By Sean Creedon
The annual Irish pilgrimage to Cheltenham begins next weekend with horses, owners, trainers, bookmakers and punters all heading for the big English National Hunt Festival. One can never be sure of anything in racing, but this year promises to be one of the most lucrative for Irish horses. Our best hope of a big win is with Istabraq, who is odds-on favorite for the Champion Hurdle on the opening day of the festival, March 16. Unless he falls, or is brought down, Charlie Swan should make it a winning start on Istabraq for the Irish.
There will be plenty of Irish runners on St. Patrick’s Day and the Willie Mullins-trained Florida Pearl is the favorite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Thursday where we will also be represented by Dorans Pride. But Tom Foley’s Danoli is still injured and will not be traveling Already Irish jockey Tony McCoy has been installed as favorite to retain his leading jockey title at the Cheltenham Festival.
French for Belfast
World Champions France will play the Northern Ireland soccer team on Aug. 18 at Windsor Park, Belfast. France have promised to bring a full strength side and they should attract a full house at Windsor Park. The French will use the game as a warm-up for their Euro 2000 qualifier against the Ukraine in early September. France have also agreed to play an Under-21 game against The North. That will probably be played at The Oval on Aug. 17.
Collins comeback on ice
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It now looks like 35-year-old Steve Collins will not after all be making a comeback to the ring. After many weeks of speculation, Roy Jones’ scamp confirmed last week that the American was not interested in fighting the outspoken Irishman. Now Collins says he intends to shed a few stone and hopes to pursue his new hobby of horse riding. Collins already has his own stables and recently rode in a flat race at Fairyhouse. He says his ambition is to one day ride in the Grand National.
GAA candidates dwindle
The number of candidates for president of the GAA is down to four following the withdrawal of Mayo nomination P.J. McGrath. The remaining candidates are Sean Kelly (Kerry), Noel Walsh (Clare), Albert Fallon (Longford), and the favorite Sean McCague (Monaghan). However, it’s unlikely that Kelly will run against his Munster colleague Walsh and he may be willing to wait for another three years.
Darcy joins St. Brigid’s
Declan Darcy, who declared for his native Dublin last year, has now joined Dublin club St. Brigid’s. Darcy, who was born in Dublin, has played all his club football for his father’s home town Aughawillan in Leitrim. He went on to play intercounty football for Leitrim. Declan’s younger brother Kenneth is already playing for the Dublin under 21 team. However, the Darcy family are not cutting all links with Aughawillan. Darcy’s father, Frank, will continue to train the Leitrim club’s senior footballers.
Donegal media ban
The Donegal GAA Board have slapped a media ban on its monthly meetings. "We are not anti media, but some delegates just won’t speak while reporters are present. They feel intimidated and are afraid that what they say will appear in print" said Board chairman John McConnell.
Leeds offer to O’Leary
Leeds United have offered former Irish international David O’Leary a five-year contract after his impressive start in the job. O’Leary took over at Elland Road earlier this season when George Graham moved to Tottenham.
Meanwhile, at Spurs, Chris Hughton, who has been working closely with Graham, has been demoted. Graham has brought in his old buddy Stewart Houston from Ipswich, who was also his No. 2 at Arsenal. But Graham says that former Irish international Hughton will have a coaching role at the North London club for the remainder of this season and also next season.
Blatter backs down
FIFA President Sepp Blatter has not given up on his plan to stage the World Cup every two years, but it will be 2009 before he can implement it. Last month, UEFA, Soccer’s European body forced Blatter to back down on his ambitious plan, but only temporarily.
"We want to have a master calendar, but it’s only possible after 2004 as contracts have already been signed for competitions," he said.
It will not be possible to hold a World Cup in 2008, because of the Olympic Games, so 2009 is Blatter’s first opportunity to give us saturation soccer.
Boyzone in fast lane
Boyzone star Shane Lynch says he hopes to make a career in motor racing when the young Dublin band inevitably break up. Lynch has recently finished a couple of small races in England to gain his British license.
Kinnear still in hospital
Joe Kinnear, the Irish-born manager of English premiership club Wimbledon is still in hospital, recovering from a heart attack which he suffered last Wednesday.
Kinnear was taken ill just after giving a team talk to the Wimbledon players for their away game against Sheffield Wednesday. The 52-year-old Kinnear, who was in the running to replace Jack Charlton as Irish manager two years ago, is expected to rest until the end of the season.