bridle up the hill. The sharper Old Course in March is going to play to his strength - speed.
We'll learn more this weekend but at the moment the Champion Hurdle looks a hard puzzle to solve and a race full of really good horses, who have little between them. I just think Darlan and Grandouet could be the two with an X-factor.
I make my debut as a racehorse owner on Sunday as part of the 'Goodfellows' syndicate that owns Wayne Manor, who is set to run in the Triumph Hurdle Trial at Musselburgh.
He's trained by Lucinda Russell and Peter Scudamore and has been working nicely at home but this is a tough task on his hurdling bow. I shall be eagerly awaiting news in the studio at Manchester City!