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Rachael Blackmore caps historic season as Minella Times wins Grand National

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Rachael Blackmore created sporting history on Saturday when becoming the first woman to ride the Randox Aintree Grand National winner on board the Henry De Bromhead-trained Minella Times.

The woman who gave racing a vital shot in the arm when dominating last month’s Cheltenham festival created a seminal moment in sport by winning the world’s most famous steeplechase on the 11-1 shot.

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the 173rd National, which took place behind closed doors, nevertheless conspired to become a groundbreaking moment that will resonate throughout the world.

What for so long seemed as fantastic a prospect as the plot for the 1944 movie ‘National Velvet’ turned into glorious reality as Blackmore guided Minella Times to a thrilling six-and-a-half length defeat of his 100-1 stable companion Balko Des Flos.

It secures the 31-year-old jockey an indelible spot in racing history, definitively transforming the face of a famously demanding sport in which the National has always represented the supreme challenge of horse and human.

Immediately pitched the inevitable gender question, an exultant Blackmore said: “I don’t feel male or female – I don’t even feel human! This is unbelievable.”

It was her third ride in the race, one of just 20 women in all to tackle the famous National fences since Charlotte Brew became the first to ride in the great race in 1977.

That was the year Red Rum cemented his legendary status with an unforgettable third victory, a moment now with competition for significance thanks to the National’s latest epochal winner.

“Minella Times jumped fantastically and didn’t miss a beat anywhere. When I hit the rail and I heard I was four lengths in front, I knew he was going to gallop to the line, but we all know what can happen on the run-in here. When I crossed the line, I don’t know how I felt – it’s incredible,” Blackmore said.

“I just travelled and jumped everywhere. I got a beautiful passage everywhere. He travelled really well and jumped really well. I thought jumping two out I was trying to hold on to a bit as it is a long way home.

“I’m so privileged to be getting on these horses. A massive thanks to JP McManus [owner] as well. He is an extremely special horse.

“Ruby Walsh and Katie Walsh, I’ve asked them both in the past about riding around here and they often talk about a semi-circle in front of you and I felt like I had that everywhere.

“That is what you need in a race like this, you need so much luck to get around with no one else interfering first of all. You need so much to go right and things went right for me today. I feel so incredibly lucky,” she added.

Minella Times ridden by Rachael Blackmore win the Randox Grand National at Aintree. Photograph: Tim Goode/PA Wire
Minella Times ridden by Rachael Blackmore win the Randox Grand National at Aintree. Photograph: Tim Goode/PA Wire

Minella Times was a 28th Grand National winner trained in Ireland and at a time of unprecedented Irish dominance of the sport generally led home a clean sweep for the raiders of the first five places.

Any Second Now, who carried McManus’s first colours, overcame being badly hampered by a faller to finish third at 15-2 while Burrows Saint was fourth at 9-1. Farclas was fifth at 16-1.

The 50-1 outsider Blaklion was the first British runner home in sixth and the only non-Irish finisher in the first 11 of the 15 finishers.

Once again, just as at Cheltenham, De Bromhead was inevitably shuffled to the sidelines in terms of focus, although this National sealed an unparalleled period of success for the Co Waterford trainer.

Minella Times’ victory completed a scarcely believable ‘Grand Slam’ of jump racing’s greatest prizes, coming on the back of his unique ‘Holy Trinity’ of the three most coveted races at last month’s Cheltenham festival.

That was when Honeysuckle, ridden by Blackmore, won the Champion Hurdle, Put The Kettle On landed the Champion Chase and Minella Indo led home his stable companion A Plus Tard in the Gold Cup.

That Gold Cup was the sole misstep by Blackmore at Cheltenham when she chose to ride the runner-up. However, another ‘Minella’ supplied the ultimate consolation for her while leading home another stunning big race 1-2 for the trainer.

“Rachael is brilliant and we are so lucky to have her. I think they broke the mould after her; she’s tough out and brilliant – what can you say?” De Bromhead said.

“You can see that when she joined us we have gone from strength to strength with her. She’s a fantastic rider, a great team player and just a lovely person to work with. She’s breaking through all the records.

“It’s amazing, it really is. The stuff you dream about. Rachael was brilliant on him, and it’s amazing to do it for the McManuses.

“We got a lot of luck all the way around, and winged fences – it’s incredible. It looked as though Rachael had it won jumping the last, but we all know how things can change,” he added.

Although owners were allowed attend Aintree, McManus wasn’t present to welcome back his second National winner in the emotional circumstances of his daughter-in-law Emma dying in December.

Another of his runners, The Long Mile, sadly was a casualty in the race and had to be put down.

A total of 15 of the 40 starters completed the race. Just two other British-trained horses besides Blaklion were among them. The 11-2 favourite Cloth Cap was pulled up at the 28th of the 30 fences.

Saturday’s race was all about Blackmore, however. One bookmaking firm immediately made her an unbackable 1-100 favourite to be RTÉ’s sportsperson of the 2021.

However, the much longer term significance of such a seismic achievement is impossible to estimate.

“She’s got it all and she’s proved it on the biggest stage. Everyone in the world can now see it,” said racing’s most successful ever jockey, Tony McCoy, afterwards.

Since that global TV audience is estimated at 600 million the odds of such a singular success changing the face of the sport everywhere are a lot shorter than they were for so long on what once seemed an impossible outcome.

Grand National result
1st Minella Times (R Blackmore) 11-1
2nd Balko Des Flos (A Coleman) 100-1
3rd Any Second Now (MP Walsh) 15-2
4th Burrows Saint (Mr P Mullins) 9-1
5th Farclas (J Kennedy) 16-1
6th Blaklion (H Skelton) 50-1
7th Discorama (B Cooper) 16-1
8th Jett (Mr S Waley-Cohen) 80-1

Winning trainer: Henry de Bromhead

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Lewis Hamilton wins chaotic Saudi GP to draw level with Max Verstappen

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After chaos, needle, misunderstanding and some absolutely uncompromising racing, it took a cool head to prevail and Lewis Hamilton duly delivered, his win at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix ensuring there is now nothing in it going into the Formula One season finale.

Beating title rival Max Verstappen into second, the pair are now level on points after a race of complexity and confusion fitting perhaps in a season that has been impossible to predict. The two protagonists endured an ill-tempered race and both left with differing views, Hamilton accusing his rival of being dangerous and Verstappen aggrieved. What it made clear is that neither will leave anything on the table next week in Abu Dhabi.

The investigations and debriefs will go on long into the night after this staccato affair interrupted by red flags, safety cars and the two leaders clashing repeatedly on track but ultimately and crucially for his title hopes it was an exhausted Hamilton who came out on top.

Hamilton had gone into the race trailing Verstappen by eight points, they are now level. The lead has changed hands five times during this enthralling season, which has ebbed and flowed between them but of course Hamilton has experience in tense showdowns, pipped to his first title in the last race of 2007 and then sealing it in a nail-biting showdown in Brazil a year later.

Verstappen is in his first title fight but has shown no indication of being intimidated, instead eagerly grasping his chance to finally compete and he still has it all to play for despite his clear disappointment at the result at the Jeddah circuit.

Hamilton admitted how hard the race been. “I’ve been racing a long time and that was incredibly tough,” he said. “I tried to be as sensible and tough as I could be and with all my experience just keeping the car on the track and staying clean. It was difficult. We had all sorts of things thrown at us.”

Hamilton’s race engineer Peter Bonnington credited his man with how he had handled it, noting: “It was the cool head that won out”. It was a necessary skill beyond that of wrestling with this tricky, high speed circuit, given the incidents that defined the race as it swung between the two rivals.

Hamilton held his lead from pole but an early red flag due to a crash left Verstappen out front when Red Bull had opted not to pit under a safety car. Thus far at least it was fairly straightforward.

When racing resumed from a standing start Hamilton, off like a bullet, had the lead into turn one but Verstappen went wide and cut the corner of two to emerge in front. Esteban Ocon took advantage to sneak into second only for the race to be stopped again immediately after several cars crashed in the midfield.

With the race stopped, the FIA race director, Michael Masi, offered Red Bull the chance for Verstappen to be dropped to third behind Hamilton because of the incident, rather than involving the stewards. In unprecedented scenes of negotiations with Masi, Red Bull accepted the offer, conceding Verstappen had to give up the place, with the order now Ocon, Hamilton.

Verstappen launched brilliantly at the restart, dove up the inside to take the lead, while Hamilton swiftly passed Ocon a lap later to move to second.

The front two immediately pulled away with Hamilton sticking to Verstappen’s tail, ferociously quick as they matched one another’s times. Repeated periods of the virtual safety car ensued to deal with debris littering the track and when racing began again on lap 37, Hamilton attempted to pass and was marginally ahead through turn one as both went off but Verstappen held the lead, lighting the touchpaper for the flashpoint.

Verstappen was told by his team to give the place back to Hamilton but when Verstappen slowed apparently looking to do so, Hamilton hit the rear of the Red Bull, damaging his front wing. Mercedes said they were unaware Verstappen was going to slow and the team had not informed Hamilton, who did not know what Verstappen was doing. Hamilton was furious, accusing Verstappen of brake-testing him. Both drivers are under investigation by the stewards for the incident and penalties may yet be applied.

Verstappen then did let Hamilton through but immediately shot back up to retake the lead but in doing so went off the track. He was then given a five-second penalty for leaving the track and gaining an advantage and a lap later Verstappen once more let his rival through, concerned he had not done so sufficiently on the previous lap. After all the chaos, Hamilton finally led and Verstappen’s tyres were wearing, unable to catch the leader who went on to secure a remarkable victory.

It was all too much for Verstappen who left the podium ceremony immediately the anthems concluded. “This sport is more about penalties than racing and for me this is not Formula One,” he said “A lot of things happened, which I don’t fully agree with.”

Both teams had diverging viewpoints on the incidents but both must now look forward. After 21 highly competitive races, the last a febrile, unpredictable drama, the season will be decided in a one-off shootout where both drivers have without doubt earned their place but just when the respect between them appears at its lowest ebb. – Guardian

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Covid testing rules for all arrivals into State come into force

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New Covid testing rules for travellers arriving into the State have come into force today.

At the start of the week the Government announced that all incoming travellers except those travelling from Northern Ireland will have to present a negative test result in order to enter the country irrespective of the vaccination status.

The move came in response to concerns about the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

The test requirements were due to be introduced from midnight on Thursday. However the system was postponed at the last minute to midnight on Sunday in order to allow airlines prepare for checks.

For those with proof of vaccination they can show a negative professionally administered antigen test carried out no more than 48 hours before arrrival or a PCR test taken within 72 hours before arrival. Those who are unvaccinated must show a negative PCR test result.

Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary had described the move as “nonsense” and “gobbledygook”.

Meanwhile more than 150 passengers have departed Morocco for Ireland on a repatriation flight organised by the Government.

The 156 passengers on the flight from Marrakech to Dublin included Irish citizens as well as citizens of several other EU countries and the UK.

The journey was organised after flights to and from Morocco were suspended earlier this week until at least December 13th, amid fears over the spread of the new Omicron Covid-19 variant.

The repatriation flight on Saturday was operated on behalf of the Government by Ryanair.

Responding to news of the flight’s departure, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney hailed the efforts of the Irish Embassy in Rabat in the operation, tweeting: “Well done and thank you!”.

On Saturday the number of Covid patients in hospital has fallen to 487, the lowest level in almost four weeks, the latest official figures show. The number of Covid patients in hospital fell by 41 between Friday and Saturday. There were 5,622 further cases of Covid-19 reported on Saturday.

Tweeting about the latest hospital figures on Saturday, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the “plan is working – 3rd doses, masks, test & isolate, physical distancing. Thank you for what you are doing. Please don’t lose heart. Let’s all have a safe Christmas.”

The figures come as the Government on Friday announced its most wide-ranging introduction of new restrictions this year after “stark” warnings from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) to take immediate action in the face of the threat from the Omicron variant.

From Tuesday until at least January 9th, indoor hospitality will be limited to parties of up to six adults per table, while nightclubs will be closed and indoor events limited to half a venue’s capacity. Advice has been issued that households should not host more than three other households in their home, while the use of the vaccine pass is to be extended to gyms and hotel bars and restaurants.

Trinity College immunologist Prof Luke O’Neill said the main reason for the new restrictions was the new Omicron variant, and he thought they were needed as the “next three to four weeks are going to be tough”. Speaking to Brendan O’Connor on RTÉ radio, he said it was “strange” that restrictions were being introduced when things are stabilising, with the lowest hospital numbers since November 6th.

Prof O’Neill said he was “hopeful” at news that the Omicron variant may have a piece of the common cold virus in it which could make it more like the common cold.

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Divock Origi delivers late delight as Liverpool see off Wolves

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Wolves 0 Liverpool 1

Divock Origi’s last-gasp strike sent Liverpool top of the Premier League with a dramatic 1-0 win at Wolves.

The substitute fired in from close range in stoppage time just as it looked like the Reds would fail to score for the first time in eight months.

He spared Diogo Jota’s blushes after the forward hit Conor Coady on the line following Jose Sa’s second-half mistake.

Chelsea’s 3-2 defeat at West Ham gave the Reds a path to the summit and they went top thanks to Origi’s late show. Resilient Wolves were left with nothing despite another battling display and sit eighth.

Liverpool had blown away the majority of their rivals this season, having scored four in each of their last three Premier League games before arriving at Molineux.

They had, simply, been too good but found Wolves at their resolute best until the death.

Only Chelsea and Manchester City have conceded fewer goals than Bruno Lage’s side prior to the game and there was strong resistance to Liverpool’s threat.

The visitors failed to find any early rhythm, thanks largely to the hosts’ determination. Aside from Leander Dendoncker slicing a clearance from Jota’s header the Reds made few first-half inroads.

Three straight clean sheets had given Wolves’ defence renewed confidence and they continued to keep it tight as Liverpool slowly began to turn the screw.

Trent Alexander-Arnold volleyed over after 28 minutes and then turned provider for Jota, who headed his far post cross wide.

Liverpool had control but only managed to open their hosts up once and, even then, Romain Saiss’s presence ensured Mohamed Salah just failed to make contact with Andrew Robertson’s low centre.

As an attacking force Wolves were non-existent. Having scored just five league goals at Molineux that was no surprise but Adama Traore, Raul Jimenez and Hwang Hee-chan carried little threat.

Joel Matip and Virgil Van Dijk were on cruise control and apart from Rayan Ait-Nouri’s sharp run – before he wasted his cross – there was little for Liverpool to fear.

Yet, they were still searching for a goal. Having scored in every Premier League game since a 1-0 defeat to Fulham in March more was expected after the break.

Salah’s knockdown caused some penalty box pinball which saw Thiago Alcantara twice denied but Jürgen Klopp’s men lacked the fluidity and precision to break Wolves down.

They needed a mistake from Sa to create their best opening on the hour and even then Jota missed it.

The goalkeeper raced out to the left after Jordan Henderson’s searching pass for Jota but collided with Saiss to give the forward a clear run to goal.

He advanced but from just six yards belted the ball at the covering Coady on the line.

Alexander-Arnold drove over as Liverpool’s frustrations grew and Sa denied Sadio Mane late on.

But Origi had the final say deep into added time when he collected Salah’s pass, turned and fired in from four yards.

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