Our team pick out their best bets for the year ahead, which include selections for the Cheltenham Festival, golf's US Open and the World Snooker Championship.
Readers of last year's equivalent feature were told by Matt Brocklebank to get on Masar for the Investec Derby at 33/1, and he therefore heads up our selections for the months ahead.
Mister Whitaker to win the Ryanair Chase
Mick Channon’s Cheltenham Festival hero Mister Whitaker was as short as 25/1 for the Ryanair Chase following his tidy comeback victory in a traditionally very informative race at Carlisle in early-November, and it looks a serious over-reaction to have pushed him right out to 40s following his subsequent effort at Prestbury Park.
Sent off a well-backed 6/1 favourite for the BetVictor Gold Cup from a mark of 152, the lightly-raced six-year-old was ultimately beaten 11 lengths into fourth, admittedly a level of form which effectively precludes him from becoming a Grade One performer as early as next spring – if taken at face value.
But there did appear to be legitimate excuses for his defeat at Cheltenham, one really important one which has seen ‘Ryanair types’ struggle in this race in the past, and that’s the fact that the 2m4f BetVictor is staged on the much sharper, Old Course at Chelteham, whereas the big one over a very similar distance (2m5f) later in the season is run on the New Course, which arguably allows strong-galloping horses to find their stride a little better from the top of the hill, down and up to the finish line.
It is to his great credit, then, that Mister Whitaker was able to win last season’s Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase (2m4f78yds) on the Old Course, but he only looked to get away with it – beating Rather Be by a head - as he was so well handicapped (running off 137) and we could see another significant career best should he make it back to the Festival this time.
He doesn’t hold any entries at the time of writing but his reappearance is eagerly awaited as there’s still a sense that he has a huge amount to offer over intermediate distances, and could yet develop all the way into a Gold Cup candidate come next season. At 40/1 it’s worth chancing he can go back-to-back at Cheltenham, something we generally see at least once each season.
Manuela De Vega to win the Investec Oaks
Ralph Beckett has a fantastic record in the Oaks, a fantastic record with bringing along fillies, and he could well have another Classic contender on his hands in 2019 in the shape of Manuela De Vega.
She’s a full-sister to the same stable’s 100-rated Isabel De Urbina but has the potential to be even better judging by the promise she’s shown on her first two starts, both wins, at Salisbury and Pontefract.
I loved the way she went through a gap to put a Listed race to bed at Ponte and it wouldn’t be a surprise if she turned up in the Pretty Polly Stakes at Newmarket in April (just like her sister did), a race won by Beckett’s last Oaks winner Talent as well as fellow Epsom heroines Ouija Board and Taghrooda.
There is no standout Oaks candidate at this stage, but this filly could well develop into one and at 40/1 it’s worth chancing Beckett can work his magic with her as well.
Liverpool to win the Premier League and FA Cup
Liverpool can take a stranglehold on the Premier League by avoiding defeat at Manchester City on Thursday and from there they rate an enticing bet at 9/1 to do the domestic double.
Jurgen Klopp's side are the best in the country now having enjoyed a tremendous 2018 and there's no reason they can kick on and grab deserved silverware.
They've a nice cushion in the league, even if they do lose at the Etihad, and while their third-round FA Cup draw could've been kinder they beat Wolves away from home recently and can do so again.
There's a feeling that the Champions League might just be beyond them at this stage, despite reaching the final last year, but if they do go out to Bayern in the next round it may only enhance their strong domestic credentials.
Tiger Woods & Rory McIlroy both to win a major
It wouldn’t be a surprise if either of these won a major next year and certainly wouldn’t shock me if both managed to win one of golf’s big four having their sights set on adding to their tallies.
It was a season of discovery for Woods, who didn’t know how far he could go but surprised everyone, including himself at times, with how consistently well he was able to play in the very highest company.
Woods just got better and better as the season went on, coming close on a couple of occasions before winning his 80th tournament in the season-ending TOUR Championship amidst unforgettable scenes going down the last.
Before that he went close at The Open and then finished second at the US PGA Championship. He wasn’t up to speed at the Masters and that’ll be a great opportunity for him next year on a track he just loves, while it’s only the US Open where you wouldn’t be too confident over his chances - although a return to Pebble Beach, scene of his romp at the turn of the century, can't hurt.
McIlroy has taken a lot of stick for tailoring his schedule in 2019 more towards events in America in what many see as him abandoning the European Tour. He insists he’s doing it to improve his major chances and that can only be a good thing for those backing him.
It’s a nice problem to have to be ‘stuck’ on four majors, but for a player with his sublime, God-given golfing talent it must be a touch disappointing for him knowing that at his best he can blow any field away at any moment.
For me, him shaping his season around the majors makes perfect sense as the longer he goes without one will only add to the pressure.
Winning at Augusta to complete his career grand slam at the Masters would be the perfect way to claim major number five, but that’s always a tough ask given the hype that surrounds the first major of the year – however, he’s certainly capable and you wouldn’t rule it out. He’ll have a chance in all four.
Dina Asher-Smith to win Sports Personality of the Year
I predict that on September 30, Dina Asher-Smith will become Britain’s first ever female 100m world champion.
On October 4, she will then become Britain’s first ever 200m world champion - male or female – and therefore the first British sprinter ever to win the double.
Just to clarify, we’ve never had a female 100m or 200m champion at World or Olympic level and the closest we’ve ever come were silver medals in the 1948 London Games (Dorothy Manley in the 100m and Audrey Williamson in the 200m) and 1960 Olympics (Dorothy Hyman in the 200m).
We know Asher-Smith is capable of both. In a glorious 2018 in which she won the European 100m, 200m and 4x100 titles, and she ended the year as the quickest woman on the planet over 200m and joint fastest over the blue ribband distance.
And how about this for a stat – the last time a British woman could say that was way back in 1922 when Mary Lines held the world record of 12.8 seconds!
OK, so I’m labouring the point about how her achievement will be unprecedented – but that’s important and key to the selection. We’ve seen world boxing heavyweight titles won, Tour de France titles won, Wimbledon titless won, Rugby World Cups won, but should Asher-Smith achieve what I expect of her it will be unprecedented.
Asher-Smith, who is now in the public’s eye after Sunday’s SPOTY show thrust her further into the spotlight, will do all of this with a smile on her face like she did this year and the nation will fall in love with her story, broadcast live on the BBC.
And it’s quite near the end of the year so it’ll still be fresh in the memory by the time SPOTY comes along. She could be a very short-priced favourite come December.
Mark Allen to win the World Snooker Championship
All eyes will be on record-breaking Ronnie O’Sullivan as he bids to become world champion for a sixth time at the World Championships in Sheffield.
The Rocket will begin 2019 having now surpassed Stephen Hendry’s record of 19 Triple Crown wins but as was the case last year, his race might be run by the time Sheffield comes around.
In fact, O’Sullivan has struggled for to fire on all cylinders in his last four visits to the Crucible, a couple of quarter-final exits the best he has been able to muster.
With this season’s campaign clearly tailored around winning his seventh UK Championship crown and the Masters in January, he looks worth opposing again at the gruelling 17-day long marathon that is the World Championship and Mark Allen appeals as the perfect candidate to take advantage.
Allen enjoyed a breakthrough success when winning the 2018 Masters and hasn’t looked back since, his recent run to final of the UK Championship in York followed by success in the Scottish Open the following week.
A brilliant long potter whose beautiful touch in the balls means he is one of the most dangerous break-builders in the game, Allen can also boast a strong safety game to complement his rock-solid temperament.
While Allen is young, hungry and clearly on an upward curve, there is every reason to think his best to still to come and he has already made a Sheffield semi-final in the past, illustrating his ability to cope with the unique test that is the Crucible Theatre.
As Ronnie O’Sullivan said in York, "Mark is an unbelievable player and an unbelievable competitor. If he doesn't win a world title I'll be amazed."
I’m happy to take 22/1 about that world title coming in 2019.
Tornado Flyer to win the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle
Tornado Flyer made a winning debut over timber last week and there’s much, much more to come from him.
He was one the top bumper horses from last season, winning at Punchestown in the spring. He very much took the eye when finishing third in the Weatherbys Championship equivalent at Cheltenham on his previous start, too, travelling like the best horse in the race for much of the contest.
His reappearance win back at Punchestown didn’t please everyone but Ruby Walsh was taken by it, writing in his Racing UK blog: "He was a bit raw and gassy, and will have learnt a lot from his win in the maiden hurdle. I think he’s a horse with a huge future and hopefully he can progress through the ranks."
The journey will continue over Christmas but a proven Grade One horse, representing the Mullins-Walsh axis and seemingly on the road to the Ballymore, he looks a potential Festival favourite to me.
He will certainly be much shorter than the current 14/1 when he starts adding some substance to the style over timber in the weeks ahead.
It’s time to step in.
Cameron Smith to win the US Open
Cameron Smith looks overpriced at anything 100/1 and bigger for the US Open, staged this summer at Pebble Beach.
The Aussie already has a couple of major top-fives to his name, including in this event on the west coast, and being by the sea in California should prove ideal for an Australian who was born in Brisbane.
Smith ended 2018 with a successful title defence in the Australian PGA, beating Marc Leishman - a player who is no bigger than 66/1 for the season's third major.
The price discrepancy underlines the fact that Smith remains underestimated and while I accept that he's yet to win a bona fide PGA Tour event, his sole success so far having been in a pairs tournament, it looks to be a matter of time.
Already we've seen that he can compete with the best, indeed the standout performances of his burgeoning career have been in world-class company, and he's well ahead of those around him in the betting in terms of major-winning likelihood.
All the others put forward in my 2019 majors preview remain high on the shortlist but with the price on Bryson DeChambeau winning the Open Championship now edging towards where it should be, it's Smith who earns top billing.
Sheff Utd to reach the FA Cup semi-finals
The FA Cup is one of the hardest competitions to predict based on the fact you’re gambling on a team without knowing who they will end up facing. However, that does mean it’s a competition that does provide the value and it’s not impossible to see who will be in with a chance.
With some bigger sides seeing it as an inconvenience, there is no doubt that the FA Cup does retain its cliched ‘magic’ and we often see an underdog upsetting the odds, highlighted by Wigan's victory in 2013.
Despite relegation from the Premier League, they managed to upset the odds to beat Manchester City and would go onto beat City again last season, this time as a League One side, doing the unthinkable against Pep Guardiola’s record-breakers.
The FA Cup is notorious for EFL clubs springing surprises. Wigan's win over City put them in the quarter-finals last season, while Middlesbrough, Lincoln and Millwall reached the same stage in 2017.
Prior to that, it was Reading’s turn to appear in the quarter-finals in 2016, a year after reaching the semi-finals, and this year I’m backing Sheffield United to reach the last-four of the competition as the Sky Bet EFL’s representative.
The Blades made the semi-final as a League One outfit under Nigel Clough’s guidance in 2013, eventually being knocked out by Hull. Under Chris Wilder, they now pose a real promotion threat in the Championship, but they’ll want to avoid the mistakes of last year when their form tailed off.
That said, I don’t think their current boss will simply want to write off the FA Cup - he looks upon every game as an opportunity, starting with what should be a fairly straightforward encounter in round three as they welcome National League outfit Barnet to Bramall Lane,.
Who knows what the draw will hand them after that, but you feel that even if they end up against a Premier League outfit, a Wilder team will battle to the very end and make life difficult for opponents. History suggests a strong line-up is guaranteed and granted a bit of luck they can get all the way to Wembley.