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 Sentinels horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Thursday, June 20, 2019

Thankfully, California’s over-reaction isn’t spreading


The continuation of racing in California is in genuine peril thanks to hysterical activists, grandstanding politicians and a cheerleading media. Fortunately, the movement is not spreading eastward at this time. This doesn't mean the drive to end racing couldn't metastasize elsewhere. So it's incumbent that efforts to reduce deaths on the race track be increased and never ending. In the meantime, unless and until the California situation stabilizes, the Breeders' Cup should take this year's event away from Santa Anita and not schedule any future Breeders' Cups there.

By Tom Jicha

One way or another, the Santa Anita racing season was going to end this weekend. If the calendar didn’t run out, activists, politicians and their cheerleaders in the media would have made sure there was no more racing in Arcadia until fall at least.

Racing is said to be facing an existential threat—this year’s buzz phrase--due to the tragic rash of horse fatalities at Santa Anita. This is alarmist nonsense. The equine tragedies are and should be a concern of everyone in the sport. Everything that can be done to curtail them should be done. But California is the only circuit in jeopardy for the foreseeable future.

California over-reacts to everything and usually acts before considering all the ramifications. It banned paper grocery bags to save the trees. Then it had to do away with their replacement, plastic bags, to save the ocean. It is OK to discard a disease-carrying syringe into the street. But don’t dare put a plastic straw in your drink. You can take a dump on the sidewalk but you can’t smoke in most public places. It’s a health hazard.

Thousands of jobs are at stake if racing goes away, many filled by people at the bottom of the economic ladder. It’s not as if these are retail workers or food servers, who can segue to a new location. These are people, who want to make an honest living but know little beyond caring for horses. A shutdown will propel them straight to the unemployment line or welfare rolls.

A rally on the Santa Anita backstretch to drive home these points was called for Thursday. Not that anyone who matters will pay attention.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said, “Enough is enough” after the 28th and 29th thoroughbred deaths. Serial headline-seeker Sen. Diane Feinstein, who as a federal office holder has no say in California racing, has chimed in anyway, again calling for Santa Anita to shut down. The Los Angeles Times editorial page thundered it is “appalled...Americans have to decide how much death they are willing to tolerate.”

Pushback beyond the backstretch rally has been minimal. Brenda Stronach, head of The Stronach Group, loves horses and is well intentioned. Alas, this makes her as much a part of the problem as the solution. She has figuratively curled into a defensive fetal position, tacitly acknowledging everything detractors are saying is true.

The remedies she has enacted—lower doses of Lasix, limited use of even Nerf whips—do nothing to address the core problems. It’s like trying to combat California’s out of control homeless crisis by cutting back on the number of shopping carts. But in California, appearances are everything.

Fortunately, the rest of the nation is not so hysterical, which is why the sport is not in the dire straits many see. Horses die on race tracks everywhere. Every death is a tragedy to be mourned. But there are deaths in every activity. Sensible people east of La La Land get this.

Steps are being taken in most jurisdictions to keep the death toll as low as possible. But there are no significant campaigns—save for radical PETA’s—to suspend racing or halt it entirely.

It might not be admirable but there’s another reason racing will go on. States and influential individuals have too much tied up in the sport to allow it to go away. Could you imagine Kentucky ending horse racing? There’s a better chance churches will give up praying.

Florida voted to end greyhound racing but with the horse breeding industry so important to the state‘s economy, there is little to no chance any effort to banish horse racing will get off the ground, let alone succeed.

As long as there is a Saratoga, horse racing is safe in New York. If it can survive Andrew Cuomo for almost a decade, it’s resilient enough to weather this crisis. Cuomo might consider himself governor for life but he isn’t.

Moreover, New York not long ago became one of the last large states to sanction cage fighting. How do you justify this barbaric blood sport and call for the elimination of horse racing?

Illinois recently voted to bolster horse racing by finally allowing casino gambling at race tracks including treasured Arlington Park, whose continued existence was in jeopardy. Illinois might not be Kentucky, Florida or New York, but it also has a substantial breeding industry.

None of this is to suggest that racing outside California become complacent. One catastrophic event in a nationally televised event and all bets are off.

In the meantime, the Breeders’ Cup has to act ASAP to move this year’s event out of California. Ironically, SoCal was moving ever closer to a permanent stranglehold on staging the Breeders’ Cup. Except for the influence of the Kentucky breeders, it might have happened by now.

Supposedly, the wheels to move this November’s races to Churchill Downs are already in motion. Making this move is not optional or a close call.

Santa Anita can’t even guarantee it will be allowed to race on Nov. 1-2. It’s inevitable there will be fatal breakdowns at Del Mar. When they happen, PETA and its sudden legion of friends in politics and the media will be screeching again for the end of racing.

Anywhere but California, they could be ignored while riding out the storm, as New York did a few years ago. But the ease at which goofy propositions can get on the ballot and the Pontius Pilate attitude of politicians puts racing in the Golden State in serious and continuing jeopardy.

Even if Santa Anita is allowed to be back in business in the fall, the outpouring or protesters on the Breeders’ Cup days would be overwhelming and the television cameras would find them. The potential for attempts to even interfere with the actual races cannot be dismissed. Racing doesn’t need this.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, June 13, 2019

3YO’s had their time; it’s time for galaxy of other stars to shine

This year's Triple Crown season was largely a letdown. But with the 3YO's taking their leave from center stage, there is a galaxy of stars in other divisions poised to shine. Bricks and Mortar against the world on grass; Catholic Boy on dirt and turf; Chad Brown's herd of female turfers; Midnight Bisou and Monomoy Girl getting together again; super sprinters Mitole and World of Trouble; the latest filly sensation; Acorn runoff Guarana, Pimlico record-setter Covfefe and undefeated Break Even.

By Tom Jicha

Three-year-olds have had their time in the sun. Heading into the second half of the season, they are the least interesting group in what promises to be a spectacular few months of racing.

The seven final phase 100-point Derby qualifiers and the three Triple Crown events were won by 10 different horses. Depending on whether you’re a glass half-full or half-empty person, this translates either to parity or mediocrity.

Maximum Security, best on the track in the Derby, hasn’t been seen since. The Kentucky stewards’ Derby winner, Country House, has a cough so persistent you would think he is a lifelong smoker.

Omaha Beach, scratched as the morning line favorite for the Derby, is back in Dick Mandella’s barn a month later than anticipated after his throat surgery. Maybe he can become this summer’s Arrogate.

Enough about the 3-year-olds. There are too many genuinely exciting horses in other divisions to dwell on what was (or wasn’t).

Racing might be heading for another Wise Dan debate when it comes to Horse of the Year. If the vote were today, Bricks and Mortar would probably be a runaway choice. He has been leading the NTRA weekly poll of non-sophomores for a couple of months and increased his standing with his characteristically professional score in the Manhattan.

But can a horse, who races exclusively on grass, be named the best in the game? In Wise Dan’s case, the answer was yes. If Bricks and Mortar adds the Arlington Million and one of the prestigious fall stakes to his credit sheet, it’s hard to imagine the answer being anything but that again.

If there is a caveat, it’s that Chad Brown has said he doesn’t expect Bricks and Mortar to run in the Breeders’ Cup because a mile and a half might be beyond his scope and a flat mile might be too short.
There is a herd of stars, who are expected at the Breeders’ Cup, who could steal racing’s biggest prize.

Brown is also loaded on the female side. Rushing Fall so dominated the Just a Game, her eighth win in nine career starts, that there is speculation her next start might be against colts in the Fourstardave at the Spa.

Why not? If she goes, she’ll probably be favored. Americans are finally catching on to what Euros have known for generations. There is no significant talent gap between the sexes.

Alas, there is probably zero chance that Brown would allow an eventual gender showdown between her and Bricks and Mortar.

Brown has to find some way to keep all his stars apart. Homerique looked like a very special horse in running her U.S. record to two-for-two in the New York. Competitionofideas, who ended 2019 with a win in the American Oaks, would be two-for-two if she hadn’t dropped close decisions to her stable mate twice. This is a rivalry that should continue through the summer and fall.

Brown has not even rolled out his “big filly,” Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf champion Sistercharlie. Her seasonal debut is reportedly not far off. Again, one of the problems with “super barns” is we might not see all these fillies in the same race, as would be the case if they were in different barns.

There are some really special dirt horses this year, too. We probably will see at least two or three of them in the same stakes. Mitole continues to amaze. His seventh straight win in the Met Mile came against what might wind up the toughest group of older horses assembled this season. The question is, does this brilliant 4-year-old turn back or move forward? Either way he faces some mighty challenges.

If Mitole tries to extend another furlong in a race such as the Whitney, McKinzie could be there for a rematch. With a cleaner trip, McKinzie would have made the Met Mile really interesting. Who wouldn’t want to see an encore?

Dirt-turf Grade 1 winner Catholic Boy, who showed his fondness for Saratoga by galloping off with last summer’s Travers, also is expected there and in other major main track stakes. A McKinzie-Catholic Boy showdown would be a great consolation prize if Mitole’s connections decide to go elsewhere.

It’s not as if the sprint division would be a base on balls for Mitole. Sooner or later he figures to run into World of Trouble, who made the Jaipur his fifth straight, three on dirt, two on turf. That confrontation would be a headliner at any track in America.

By the way, kudos to World of Trouble’s connections, who announced he will be kept in training through 2020. There has to be a lot of demand in the breeding shed for a horse with his brilliant speed and sprint purses don’t approach those in longer races for older horses. It’s a rare sporting decision.

Getting back to the “weaker sex,” Midnight Bisou continues to assert herself as the outstanding older dirt distaffer in training. She chased Eclipse champion Monomoy Girl all last year without catching her, absent help from the stewards. The Grade 1 Ogden Phipps, Midnight Bisou’s fourth straight in 2019, strongly suggested she might be ready this season for last year’s Eclipse champion, if and when she ever comes out of the barn.

Then there’s Guarana. The way she demolished her rivals in the Acorn, including Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress, in only her second start gave indications she might be the best 3-year-old of either gender. But standing in her way going short is Covfefe, who obliterated Pimlico’s six furlong record Preakness weekend and undefeated, 5-for-5 Break Even. These speedballs could find each other in the Test.

Casual sports fans might consider the wrap-up of the Triple Crown the unofficial end of the thoroughbred racing season. But real fans have more to look forward to this spring and summer than at any time in years.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, June 06, 2019

Glorious Belmont Day a welcome respite from all the negative news

Saturday's Belmont isn't the most illustrious renewal in the history of the third jewel of the Triple Crown. It shakes out as a two-horse duel between War of Will and Tacitus. But the supporting card is off the charts. The Met Mile might wind up the race of the year and could establish the early leader for Horse of the Year honors. Speaking of that, Bricks and Mortar, No. 1 in the NTRA weekly poll, heads a contentious Manhattan. Pro tem 3-year-old filly leader, Kentucky Oaks champion Serengeti Empress heads the Acorn. It's gong to be like that all afternoon.

In keeping with everything else that’s happened in 2019, California will not be represented in this year’s Belmont Stakes. Nothing but bad news has come out of the Golden State and it has spilled over onto the entire sport.

Belmont Stakes Day should provide a welcome change of pace. Some of the best racing of the year will be the newsmaker. (Let’s pray for safe trips.)

Every year, several big event days are billed as the best day of racing outside the Breeders’ Cup: Derby Day, for sure, Travers Day, Florida Derby Day and one or two others, depending on the year. Belmont Day is always among them.

This year’s program is truly exceptional. The Eclipse Awards include nine categories not including juveniles (it’s too early for that). Belmont Day could see seven to nine eventual 2019 winners competing. It doesn’t get much better than that.

California will be represented in the down card races, most notably by McKinzie in one of the saltiest Met Miles in memory. It could produce the pro tem leader for Horse of the Year.

But the main event is bereft of Left Coast representatives. Not that SoCal 3-year-olds might not exert themselves later in the season. Who isn’t eagerly awaiting the return of Omaha Beach and although Team Baffert has nothing in the Belmont, it surely will make its presence known in races such as the Haskell, Travers, Pennsylvania Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

I mentioned last week I fully expected my Belmont selection to come down to Tacitus or War of Will. Nothing has happened to change that opinion.

Major stakes, such as the Belmont, tend to be over-analyzed. Minor wins, trouble calls and track biases (real and imagined) are over-weighted as fans search for the longshot winner, who will make them look a genius for a day.

Bourbon War runs late and has been close to some serious horses. The Japanese are confident Master Fencer will like the distance. Todd Pletcher is competing on his home track. Dale Romans has been third four times and could be due for a Keen Ice over American Pharoah upset. Maybe Mark Casse can pull a Baffert and win with his “other” horse, late-running Sir Winston.

But if Saturday’s race were, say, the Christopher Kay Stakes, all this would be dismissed in recognition that War of Will and Tacitus tower over this bunch. The 9-5 morning line on Tacitus and 2-1 on War of Will translates to about 9-10 that one of the two will win. This strikes me as an overlay.

Without disparaging the others, Casse also sees it this way. “I think (War of Will) is the horse to beat. I think he’s even a better horse than you saw in the Preakness. If he gets beat in the Belmont, it’s not going to be because of a lack of fitness. I promise you that.”

If he does get beat, Tacitus is the one likely to do it, Casse feels. “Absolutely. Bill (Mott) is a great trainer and we’re going to his house to play. (Tacitus) shows up every time, runs hard and Bill will have him ready.”

The fact that Tacitus finished in front of War of Will in the sloppily run Derby is of little consequence, in Casse’s estimation. “We didn’t get beaten very far by Tacitus and we had loads of trouble.”

The Derby wasn’t a walk in the park for Tacitus, either, Mott said. “He had to alter course several times.” Showing his characteristic class, Mott is not using that as an excuse. “He never had to check. He never got stopped. But he ate a lot of mud. He was quite a ways back in the field and had to come through a lot of traffic. It wasn’t the cleanest trip but I can’t give him a lot of excuses off that. He was moving very well at the end of the race.”

Casual players might think this gives him an edge in the longest race most of these horses will ever run. This is a misconception in most cases. “The Belmont is a funny run race,” Casse said, perhaps tipping his hand to strategy. “It usually helps speed. (War of Will) has plenty of speed. What will decide whether he can go the mile and a half is how willing he is to rate early. He did rate very well in the Preakness but it was an extremely fast pace. I think a lot is going to depend on just how much Tyler (Gaffalione) can get him to relax.”

We’ll know the answer to that when War of Will turns for home with Tacitus bearing down. I wouldn’t bet the exacta because it will be under-valued and long-odds horses have a knack of sneaking in for minor shares. But these two will be the only ones on the top of my tickets.

Double down

A couple of interesting but not overly challenging two-day daily doubles will be offered.

Friday’s New York Handicap will be paired with the Met Mile and the Belmont Gold Cup will be part of a two-race bet with the Belmont.

The former goes through the Chad Brown uncoupled entry of Competitionofideas and Homerique, who finished in a photo in the Beaugay. Homerique’s number went up on the board. I wouldn’t bet against an encore.

The Met Mile, as I’ve said repeatedly, is off the charts. Mitole looks almost unbeatable right now but McKinzie might be tougher at a one-turn mile than he has been in two-turn middle distance races, which is double tough. For a $10 base, you can go two-by-two with a saver double on the Homerique-Coal Front combo.

I’ve said my piece on the Belmont. You need only two. The two-mile Gold Cup is made to order for Euros, who get to run marathons often. I have a strong lean toward Raa Atoll, a winner of three of six and with recency from a two-mile Grade 2 score in Germany last month.

I see red flags with Mostasadir and Amade. Mostasadir is likely to be well supported off his 6-for-9 career. Be wary. All his wins have been on artificial surfaces. He’s 0-3 on turf.

The same mostly applies to Amade. Six of his seven wins have been on fake dirt but he does have a victory at almost two miles on grass.

If you want to have at least one member of the home team on your ticket, Red Knight, who has a two-mile score on his resume, is the one to use.

Written by Tom Jicha

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