Wednesday 21 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Irish athletes raising bar ahead of Worlds

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Thomas Barr. Photo: Sportsfile
Thomas Barr. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Not long ago the idea that Irish athletes might be fighting it out for honours in Diamond League races seemed a pipe dream.

But Thomas Barr's fourth place in the Olympic 400m hurdles caused a rethink about what our track athletes might be capable of, and the Waterford man got his season underway with a fine third place in Oslo. Among those behind Barr were Olympic champion Kerron Clement, and the performance suggests Barr will be right in contention when the World Championships hit London in August.

Barr isn't the only Irishman shining in the Diamond League. Mark English finished second in the 800m in Stockholm behind Thijmen Kupers and posted a world championship qualifying time. It's been a frustrating couple of years for the Donegal man since his European bronze in 2014 and his European Indoor silver in 2015. Yet at 24, English's best years lie ahead; his tactical acumen and finishing speed always give him a chance in a major final.

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Only horse racing can do this. Athlone's Stevie Donohoe was obviously delighted after piloting 11/1 shot Rajasinghe in the Coventry Stakes on Tuesday. Not only was it his first Royal Ascot winner but he achieved it despite dislocating his fingers the previous night. "All night they were giving me trouble. I took the straps off down at the start, hoping the adrenaline would get me through," said the man who was Champion Apprentice back in 2006.

It was a superb Ascot. An utterly thrilling Gold Cup saw Big Orange defeat Aidan O'Brien's odds-on favourite Order Of St George by a nostril, while the most impressive performance was American sprinter Lady Aurelia's scorching victory in the Kings Stand Stakes.

Yet the highlight may have been the win for O'Brien's Highland Reel in Wednesday's Prince of Wales's Stakes, the meeting's most lucrative race. Highland Reel looked beaten all ends up a furlong from home yet rallied to win by a length and a half. The five-year-old now has a group one victory in Hong Kong, two in the US and three in England. There is no gamer warrior.

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Given that we're all sailing experts since Annalise Murphy's Olympic medal, I thought I might mention the America's Cup, whose final series of races began yesterday and will end on Wednesday. It was once famous as the world's most one-sided sporting contest, with the USA winning all 24 races between 1870 and 1980 before Australia broke through in 1983.

Since then things have been very competitive: last time out in 2013 the US representatives came from 8-1 down to defeat the New Zealand team 9-8, having enlisted British Olympic hero Ben Ainslie to turn round their fortunes. The Americans started this year's renewal as hot favourites but at the time of writing New Zealand lead 3-0 in the contest for the oldest trophy in world sport. I'm rooting for New Zealand in this one. Won't it be consolation for their defeat in the Test series?

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