Sporting Life writers choose their moments of 2017 including Cracksman, Roger Federer, Sergio Garcia and Paul Lim

Racing
Our sporting highlights of the year
Our sporting highlights of the year

Our team of writers reflect on another pulsating year in sport, picking out highlights from Roger Federer's Australian Open triumph to Sergio Garcia's Masters win.

Horse racing: Cracksman comes of age

By Ben Linfoot

It was a marvellous performance from Cracksman in the Qipco British Champion Stakes. A coming-of-age, bloodless victory. They said he’ll be even better at four, but if he’s better than this he will be a monster.

The best yet of Frankel’s progeny, the fledgling stallion’s first Group One winner in Europe, yet at one stage in his three-year-old career it looked a case of what might have been.

Pulled out of the Dante, third in the Derby, then his best effort yet, a neck second to Capri in the Irish Derby. But, come August, the only victory he had to his name as a three-year-old was a short-head Derby trial verdict over Permian at Epsom in April.

That was rectified in an emphatic Great Voltigeur win at York’s Ebor meeting, while a slightly more workmanlike success in the Prix Niel in September fanned the flames for those that thought he might just turn up at Chantilly for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe after all.

John Gosden was always pretty adamant that wouldn’t be the case, though, and, whether you think this year’s Arc represented Cracksman’s best chance of winning the race or not, I think it’s undeniable, itself an understatement, that the Clarehaven handler did a pretty fine job of keeping both sets of connections happy, priming their horses to perfection for their big days.

Cracksman never struck me as a 10-furlong horse, and he was up against some very good horses at the distance on Champions Day. But he outclassed them. He outpowered them. As Frankie said, ‘he put a good field to bed in the manner of a champion’, and that’s exactly what all the ratings bodies concluded in the aftermath.

Timeform rated him 136, 2lb superior to Enable. The BHA rated him 130, 2lb superior to Enable. And Racing Post Ratings allotted the performance 131, 2lb superior to Enable’s Arc. It was a stunning effort, one that the Champions Day concept was designed to produce.

It will live long in the memory and, for me, was the standout horse racing performance of 2017.

Cracksman leaves his rivals floundering in the QIPCO Champion Stakes
Cracksman leaves his rivals floundering in the QIPCO Champion Stakes

Golf: At long last, a major champion

By Ben Coley

Sergio Garcia was going to finish second. After a bright start to the final round, in the space of just six holes there had been a five-shot swing in favour of Justin Rose and against the Spaniard and while just two behind, he felt as we did - that this was the end. The connection between Garcia and spectators is powerful and those of us hoping this might be his time knew deep within that he could not possibly raise another effort. This was another opportunity missed. It was achingly familiar.

Walking off the back of the 12th green, Garcia was resigned to the same position he'd filled behind Tiger Woods in 1999, Padraig Harrington in 2007, Rory McIlroy in 2014. He's just not made of the right stuff, that's what they always said. And they were right. Again, they were right.

Garcia's swing has always been cast in his image: heart-on-sleeve, natural to the point of fallibility, but capable of things most textbook swings are not. When those magic hands can't quite bring the club back from behind him, Garcia's strength becomes a weakness. And on the 13th tee in the final round of the 81st Masters, it ended his challenge for good. His hopes of a famous first major faded when his ball wouldn't, coming to rest left of Rae's Creek and forcing a penalty drop in amongst the trees. Rose, of course, was in the fairway.

At best, Garcia would head to the 14th tee three shots behind a proven major champion; the gap could be as many as five.

Then something happened which nobody expected. Garcia - older now, wiser now, never more accepting of his chosen sport - punched out to wedge range, he hit his fourth inside six feet and he made the putt. As Rose failed to get up and down from the back of the green, it was a hole halved in five. They say that every shot counts the same in golf, but that simply was not true here. This was a seismic momentum shift and altered the course of the tournament. The two-shot lead held by Rose felt somehow like one, and when Garcia followed this phenomenal five with a birdie at the 14th hole, that's precisely what it was.

Augusta's magnificence goes beyond nostalgic romanticism; it is, in fact, a brilliant golf course, and much of the appeal relates to the volatile nature of the back-nine, where the par-five 15th plays a key part. It was here that Gene Sarazen swiped a four-wood straight into the hole on his way to victory in 1935 and now, 82 years later, Garcia was about to create his own history. The finest approach shot of his life set up an eagle chance, beneath the hole, and once more he made the putt.

Rose, a human being cast in iron, was unmoved, and not only did he respond to the eagle with a birdie to remain level, he went and stuck one close at the 16th hole to move back in front. It was therefore a Rose bogey on 17 as well as a birdie chance missed at the final hole in regulation which saw Garcia enter his second major play-off, a decade on from his first.

When we look back on that Tiger Woods chip-in during the final round of the 2005 Masters, we don't dwell on the fact that he would go on to bogey 17 and need a play-off to eventually win. We choose instead to remember one of the greatest shots this championship has ever witnessed for what it was in the moment, and that's how we should look back on Garcia's approach to 15. It was the single blow which confirmed that he was ready to win a major, whether Rose would allow him to or not, so significant that when the play-off commenced, no longer were we to be surprised that the mistake came not from Garcia, but from Rose.

Finally, on the 73rd hole of an enthralling tournament, Garcia stood over a 10-foot birdie putt, knowing he could miss and still win his first major. How he must have felt in that moment. He made the putt. Sergio Garcia was at long last a major champion.

Football: Young Lions roar

By Nick Hext

"Here we are now, entertain us."

Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit takes on a different twist with England’s Under-17 World Cup winners.

Television viewers sat down to watch on the afternoon of Saturday October 28 and the entertainment was on a level that nobody could have envisioned.

The Three Lions took on Spain in the final of the tournament in India and it looked like their dreams of glory were going to be crushed as Barcelona forward Sergio Gibbs netted a double.

It’s hard to think of a previous occasion where England have been 2-0 down and recovered to deliver success on such a major stage.

That double dismay didn’t put off Steve Cooper’s youngsters and they recovered to lift the trophy in the most scintillating style possible.

Liverpool forward Rhian Brewster netted England’s first goal of the final and Morgan Gibbs of Wolves levelled the scores.

Victory was within reach and England were not going to miss out on the biggest prize available in their burgeoning careers to date.

The Final: England v Spain – FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2017

Manchester City’s Phil Foden - man of the match, man of the tournament and winner of the BBC Young Sports Personality award – put the Three Lions ahead for the first time in Kolkata.

Foden has been dubbed ‘the Stockport Iniesta’ and it’s going to be exciting for all English football fans to see if he can reach the levels set by the Spain and Barcelona legend.

I’m sure Iniesta and all at Stockport’s Hat Works – the UK’s only museum dedicated to the hatting industry, hats and headwear – will take their hats off to Foden if he does fulfil his undoubted potential.

England didn’t look back after going in front and further goals from Chelsea defender Marc Guehi and Foden made sure of a famous victory.

The Under-20 World Cup also went to England during the summer of 2017 to make it an incredible year of promise for the Three Lions’ young stars.

Potholes and distractions will naturally occur as England’s World Cup winners look to build on their early achievements but Noddy Holder always focuses on the positives at this time of year.

"Look to the future now. It’s only just begun."

Tennis: Old rivals do battle

By Andy Schooler

At times over the past year you had to check it wasn’t actually 2007, such was the dominance of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Both had incredible moments but the outstanding one was the first Grand Slam final of the season – the year’s star pair facing off at the Australian Open.

If you want me to be specific, it was the Federer backhand which was the ultimate thing of beauty.

Supposedly the reason for his lack of success against Nadal over the years, the Swiss opted for all-out aggression on the shot, taking the ball early and refusing to play safe with the slice when an opportunity to attack was presented. Time and time again it left Nadal swinging at air.

The back story behind Federer’s run to the final made it even more special. The 35-year-old wasn’t supposed to be here – it was his first official tournament for six months after injury. He was, we were told, ‘too old’ for best-of-five-set tennis, but the theory was debunked as he showed no signs of fatigue despite playing three five-setters in the same tournament for the very first time in his career.

The final set was simply superb. The dream looked to be dying when Federer fell 2-0 down but with the pressure firmly on, his ability to hit winners did not dissolve. Instead, Federer produced some of the best tennis of his entire career.

The contest set the story arc for the season but the match was never bettered.

Horse racing: Might Bite's own conclusions

By Matt Brocklebank

We’d seen a glimpse of Might Bite's inner Mr Hyde when he decided to take the Fosbury Flop approach to being faced with the final fence at Kempton last Christmas, but what happened in the 2017 RSA Chase took his overall level of intrigue onto another scale entirely.

For all that a raised heartbeat, ruddy face or – perhaps more commonly - the feeling of utter dejection, are perfectly common features of the scenes in the immediate aftermath of Cheltenham Festival races, it’s quite rare that complete befuddlement is the overriding sensation in the grandstands.

We were all agog with anticipation to see how this ‘flat-track bully’ would even begin to cope with the second circuit of this notoriously difficult race after Nico de Boinville pressed on so soon, but that was a mere tingle of excitement in comparison to what was to come.

The horse just kept galloping and jumping, galloping and jumping, leaving his early pursuers breathless and then legless. Away dropped Alpha Des Obeaux and Acapella Bourgeois, tossed aside like they did not belong.

Whisper came to pass that pair three from the finish, but his chances of even getting close to his stablemate were surely slender.

Yes and no.

Might Bite fiddled the last two fences, but then something far more alarming began to unfold on passing the cut-away between the hurdles and the chase courses.

He stopped to a near-walk, forgetting momentarily what he was supposed to be doing, and allowed the fast-finishing Whisper to at least draw level and possibly just edge ahead.

Dramatic enough, had Whisper gone on to successfully pick the favourite’s pocket, but the fact he managed to find his stride again on the rise to the line and get back up by the narrowest of margins marks it down as the most amazing conclusion to a race.

Might Bite – who casually flicked De Boinville out of the saddle after the line for good measure in another show of ‘who’s boss’ – is clearly a special kind of racehorse and one who keeps us all keen to see more, which can only be a good thing.

Nico de Boinville celebrates after a dramatic win for his mount

Darts: Magic, pure and simple

By Chris Hammer

The darts 'moment of the year' should really have been Phil Taylor's 'fairytale' 16th World Matchplay title, as he rolled back the years in emphatic fashion to ensure his retirement year would see him lift one more major trophy.

So earlier this month I was well on the way with typing out my tribute of that vintage week in Blackpool. Until, that is, an even older thrower with zero major honours in 36 years of playing the game forced me into a total rewrite that strips the Power of his place in this annual festive feature.

Yes, that's right - it's 63-year-old Paul Lim, for what was ultimately a failed nine-darter attempt in a leg he didn't even win. And in a second-round match which saw him swatted aide 4-1 by Gary Anderson.

In years to come you'll look back on this column (!) and accuse me of letting what was a very recent memory get in the way of sound, fair judgement. But Lim's perfect eight darts and that intense anticipation waiting for his ninth to thud into the bed of double 12 - or not as it turned out - summed up why sport's glorious near misses can be just as treasured as the perfect scripts.

The cult hero who threw the first perfect leg on the World Championship stage way back in 1990 - a feat which wasn't repeated until Raymond van Barneveld managed it 19 years later - was being walloped and found himself on the brink of going 2-0 down in sets having lost the opening five legs.

Out of absolutely nowhere he followed up a 177 with a 180 to bring the Alexandra Palace crowd to their feet, before two more treble 20s had everyone jumping and poised to go absolutely bezerk.

We get carried away by the thought of a ridiculous scenario becoming reality, almost inevitably see it go down at the last moment and then mull over how magical the different outcome would have been.

But as John Part so eloquently put it on Sky Sports: "He didn't have to hit it. He'll be remembered for that attempt just as long as if he had. It's irrelevant he missed it - it was still magic, pure and simple."

Athletics: Farewell to a legend

By Chris Hammer

Usain Bolt could have easily retired after the 2016 Olympics as a sporting immortal.

There was nothing left to prove. His record-breaking days were realistically behind him, his rivals had been conquered multiple times and he had enough gold to last a lifetime.

A year later at the World Championships in London, the greatest sprinter of all time ended his career collapsed in a heap, 50m from the finishing line in the 4x100m relay - a race bizarrely won by Great Britain.

It was a painful tale of how even the mightiest can fall, with the images of his limping anguish making him look so human after years of anything but - although he didn't have to wait long for his team-mates to memorably come to his aid.

Seven days earlier he failed to land a seventh global 100m title as arch rival Justin Gatlin claimed a hugely unpopular victory at odds of 20/1.

The pantomime villain in Bolt's almost flawless career predictably received his gold medal amidst a chorus of boos and you couldn't but help question how the sporting gods can allow the 'bad guy' to top the podium on such a symbolic occasion.

Well, what is victory if it's not met with widespread respect and adulation?

Moreover, what is defeat when it's still greeted with a rousing ovation and defiant celebration?

Usain's farewell 'Lightning Bolt' pose may not have been one to mark his last 100m crown but was instead a symbol of his eternal title as the people's champion.

He's earned that highest of all honours from years of class, success, showmanship and, ultimately, keeping clean.

If this isn't the greatest lesson that future generations can learn then I don't know what is.

Cricket: Heart and 'sole as England win

By Dave Tickner

2017 was a year that women’s cricket made a major breakthrough. The success of the Women’s Big Bash and Kia Super League have raised the profile of the game and the earning potential for the top players, but the hugely successful World Cup in England this summer was something else.

Of course, it helped that India made their own breakthrough by beating Australia in the semi-final to set up a showdown against the hosts.

In that match, India appeared well on course to secure their first world title when they reached 191-3 in pursuit of England’s 228-7 at Lord’s.

Anya Shrubsole, though, had other ideas.

She kicked off the collapse by pinning Punam Raut lbw and ended it by uprooting Rajeshwari Gayakwad’s off stump to spark scenes of jubilation for England’s Women. The comfort of 191-3 became 219 all out and a breathless nine-run victory for England.

Shrubsole ended with figures of 6-46 and a place on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year shortlist – something none of her male counterparts could match.

NFL: Hunt stars on opening night

By David John

Kansas City took running back Kareem Hunt with the 86th pick in round three of the 2017 NFL Draft following a hugely productive career at Toledo, not one of the bigger programmes in the collegiate system.

He was expected to ease himself into life in the paid ranks with his team well set at the position but an 11th-hour, pre-season knee injury for Spencer Ware thrust him immediately up the depth chart and into a starting role on opening night against New England.

Hunt’s appeal along with his physical skills had been tremendous ball security but he got off to a thoroughly underwhelming start in Foxboro as he fumbled away his first touch, seemingly another casualty of the sizeable gulf between college and pro levels.

What was to follow defied belief after Hunt took a few moments to compose himself on the sidelines as he tore the Patriots defence apart, racking up 246 total yards from scrimmage with three touchdowns to leave Pats head coach Bill Belichick and his staff wondering what had hit them.

The Chiefs eventually routed the reigning Super Bowl champions 42-27 as Hunt monopolised the sporting headlines the following morning thanks to the greatest ever week-one performance on debut in the NFL.

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