Tom Jicha

Tom Jicha grew up in New York City and worked with John Pricci at the short-lived revival of the New York Daily Mirror. Tom moved to Miami in 1972 for a position in the sports department at the now defunct Miami News.

Tom became the TV critic in 1980 and moved to the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 1988. All the while he has kept his hand in sports, including horse racing. He has covered two Super Bowls, a World Series and the Breeders’ Cup at Gulfstream Park.

He's been the Sun Sentinel’s horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Thursday, December 07, 2017

Latin America’s Kentucky Derby is a guessing game

Gulfstream, which has gambled and won with year-round racing, the Pegasus and Claiming Crown, is taking another risk Saturday, bringing the Clasico Internacional del Caribe to South Florida for the first time. The centerpiece of the five-stakes festival, the Clasico del Caribe, is often called "The Kentucky Derby of the Caribbean and Latin America." But the dozen horses entered are all unknowns to local players and the big race is supported by four other stakes for imports, which will transform handicapping into a guessing game.

Gambling establishments are notorious for disdaining risk. Race tracks cancel show betting when an overwhelming favorite threatens a minus pool. Try card counting in a casino, even though it doesn’t guarantee winning. All it does is cut into the house edge.

Frank Stronach is an exception. The owner of multiple tracks, he repeatedly has been willing to roll the dice, in a manner of speaking. He chafed at not being able to run Gulfstream like his other businesses, operating when he saw fit. He took on Calder head to head and ground the long established summer track into submission. Gulfstream now dwarfs the numbers Calder used to put up.

He created the world’s richest race, the Pegasus World Cup, with a funding mechanism that has fallen onto shaky ground in its second season. However, the race itself was a world class success with Arrogate out-running reigning Horse of the Year California Chrome, and the track was jammed in spite of “Hamilton” prices as it is only on Florida Derby Day--when admission is free.

Stronach brought the Claiming Crown to Gulfstream at a time when there wasn’t exactly a bidding war to host the then struggling concept and anchored it on opening day of the prime winter season. The sixth edition at Gulfstream last Saturday set a handle record for the fourth consecutive year.

His next gambit might be his most brazen. In a bid to expand Gulfstream’s brand south of the border, he lured the Clasico International del Caribe to North America for the first time in its 50 runnings and built a Saturday around it. There is talk of the festival returning at some point if Saturday is a success but for now it’s a one-shot deal.

Gulfstream is not just pre-empting one race on a prime winter Saturday. The feature, the $300,000 Clasico del Caribe, the Kentucky Derby of Latin America, will be preceded by four other stakes for horses from six nations. They are positioned in prime location, the final five races on an 11-race card (six small stakes for American juveniles will precede it).

The later races typically attract the most action. This trend will be tested as players are challenged to decipher form from tracks most people have never heard of with unfamiliar horses and trainers. At least the jockeys will be well known.

Emisael Jaramillo has the mount on El Cubita, the 3-1 morning line favorite from Venezuela. Juan Carlos Diaz, a legend in Puerto Rico who has been riding at Gulfstream since Hurricane Maria devastated his home island, is on second choice Justiciero, the Puerto Rican Triple Crown winner.

Diaz has never won Puerto Rico's biggest race. Joel Rosario, who has won a Clasico, will be up on Inmenso, who has won nine straight in the Dominican Republic against suspect competition.

Johnny Velazquez, Javier Castellano, Irad Ortiz, Luis Saez, Edgard Zayas, Manny Franco and Tyler Gaffalione also have mounts.

I'm not going to put my credibility at risk pretending to have a clue to the relative merits of these horses. The best way to go probably is to keep an eye on the tote board; someone has to know how these horses measure up. Another way might be to put a few bucks on the three or four longest shots in each race. All things considered, there figures to be some winners who will blow up the tote board.

Where is the finish line?

Gulfstream’s wide-as-the-Intracoastal turf course is wonderful for scheduling more grass races than a typical course could handle. Alas, a lot of problems accompany it.

The accuracy of the timing of races has been a constant issue. Also, extended run-ups make frequently carded 7 ½ furlong turf races closer to a mile than the listed distance.

Let me add another. The lack of a finish pole for any race other than when the rail is at zero makes gauging close finishes a guessing game for jockeys and players. The final yards of temporary rails are colored red, the only indication that the end is near. The race is over when a horse gets to the end of the red rails, which can be obscured by horses.

The ninth race last Saturday was a prime example. Martini Glass was life and death to hold on as hard charging Peru was gobbling up what was a clear lead. They hit the end of the red rails together. It appeared Peru had gotten up in the final jump. One media member opined it looked like at least a head, maybe a neck. I had no interest either way but this is how it appeared to me, too—even in the replays. But the photo finish gave the nod to Martini Glass.

If temporary rails can be placed around the entire track, is it too much to ask that a temporary finish pole be stuck in the ground where the wire is? It wouldn’t have to be official, just a target for jockeys and a gauge for bettors.

Takeout does matter

It isn’t only disgruntled horse players who feel that increased takeouts, such as the one that inspired a boycott of Keeneland this fall, are counter-productive.

A parade of well credentialed speakers, including a college professor of economics, at the annual University of Arizona Global Symposium on Racing, said this week that race tracks would serve themselves and their customers with a reduction in takeout, especially on single race wagers, such as win, place and show, exactas and trifectas. Keeneland’s increase was mentioned in the presentations.

Pushing players to easier to win single race propositions would create additional churn, which would make up for the lower rake, it was argued. It also would create more winning tickets, an incentive for bettors to keep playing.

Todd Bowker, general manager of the Premier Turf Club, a rebate shop, said his players who focus on individual races have a greater churn than those who prefer multi-race bets.

Referring to Keeneland, Marshall Gramm, a professor of economics at Rhodes College, said an increase in takeout produces short term gains but long term losses because of its impact on churn.

Bill Nader, former COO of NYRA and executive director of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, said a key is for the major tracks to act in concert to reduce takeout. “It has to start with the industry leaders. This will not work in isolation.”

Bowker was not optimistic that the counsel offered at the symposium will be heeded. “I think the industry knows what it needs to do to move the handle needle forward,” he was quoted in the Racing Form as saying. “But it doesn’t want to do them, probably because it’s going to take some short-term pain.”

They must be oblivious or indifferent to the saying, “No pain, no gain.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, November 30, 2017

It’s December and the racing is scintillating

December was once a down month in racing. No more. Racing this Saturday is as good as it gets. NYRA has its last big hurrah until spring with four graded stakes, headed by the Cigar Mile, being run at the latest date ever. Gulfstream launches its prime season with what has become the traditional winter opening event, the Claiming Crown. It's a magical day for those who like full fields of blue collar horses. Each of the nine stakes has at least a dozen starters.

Racing hardly gets any better than this Saturday—the first weekend in December. NYRA stages its final big hurrah until spring with four graded stakes, including the celebrated Cigar Mile, which is being run later in the year than ever. Closer to my home, Gulfstream launches its prime winter season with the nine-stakes Claiming Crown.

The Cigar should be a beauty. Jorge Navarro’s Sharp Azteca, who has been right there in a slew of important stakes for older horses, faces off against Chad Brown’s crack 3-year-old Practical Joke, who has never been beaten around one turn.

The Grade 1 Cigar, Grade 2 Remsen for 3-year-olds and Grade 2 Demoiselle for fillies are carded as the final three races on the card. A maiden race for NY breds separates those three from the Grade 3 Go For Wand, probably to service the NYRA Bets Late Pick 5, which resumes Saturday.

If not for Gulfstream, there probably would be no Claiming Crown. The imaginative series for horses, who have raced for varying claiming prices, kicked around the Midwest without notable success for 13 years. It was headed toward extinction when Gulfstream stepped up in 2012 and made it the opening day feature of the winter season.

South Florida fans embraced it like stone crabs, mojitos and tanning lotion. After three years of generating $10 million-plus handle, the Claiming Crown had its first $11 million day last December.

There's no secret why. The nine Claiming Crown races attracted 132 entries. No field has fewer than a dozen before scratches. The Claiming Crown packs appeal for those who appreciate stakes caliber racing as well as fans of the blue collar horses who fill the racing cards at Gulfstream and other tracks that don’t get a lot of attention most of the year.

The early highlight of the meeting is the second edition of the Pegasus on Jan. 27 with a purse jacked up to a world record $16 million. This year’s renewal could feature something I can’t recall happening before. Three Eclipse winners could be in the starting gate. Gun Runner, a cinch to be named Horse of the Year and Best Older Dirt Horse at the Eclipse ceremonies at Gulfstream on Jan. 25, is pointing to the race, as is surefire best older dirt female Forever Unbridled. Also, Bob Baffert has said it’s his intention to ship in West Coast, the favorite to earn 3-year-old male Eclipse honors.

A couple of other Eclipse contenders, Good Magic and Caledonia Road, winners of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies, respectively, will be stabled at Gulfstream or one of its satellites and could begin their sophomore campaigns in South Florida.

It wouldn’t be a winter season if Todd Pletcher didn’t roll out a few maidens who go on to become stakes horses and maybe even a Kentucky Derby winner like Always Dreaming last year.

An interesting addition to the Gulfstream agenda, the Classico del Caribe, the Kentucky Derby of Latin America, will be run in North America for the first time on Dec. 9. Five other stakes for horses from south of the border are scheduled. It’s a risky gambit for Gulfstream on a prime meet Saturday since the majority of horses, riders and trainers will be unfamiliar to local fans. Then again, few thought bringing the Claiming Crown to Gulfstream was a great idea. Not everything the Stronach Group tries works but you have to give them credit for trying.

More proof the boycott succeeded

Some horseplayers inexplicably want to diminish the impact of the Keeneland boycott and label it a failure.

The fall Del Mar and Gulfstream West (nee Calder) seasons, which concluded Sunday, provides the latest evidence to debunk such naysaying. Gulfstream West handle skyrocketed 10.33 percent despite a blustery couple of months in which 58 races had to be taken off the turf and 14 fewer races were offered than in 2016.

Even without the two Breeders’ Cup afternoons, Del Mar handle was up 7.5 percent, the seaside track’s best fall performance ever. These mirror autumn meeting upticks at Santa Anita, Belmont and Laurel. Simultaneously, Keeneland was down about 8.7 percent.

Given what happened at other major tracks, there is no reason other than the boycott why Keeneland also shouldn’t have been up. Racing was top notch and field size was roughly comparable to previous years. So the almost 9 percent drop in handle understates the full impact of the boycott.

I’ll concede one thing to the knockers. Unless horse players pick up where they left off for the Keeneland spring 2018 meeting, it all will have been for naught. Tracks considering raising their own takeouts will be comforted that they might have to bite the bullet for one meeting then reap the profits thereafter. Horse players cannot allow this to happen.

Derby future an ego trip

The Kentucky Derby future bets are not for thinking players. Trying to come up with the winner of a race six months out, when many of those who will line up in the starting gate in May are still unknowns—Always Dreaming was an 0-2 maiden, both sprints, this time last year—is all about ego, not common horse playing sense.

Those who play want to be able to boast, “I came up with the Derby winner” months ago. The payoff is a bonus. If bettors were really in it for the money, they would put more thought into hidden opportunities.

Bolt d’Oro wound up going off the top individual horse in the first round win pool at 7.50-1. If the third-place finisher in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile—the winner, Good Magic closed at 11.40-1—picks up where he left off during Derby prep season, $17 will be a fat mutual.

But if Bolt d’Oro’s fan base put a little thought into it and paid closer attention to the odds, there was a better opportunity. In an effort to squeeze a few extra dollars out of fans, Churchill also offers a Sires Pool; pick the father of the winner and you get paid.

Bolt d’Oro is by Medaglia d’Oro. If any of his offspring capture the roses, the payoff is 5.90-1 or 13.80. Along with Bolt d’Oro, those who settled on Medaglia d’Oro, also get Enticed, who overcame an eventful trip to win Saturday’s Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes over the strip where the Derby will be contested, and Montauk, a colt from the Todd Pletcher barn so highly touted that his 17-1 odds are the fourth lowest among 23 individual entries despite only a maiden sprint win.

“But wait,” as they say on cable TV. “There’s more.” You would also get any other offspring of Medaglia d’Oro, who come along between now and May and make it into the Derby.

Which is a better bet, 5.90-1 on three or more Medaglia d’Oro horses, including Bolt d’Oro, or 7.50-1 on only one. Of course, people who bet the Derby future don’t think a lot.

For the record, if I had played, I would have put a few bucks on Avery Island, who closed 29-1, and will be in the Remsen Stakes.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, November 23, 2017

Racing provides so much for which to be thankful

On a day of reflection of our blessings, horse racing should be somewhere on the list, below health and family. Things for which I am thankful include outstanding racing after the Breeders' Cup this weekend, Pegasus Stakes 2.0, last season's Triple Crown race winners coming back as 4-year-olds, the end of Gulfstream West, daylight standard time arriving and, of course, all of our regular readers and commentators.

This is the day to reflect upon how fortunate we are. Racing is down the list of our blessings, compared to health and family, but it is still an important element of so many of our lives for the pleasure, entertainment and occasional profit it provides. I hope you share many of the following thoughts.

I’m thankful there is racing life after the Breeders’ Cup. Aqueduct, Churchill Downs and Del Mar have stakes-loaded cards this coming weekend. Many of the biggest stakes will be run on Friday. Churchill has the Grade 1 Clark, the Mrs. Revere and the Dream Supreme. The Comely, Gio Ponti and a state-bred stakes are carded in New York. The Hollywood Turf Cup will be renewed at Del Mar.

Why are so many stakes on a weekday? It’s because tracks across the nation realize there are millions of people off work and available. I would be really thankful if I thought the Breeders’ Cup was paying attention.

Pegasus produces again

I’m thankful for the Pegasus Stakes. Problems still abound with how the race is funded, which brings into question whether the concept is viable on an ongoing basis. However, on the track, there will be another attention-grabbing showdown in Pegasus 2.0.

Gun Runner vs. Forever Unbridled might not pack the wow factor of Arrogate vs. California Chrome but the battle of the sexes injects a fascinating element . When the two face off a couple of days after the Eclipse Awards, it will be the Horse in the Year vs. the Female of the Year.

Without this gender clash, the Pegasus would amount to a romp in the Florida sun for Gun Runner, who has trounced almost every other horse likely to show up.

More to anticipate

I’m thankful that for the first time in memory, three different winners of Triple Crown races are coming back to race as 4-year-olds. I wish perfectly healthy BC Dirt Mile winner Battle of Midway was also coming back.

Fie on the breeders who took him away from us prematurely but it’s par for the course for the most greedy, selfish people in the game.

Pharoah stands alone

I’m thankful we haven’t had a Triple Crown winner the past two years—but only in retrospect. I rooted for Nyquist and Always Dreaming to replicate what American Pharoah accomplished, the only horse to sweep the Derby, Preakness and Belmont in four decades.

But the fact that they didn’t underlines how extraordinary Pharoah’s feat was. If there was a Triple Crown winner every year or two, it would become ho-hum. Every year that goes by without a Triple Crown winner only enhances appreciation for the amazing talent it requires and anticipation every spring that this could be the year of the next one.

Viva Frank Stronach

I’m thankful for Frank Stronach. He might be a little eccentric and some of his ideas come off as strange but every one of has the goal of advancing racing, a rare business attitude in an increasingly bottom line world.

Stronach is one of those people who will not be fully appreciated until he is no longer on the scene.

RIP Gulfstream West (I hope)

I’m thankful (or is it hopeful?) that the upcoming week could be the final one ever for Gulfstream West. It’s a travesty that Florida allows this faux meeting to qualify Churchill Downs Inc., owner of what used to be Calder Race Course, for a casino.

I’m not thankful for the state officials, who sanctioned this and for Hialeah to qualify to keep its casino license by running a couple of worn-out nags about 100 yards eight times a day for 40 days.

The latter all but eliminates any hope that “the most beautiful track in the world” will spend the money to get back into the thoroughbred picture, regardless of what happens with Gulfstream West, which provides an essential break--if it were a real race meeting--from year-round racing at real Gulfstream.

Decoupling, which failed in the Florida legislature last year, faces better prospects this coming spring because one of the issues that short-circuited it, casino expansion in the state, has been settled in the courts. Passage of decoupling will free CDI from the obligation to lease its vacant lot adjacent to a racing oval to Gulfstream.

Good riddance

Del Mar out of the picture

I’m thankful Florida, New York and other major venues I play have better photo finish cameras than Del Mar. How many more faux deadheats must there be before Del Mar does whatever is necessary to get it right.

I guess I’m thankful, too, that there were no really tight photos at the Breeders’ Cup.

They can do it, if asked
I’m thankful for Voodoo Song, the New York bred who won four races, two within four days, during the 40-day Saratoga stand. This fortified my belief that the only reason horses don’t run as often as they used to is because they are not asked to.

They are babied by trainers who collect their per diem whether the horse is in the barn or on the track.

Racing Form does right thing
I’m thankful the Racing Form has opened its editorial copy, albeit for only 30 articles a month.

It’s in the Form’s interest to promote racing to the greatest degree possible. No major newspaper still maintains a racing beat writer. Without the Form, there would be no daily coverage of the entire racing world in one place. This would work against the Form’s ADW site.

Cyber sites, including Horse Race Insider, the Paulick Report, Thoroughbred Daily News and the Blood Horse, have become essential for racing information and opinions but they typically prioritize regional coverage and national high spots. Only the Form has coverage of virtually every track, every day.

The price of the print edition has become so expensive it virtually rules out attracting new customers. This will eventually lead to the same kind of attrition that is bringing down print newspapers. I don’t think many in racing realize how important the Form is and the negative effect its absence would create.

One week to go

I’m thankful for the end of daylight savings time because the onset of earlier darkness alleviates at least some of the post dragging that has become a trademark of racing at Gulfstream.

That said post dragging is a minor annoyance that doesn’t detract from how thankful I am that Gulfstream’s prime winter meet is only a week away.

Written by Tom Jicha

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