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Monday 20 May 2019

Incredible week of highs and lows

Weird Wide World of Sport

Jockey Rachael Blackmore celebrates after winning the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle on Minella Indo
Jockey Rachael Blackmore celebrates after winning the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle on Minella Indo

Dave Devereux

Well, that was a spectacular week of sport, with more highs and lows than a bustling stock exchange full of eager suited and booted financial folk.

The Cheltenham Festival certainly lived up to the hype, providing plenty of thrills, but sadly also its fair share of heartache.

From Ruby Walsh steering Klassical Dream to victory in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, minutes after the maiden Cheltenham roar of 2019, all the way through to Joseph O'Brien's Early Doors winning the finale, the meeting brought us on an emotional journey that's hard to match.

For starters we had plenty of memorable firsts. Willie Mullins had never trained the winner of the blue riband event, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and after a string of seconds in the race, Al Boum Photo finally landed him the Holy Grail, also earning a first win in the race for the jockey.

Unlike Closutton maestro Mullins, Gavin Cromwell had never trained a festival winner before, but he broke his duck in sizzling style as Espoir D'Allen shocked the fancied horses to romp home in the Champion Hurdle.

The brilliant Rachael Blackmore also bagged her first Cheltenham winner as she confidently saw off her rivals on board A Plus Tard on Tuesday, before following it up with a Grade 1 win on Friday with 50/1 shot Minella Indo.

She was following in the footsteps of Bryony Frost, who became the first female jockey to win a Grade 1 at the festival, when partnering Frodon to a thrilling success in the Ryanair Chase on Thursday, while Lizzie Kelly also got in on the act, winning the Brown Advisory Plate on Siruh Du Lac.

On a Cheltenham Thursday that will live long in the memory, favourite Paisley Park's win in the Stayers' Hurdle was also a highlight.

Amateur Jamie Codd also managed to hit the heights yet again at Prestbury Park, with another two triumphs bringing his festival haul to an incredible nine wins, while J.J. Slevin showed what a talent he is, coolly guiding the well-backed Band of Outlaws to victory as well as other creditable placed efforts.

Returning champions also managed to light up the track as the unstoppable Altior continued his winning run when landing the Champion Chase, while Tiger Roll simply laughed at his rivals in the Cross Country Chase.

Plenty of heroes will again make the pilgrimage to the track in the heart of the Cotswolds in twelve months' time, and they're sure to etch more memories that will last a lifetime.

Unfortunately, horse racing is a sport that also hits us with almost unbearable lows.

The loss of the promising Sir Erec in the Triumph Hurdle was tough to take for all, while Ballyward and Invitation Only also suffered fatal injuries.

Switching away from the Sport of Kings, the lowest point of the week, from an Irish perspective at least, was the completely abject performance of our rugby team in Cardiff on Saturday.

Losing to Grand Slam-chasing Wales was always a likely outcome, considering the run of victories that Warren Gatland's men have racked up, but the manner of the defeat was inexcusable.

In the space of four months, Joe Schmidt's side have gone from being shouted about from the rooftops as the second best team on the planet with a real chance of World Cup glory, to being, despite what the rankings might tell you, a distant third best in Europe, as the coach and captain Rory Best left the Six Nations stage with even less than a whimper.

The two defeats, to England in their Six Nations opener and again against Wales on Saturday, were utterly shattering. In both games they were hit with the early sucker-punch of a quickfire try against them, and after being put on the back foot they never looked like being able to recover in either game.

A lot of work will have to be done in the build-up to the World Cup and in their four warm-up games if Ireland are to reignite any sort of confidence before heading to Japan after a below-par Six Nations campaign. How the mighty have fallen, with the likes of world player of the year Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray cutting frustrated figures as they struggle to find any kind of form.

Of course, the optimists will say that we always perform better as underdogs and it's great to go into a World Cup under the radar, but it's hard to see how they can find the necessary improvement in the next six months, and sadly another disappointing exit at the quarter-final stage looks increasingly likely.

That said, maybe they'll prove us all wrong. After all, it is the unpredictability of sport that puts us on the edge of our seats and keeps us coming back for more.

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