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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Sunday, December 16, 2018

Pegasus Turf lands a couple of major pieces

The Pegasus World Cup has been slowly but surely filling with big names--Accelerate, City of Light, Gunnevera and Audible, who got upset on an off track Saturday. Little has been said about the new $7 million companion grass stakes. No more. Over the past few days, Magical, who put a scare into Enable in the Breeders' Cup Turf, and Japanese runner Aerolithe have been named probables, along with Global Empire, who ran big to take Saturday's Fort Lauderdale over 12 rivals, including four other Grade 1 winners.

Gulfstream hoped to get a few starters for the new Pegasus Turf from Saturday’s Fort Lauderdale. It probably did, starting with convincing winner, Global Empire.

But it was a couple of other horses, who committed to the Pegasus Turf over the past few days, who deserve the headlines. Magical, beaten less than a length by super filly Enable in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, will be coming and adds a needed touch of class. America’s older turf performers have been a decidedly below par bunch this season, taking turns beating each other. Not a single male turfer has won more than one Grade 1. So the Pegasus badly needs the star power Magical provides.

Perhaps the bigger coup is the luring of Japanese filly Aerolithe, whose connections are trying to make shipping arrangements to get here for the Jan. 26 race, according to Gulfstream general manager Bill Badgett. Although there have been few announcements concerning participants, Badgett said Saturday he is confident there will be a full 12-horse field.

It isn’t the resume Aerolithe brings. The 4-year-old with American breeding—her grandsire is French Deputy—is zero-for-three in 2018, albeit all in Grade 1 races in Japan. However she does have a Grade 1 in Hong Kong among her 3 wins in 13 starts.

It’s the fact that any stakes horse from Japan is coming. This is the potential motherlode for American racing. The Japanese bet like no others. In 2016, the players in Japan sent in $35 million on the Arc. To put this into perspective, handle on Pegasus Day 2018 was just under $42 million, the all-time record for Gulfstream. That was on 13 races. This is why Churchill Downs has been creating new rules about Derby qualifying in an effort to get a Japanese horse into the race.

Whether the Japanese will be able to bet on the inaugural Pegasus Turf is up in the air. Japan limits the number of races outside the country that can be imported for betting. The Pegasus, a newcomer, isn’t on the list. An exception would have to be made. With a Japanese horse in the race, you never know.

Global Empire punched his ticket to the Pegasus Turf with a front-running score in the Fort Lauderdale. “I’ll have to check with the man who writes the checks (owner Michael Shera),” trainer James Lawrence II said. “But I’m pretty sure he’ll want to come.”

Hall of Famer Edgar Prado showed he still has it, gunning Global Empire to the lead in the bulky 13-horse field, cleverly taking hold when no one moved to challenge down the backside then hitting the gas at the top of the stretch to put daylight on the field and discourage the late runners.

Global Runner, who will be 8 in a few weeks, is a great story. Schera claimed him for $62,500 in 2017 and turned him over to Lawrence. “He was ready for retirement. We resurrected him,” Lawrence said. Asked how long he could keep Global Empire going, Lawrence replied with a smile, “The way he’s going, maybe 10.”

Given the dearth of a standout in his division, Global Empire probably put himself more prominently into the Eclipse conversation with his latest Grade 2 win. He dead-heated with Channel Maker in the Grade 2 Bowling Green at Saratoga then outran that foe and eight others in the Grade 1 Sword Dancer.

Lawrence said Global Empire’s connections went into the BC Turf with a high level of confidence. But his gelding didn’t really handle the wet track even though he was able to open a clear lead early.

Gulfstream’s grass course was drenched, too, on Saturday, but Lawrence said it was a different situation. “I was watching the races the past few days and you could feel the ground move it was so hard. The course really needed some rain. I was happy to see it but when it kept raining I was worried maybe it didn’t need this much.”

The Fort Lauderdale was uncommonly salty for a Grade 2 grass stakes this time of year. Four Grade 1 winners—5 if you count Quarteto de Cordas who took a Grade 1 in his native Brazil. It might be enough to put Global Empire over the top. “That’s why I told Edgar to win by 4 (actually it was 2 ½ lengths),” Lawrence said in a kidding tone.

There are no sure things

The Harlan's Holiday shaped up as one of those pay-to-play cupcake games football power houses have used for years to tune-up for the big challenges to come.

Audible looked invincible against five seemingly over-matched foes. The Florida Derby winner was unbeaten at Gulfstream and had come back from a six-month layoff off his impressive third in the Kentucky Derby with a dazzling win at Churchill Downs on the Breeders' Cup undercard. He went to the post 1-10.

His opponents looked like, well, opponents in the way boxing uses the term. One was a Todd Pletcher stablemate. Another could have been had for $16,000 in his last start.

Mother Nature became the great equalizer. It started raining in late morning, By the time the horses reached the gate, it was pouring and blowing. Audible hated it. He never grabbed hold of the ground and solely on his class and heart was he able to get up for second behind 25-1 shot Sir Anthony.

"You hate to use the track as an excuse," said Todd Pletcher, who then used the track as an excuse. "It rained quite a bit and they sealed the track. Javier (Castellano) said up the backside it was pretty uneven. There were dry spots and wet spots. It seemed like (Audible) was never really handling the track."

It might have been an excuse but everything Pletcher said was true. Castellano had Audible inside then in the middle of the track and finally about five wide around the turn and into the lane, looking for good footing. It’s a tribute to Audible that at midstretch it still seemed like he would get up. But Sir Anthony, who saved ground throughout and cut the corner, held on by a half-length.

Audible will be a lot better in the Pegasus. But so will the competition.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, December 13, 2018

Sitting out Audible last summer sets up a huge 2019

Audible was sitting on a big 2018 last spring. His win in the Florida Derby was his fourth in five career starts. Even his fast-closing third, a head off Eclipse champion Good Magic, in the Kentucky Derby augured well of more big things to come. However, offering only vague explanations, Todd Pletcher put him on the shelf. It might turn out to be a genius move. Audible came back big on the Breeders' Cup undercard and is any price to humble five overmatched rivals in Saturday's Harlan's Holiday, his prep for the $9 million Pegasus. On the same card, the grassy Fort Lauderdale is a super betting race with five Grade 1 turf winners and some others capable of beating them all.

Todd Pletcher might have made a genius play when he backed off Audible after the Kentucky Derby without offering even a phantom injury as explanation.

The Florida Derby champion wasn’t going to run in the Preakness. Pletcher never goes to the second jewel of the Triple Crown unless he has the winner of the first. The mile-and-a-half Belmont was supposedly on the New York-bred’s dance card, but this would have entailed taking on undefeated Justify at a distance that was a huge question mark for Audible. He could have gotten wrung out in the attempt and missed significant time afterward anyway.

Now the well rested Audible is on the cusp of a 4-year-old season in which, thanks to attrition and greedy breeders, he will have the racing world at his hooves.
Audible came back on Breeders’ Cup day in a minor stakes and thrashed overmatched foes. The New York-bred could be 1-5 or less to do the same in the Harlan’s Holiday Saturday at Gulfstream. It’s a credit to the racing department that it was able to get five sacrificial lambs to make the $100,000 stakes go. Clearly some favors had to be called in. It's overkill that Audible drew the advantageous one hole in the mile-and-a-sixteenth race.

Pletcher helped with the horse who could be Audible’s main challenger, to use the term loosely, Village King. The Argentine import won his first race in the U.S. last time out, defeating five foes in the off-the-turf Red Smith.

Sir Anthony comes in from Illinois with a three-race winning streak against weaker competition.

The others appear to be helping out the racing office. Apostle won a first level optional claimer in his most recent try on dirt. Minute Madness is 4-for-32 racing primarily in claimers. He could have been taken for $16,000 from a win at Gulfstream West/Calder last month. Sightforsoreyes has one win in nine 2018 starts and that was at Thistledown. He was last, beaten 49 lengths in the Clark.

The Harlan’s Holiday is only a minor stepping stone for Audible. The major objective is the $9 million Pegasus on Jan. 26. Accelerate will be there but Audible will have home field advantage on the track where he won the Holy Bull and Florida Derby. What’s more, second and third will offer seven-figure rewards.

Audible is likely sitting on a very big year.

Justify is long gone. Good Magic followed suit. Mendelssohn was retired last week. Accelerate will check out after the Pegasus. Catholic Boy isn’t expected to make his 2019 debut until spring and could start as often on turf as dirt in 2019.

Pletcher might be establishing a new paradigm for talented 3-year-olds. Take a shot at the Derby. If it doesn’t work out, go on the shelf in pursuit of a lucrative campaign as an older horse.

Fort Lauderdale loaded

The biggest development in Pegasus World, the inaugural $7 million turf companion to the richest race in North America, has been flying low enough under the radar to be a crop duster.

Possible starters for the main track event have been trumpeted on almost a daily basis. Meanwhile, reports on the grass race have been as scarce as a Prius driven by a conservative.

This could change after Saturday’s Fort Lauderdale. The field for the Grade 2 is loaded with five Grade 1 turf winners.

The look-ahead to the new Pegasus Turf on Jan. 26 surely is a factor. An Eclipse Award might even be in play.

The older turf male category is devoid of a standout candidate. With none of the leading contenders having more than one Grade 1 victory around two turns, some analysts are pushing BC Turf Sprint winner Stormy Liberal as a candidate for the Eclipse. But this accolade going to a horse who didn’t run further than 6 ½ furlongs would be unprecedented.

Thus an impressive late season triumph by a route horse with Grade 1 credentials could sway “what have you done for me lately?” voters.

A couple of Fort Lauderdale entrants fall into this category. Pletcher’s Hi Happy has the Grade 1 Man O War on his credit sheet and a big win over the course in last spring’s Pan American (Gr. 2). Glorious Empire has similar credentials. He took the top grade Sword Dancer at the Spa as well as a deadheat for the win in the Bowling Green (Gr. 2).

Divisidero, a Grade 1 winner in 2017, could run by them all. Divisidero captured the Turf Classic on Derby Day a year ago. He’s coming off a big effort in the BC Mile, beaten less than a length in fourth, after starting from post 13. The fact that he had to move earlier than is his comfort zone didn’t help. The nine furlongs of the Fort Lauderdale is his ideal distance.

Almanaar earned his Grade 1 credential in the 2017 Gulfstream Turf Handicap and was second in the Fort Lauderdale a year ago. Quarteto de Cordas is a Grade 1 winner in his native Brazil but was never a factor in the BC Turf, his North American debut.

Not to be overlooked is Almanaar’s stablemate Projected, who’s winless in 2018 but has hit the board in six straight stakes. All you need to know is it’s a turf stakes and he’ll be saddled by Chad Brown.

A brilliant idea, NOT!

Racing is saved. Santa Anita has come up with the solution to all racing’s challenges in attracting and retaining fans. Not!

It’s Horse Racing Roulette.

This new bet, announced this week, is so off-the-wall it easily could be a product of someone spiking the company Christmas party punch with stupid juice.

HRR will be introduced at Santa Anita’s winter meeting, which gets under way on Dec. 26. Horses in races with at least six starters will be assigned into three groups keyed to the colors on a roulette wheel—red, black and green. It’s like a three-number race with numerous entrymates. Hasn’t racing all but eliminated entry-mates to increase betting possibilities?

The number of horses in each group will not necessarily be equal. In many, if not most cases, they won’t be. The favorite might have only one HRR entry-mate. Several longshots could be part of another group. The best part of this concept is the takeout will be a modest 15.43 percent.

The goal apparently is to make it easy for people to cash a bet and thus increase churn. There is a strong likelihood of an odds-on proposition in every race. Even when the least likely grouping wins, payoffs might not reach double figures.This runs contrary to the trend toward life-changing six- and seven-figure jackpots. One of these has to be a bad idea. You can't have it both ways.

Being a Stronach Group track, HRR is obviously a trial horse, which could spread to other TSG tracks. I'd rather it not. There are enough pools. But if it does, no one is going to be forced to play.

If you have ever visited a casino, you couldn’t help having noticed there are a mere handful of players around a few roulette tables while thousands of people are trying their luck at countless slot machines with their more alluring odds.

Why should a race track be any different?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Sunday, December 09, 2018

Baffert counters Chad with a huge afternoon

Chad Brown and Bob Baffert are in a two-man race for the top trainer Eclipse. Chad surged last weekend with three Grade 1 wins. Bullet Bob countered Saturday with a pair of Grade 1 wins, running one-two in the first of them and one-three in the other. Baffert's Game Winner is
a sure Eclipse winner but Cash Call Futurity winner Improbable is picking up backers every time out. It also was a big day for family ties. American Pharoah's kid sister Chasing Yesterday overcame a brutal trip in the Starlet to run her record to four-for-five.

Chad Brown made a strong statement in support of his bid for a third consecutive Eclipse a week ago. He went out to California and swept a pair of Grade 1’s. For good measure, he added the Grade 1 Cigar Mile back home.

Bob Baffert, who took a Grade 3 in NY last Saturday, responded emphatically Saturday. He sent out runners to not only win 2018’s final Grade 1’s for juveniles, he ran one-two in the Cash Call Futurity and one-three in the Starlet.

The Cash Call is Baffert’s personal ATM. He’s won the last five. Game Winner has a lock on the Juvenile Eclipse but there are more than a few people who feel Cash Call winner Improbable might be his equal or better. Improbable was as impressive as Game Winner in galloping off with a minor stakes on the Breeders’ Cup Day of Stars undercard.

Saturday he gave additional credence to those assessments. The son of City Zip—perhaps the only reason to hesitate when projecting to the first Saturday in May—totally dominated his opposition, drawing off by 5. To be fair, he galloped out as if the Belmont distance won’t be an issue.

The only colt to offer mild resistance was his stablemate Mucho Gusto, who set the pace but gave way as if he were a workout target. This is not to disparage his ability. Given good health, there are Derby trail stakes with his name on them.

With the likes of Coliseum, touted as potentially the best of the barn, Roadster and a dozen more debut winners waiting their turn to shine, it’s not a crazy fantasy to envision Baffert starting the favorite in all five of the final 100-point Derby qualifiers.

Here’s another scary thought. At this point last year, Baffert seemed equally loaded—McKinzie, Solomini, et al--and no one had yet heard of Justify. The way Bullet Bob has been rolling out juvenile monsters, who knows what is still in the barn waiting to be unveiled.

Improbable was dominant but American Pharoah’s kid sister Chasing Yesterday was almost as impressive given the circumstances of her Starlet score. She was forced four wide around both turns.
Baffert said he didn’t think she could win off this trip. But she had enough guts and class to wear down a pair of game front-runners, Enaya Airabb and stablemate Mother Mother, who weren’t stopping.

New Grade 1 winner Chasing Yesterday is now four-for-five, the blemish coming at Saratoga. Maybe there’s something about the Spa that doesn’t agree with this family.

Viva Mexico, viva Gulfstream

Gulfstream can do no wrong. It took the Claiming Crown, a laudable concept that was on the verge of extinction, and turned it into a first-rate event. For an encore, it invited the Classico Internacional del Caribe to South Florida last year and it became a smash, as much a happening as a series of races featuring unknown horses to local bettors. Saturday, it came back and topped itself with $9.67 million in handle, up 9 percent from last year.

The strangers from nine nations put on quite a show. Mexican Triple Crown winner Kukulkan romped to his 14th win in a row in the feature, the Classico del Caribe. Without hardly breaking a sweat he got home by more than 10 lengths in the race billed as the Kentucky Derby of Latin America.

His stablemate in the Fausto Gutierrez barn, Jala Jala, who beat males in the Classico a year ago, became the first of her gender to add the Copa Confraternidad, a race also open to both genders, the following year. She appeared to be toying with her opposition as Irad Ortiz eased her home almost five lengths the best.

This is just one more example of how the notion that fillies are the weaker sex is preposterous and (dare I say it?) sexist. Enable in Europe, Winx Down Under, Almond Eyes in Japan and now Mexico’s Jala Jala; why can't America get it?

The way Kukulkan and Jala Jala were too much for their opposition you had to wonder how they would fare against first-rate competition in the U.S. Judging from their times, not very well. Kukulkan required 1:54.80 to get a mile and an eighth. Jala Jala took 2:08.46 to negotiate 10 furlongs. This is claiming horse time.

But as one of HRI’s cherished commentators likes to point out, they pay off on results, not style points.

Gulfstream general manager Bill Badgett was justifiably elated with everything about the day and said he hopes the Classico comes back to Gulfstream again some time.

Why not? Like the Claiming Crown, it is a day of nominal stakes races without having to dip into the genuine stakes pool, which will be taxed by Gulfstream’s ambitious program of added-money events.

There’s also the Ugly American factor to consider. The Classico program is cherished throughout the Latin American racing world because it is their big day. Too many trips to the U.S. could sour this affection..

Written by Tom Jicha

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