MADRID: FC Barcelona have begun their training under new coach Ronald Koeman but as expected, star striker Lionel Messi was missing.The Argentinian did not return along with the rest of his teammates for the start of pre-season training on Monday, after he refused to take a PCR test for COVID-19 on Sunday, reports Xinhua news agency. Messi’s decision is another step in his plan to leave the club where he has spent the last 20 years, with the striker and his advisors taking the stance that his contract with Barcelona allows him to leave the Camp Nou on a free transfer this summer. This opinion is not shared by Barcelona or the Spanish Football League (LaLiga). In a statement on Sunday, LaLiga supported Barcelona, saying that anyone who wants to buy Messi will have to pay his 700-million-euro release clause. LaLiga is not a disinterested party in this affair, given that the Argentinian is its biggest star and the league has already lost Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo in recent years. The possible departure of the biggest name will see LaLiga lose ground to the Premier League (especially if Messi moves to Manchester City) and make it harder to demand high fees for TV rights. Koeman held his first training session with just 13 first-team professionals and six players from the Barcelona B-team, with others such as Sergio Busquets and Ansu Fati reporting for international duty in Madrid. Ivan Rakitic was another absentee as the 32-year-old Croatian is in Sevilla for a medical ahead of a return to the club that he left to join Barca in 2014. Rakitic, who was recently told by Koeman that he was not part of his plans for the coming season, is expected to sign a three-year contract with the newly-crowned Europa League champions. IANS Also Watch: Caught on Camera: Concrete Bridge Gets Washed Away
VENERABLE GIFT BOX & RISING STAR MIDCOURT HEAD SATURDAY’S GRADE II, $200,000 SAN ANTONIO STAKES AT 1 1/16 MILESRACE IS ONE OF SIX GRADED STAKES TO BE RUN ON OPENING DAY, FIRST POST IS AT 11:00 A.M.ARCADIA, Calif. (Dec. 23, 2019)–Hronis Racing’s Gift Box, idle since June 15, and C R K Stable’s recent Grade III winner Midcourt, head a field of seven 3-year-olds and up in Thursday’s Grade II, $200,000 San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita. A winner of the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap three starts back on April 6, this 6-year-old full horse has blossomed in the care of trainer John Sadler, winning two out of his four starts, including his Southern California debut, the December, 2018 San Antonio.Other solid contenders include trainer Peter Miller’s Gray Magician, who although well beaten in the Kentucky Derby, returns to Southern California after being first or second in his last four starts, trainer Jonathan Wong’s Mugaritz, who’s unbeaten in five Northern California starts this year and Phil D’Amato’s California-bred King Abner, who exits an impressive second condition allowance win at Del Mar Nov. 16.GIFT BOXOwner: Hronis Racing, LLCTrainer: John SadlerHeadquartered with trainer Chad Brown through his first 13 starts in New York, Gift Box was purchased by Hronis Racing in the summer of 2018 and he’s been a terrific addition to the handicap division here. The defending champ in the San Antonio, Gift Box, who took the Santa Anita Handicap in his second start for Sadler, was second, beaten three quarters of a length as the 3-5 favorite by eventual Breeder’s Cup Classic winner Vino Rosso in the Grade I Gold Cup at Santa Anita on May 27. A well beaten fourth as the 2-1 favorite in the Grade II Stephen Foster Stakes at Churchill Downs June 15, Gift Box has trained well for his return and is believed to be prepping for a productive 7-year-old campaign in 2020.MIDCOURTOwner: C R K Stable, LLCTrainer: John ShirreffsA $450,000 Keeneland September Yearling who was often his own worst enemy, Midcourt has come to hand under Shirreffs’ patient tutelage and comes off the best race of his career, a smashing 5 ¾ length score, accomplished in gate to wire fashion, in the Grade III Native Diver Stakes at Del Mar on Nov. 23. Gelded following a second place finish in his first start for Shirreffs, a one mile maiden special weight five starts back on Feb. 24, Midcourt, a 4-year-old gelding by Midnight Lute, has now rattled off four consecutive wins and could go favored in what will be his eighth career start.THE GRADE II SAN ANTONIO STAKES WITH JOCKEYS & WEIGHTS IN POST POSITION ORDERRace 5 of 11 Approximate post time 1 p.m. PTGray Magician–Javier Castellano–119Gift Box–Joel Rosario – 123King Abner–Tyler Baze–121Draft Pick–Joe Talamo–121Mugaritz–Ricardo Gonzalez–123Midcourt–Victor Espinoza–123Fight On–Abel Cedillo–121Special early first post time on Saturday, opening day of Santa Anita’s Winter Meet, is at 11 a.m. Admission gates will open at 9 a.m. For additional information, please visit santaanita.com or call (626) 574-RACE.