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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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

It’s time for some colt to attack the Baffert inevitability

The traditional ‘who do you like in the Derby?’ conversation that dominates racing circles this time of year is being replaced by ‘which Baffert horse do you like?’ Baffert has the top two contenders in Game Winner and Improbable and Mucho Gusto might not be far behind them. It’s time for a 3-year-old outside the Baffert barn to assert himself and insert some uncertainty and fun into Derby run-up season.

I heard a lot of great Hollywood stories during three decades as a TV critic. Some were quite salacious. Of course, those were the ones I’ve repeated most to friends. But I’ve never found an appropriate reason to share one of the best with you. Until now.

Milton Berle, Mr. Television in the infancy of the medium, was legendarily well endowed, according to Hollywood lore. His pals talked so much about it people outside their immediate circle tired of hearing it. Some took it as a challenge to find someone bigger than Uncle Miltie.

They scoured Hollywood adult film sets until they found a guy so well equipped that if he was a horse he would have been syndicated. They goaded Berle’s buddies into serious bets that they could show the King of Television was no longer the biggest thing in Tinseltown. Berle was up for the challenge.

The upstart’s backers’ eyes bugged out of their heads in awe when he unwrapped his package. So sure they had a winner, they couldn’t understand why Berle’s side, who stood to lose a small fortune, started laughing hysterically and doing the 1950’s equivalent of high-fives. It quickly became clear.

“Milton, just show them enough to win,” they roared.

To bring this around to racing, even at this early stage, Bob Baffert might have already shown enough to win the Kentucky Derby. This would be without even unveiling his one-two punch of Game Winner and Improbable.

Mucho Gusto’s win in the Robert Lewis was his third in four starts, and best yet. The only horse to beat him to the wire is Improbable. I’m not putting Mucho Gusto under a garland of roses but at this point, he is a more logical winner than most. And, at least for now, he’s Baffert’s third string.

I have no problem with Baffert winning another Derby, even another Triple Crown, but his early season dominance is taking a lot of the fun out of racing’s most wonderful time of the year. This is why I hope someone, ideally more than one, jumps up in the next couple of weeks with a performance to put the Baffert inevitability into doubt.

Maximus Mischief looked like he could be that horse until his inexcusable dud in the Holy Bull. He’ll have to atone big time in the Fountain of Youth before he even belongs back in the Derby conversation.
He’s not even the most spectacular disappointment so far. This dishonor would have to go to the outlandishly over-hyped Coliseum. After another flop at odds-on in the San Vicente Sunday, Baffert has taken him off the Derby trail.

The winner, Sparky Ville, isn’t even under Derby consideration. He will be pointed for sprint stakes, according to trainer Jeff Bonde.

The same could be said of Sam Davis winner Well Defined, who is more likely to be a factor in the Pat Day Mile than the Run for the Roses. The Tampa Bay race did expose Knicks Go as a two-race flash in the pan last fall.

There are still some serious horses from last year who haven’t been heard from as sophomores. Ken McPeek, whose Harvey Wallbanger made some noise in the Holy Bull, has Signalman, third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, waiting in the wings. He might make his seasonal debut in the Fountain of Youth but that’s not definite, according to McPeek.

One of these days, Instagrand, whose iconoclastic owner Larry Best specializes in skipping races, will show up under silks again. It was supposed to happen in the San Vicente but Best made an 11th hour decision to skip that event, too. Even if Instagrand comes back with another 10-length tour de force, as he did twice as a juvenile, how excited can you get about a colt whose owner says he doesn’t believe in the Triple Crown?

War of Will, coming off a big win in the LeComte, could create some excitement Saturday if he can encore in the Risen Star, especially saddled with a post out in the Fair Grounds parking lot. But it is the Fair Grounds and history teaches Derby winners don’t come from Bourbon Street Adjacent.

The Southwest on Monday looks like a rerun of the Smarty Jones. If anyone was impressed by Gray Attempt’s win, they have not made themselves heard. He sits 16th, behind Maximus Mischief among others, in the weekly NTRA Derby poll.

At this point, the most exciting prospects are Hidden Scroll, whose maiden breaking debut on Pegasus Day was breathtaking, and Global Campaign, who demonstrated last Saturday that his big maiden win was not illusory. Enthusiasm for both has to be tempered until they run in a stakes, which might not be for almost a month or more.

Justify was barely known at this time last year, so there is still time for a new star to emerge. I just wish he would hurry up.

More dollars than sense

It must be nice to have more money than you know what to do with.

NYRA has demonstrated again that it feels burdened with this with the announcement it is putting up $5.25 million for a couple of new, richly endowed three-race series of turf races for 3-year-olds. The Turf Trinity for males offers $1 million for each of its legs. The Turf Tiara races are $750,000 apiece.

Both series launch on July 6 with the Belmont Derby and Belmont Oaks, races that already exist. The next segment is new stakes, which are being used to sandwich the Whitney and create a three-day weekend. The Saratoga Oaks is scheduled for Friday, Aug. 2. The Saratoga Derby heads that Sunday’s card. The series concludes on opening weekend of Belmont’s fall meet. The new Jockey Club Derby and Jockey Club Oaks are set for Sept. 7.

The concept for a series of grass races for 3-year-olds is solid, even if the opening round consists of established races. The idea for a three-day Whitney weekend is commendable. In the event the Belmont meeting has to be moved to Aqueduct because of the construction of the Islanders’ new arena, this would be a great way to call attention to the new agenda. However, it is inarguable that these races would be just as alluring to horsemen with half their purses.

One goal of the bloated purses is to entice Euros to come over. But these races fall in the heart of their season, so there is no shot at Europe’s finest. When, if ever, has the best of the continent showed up for the Arlington Million—or the Belmont Derby and Oaks? If anything, second- and third-stringers will be deployed.

When you are forced by law to spend casino money on purses. this is what happens. Laws can be changed and this one should be. Enough is enough. Owners, trainers and jockeys are already well taken care of by the casino dole. Besides the rich stakes, there is even a loyalty bonus for trainers of horses who fill the winter cards.

The only entity that hasn’t benefited a dime is the fans. It is unacceptable that with all the money NYRA gets from casinos, it still charges admission at Belmont and Saratoga.

Using the $5 million-plus for the new series and the ridiculously over-generous purse increases for other stakes, whose fields are no stronger than they were pre-casino, NYRA could wipe out admission charges in a show of appreciation for the fans without whom there would be no game.

At the very least NYRA could roll back the Christopher Kay increases at Saratoga, a license to print money meeting. If the goal of the new stakes is to attract fans to the game, this would be a far more effective and appreciated way to do it.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (23)


Thursday, February 07, 2019

Sports gambling could come to Florida through backdoor

By Tom Jicha

A successful amendment on November's ballot in Florida has made it difficult to impossible for any casino expansion in the state. This has been interpreted to include sports betting. But there are reasons to challenge that. Nowhere on the ballot was sports betting mentioned. State law demands amendments be spelled out clearly to voters. By any reasonable interpretation this was a bill to keep out new casinos. This is how media throughout the state presented it to readers and viewers. I couldn't find one editorial, pro or con, which included mention of sports betting. Moreover, the wording for the bill, which includes no mention of sports betting, was approved in January 2018.The Supreme Court didn't remove legal barriers until May. So there is no reason to conclude that those who constructed the amendment had anything but barring new casinos in mind.

New Jersey handled $34.9 million on the Super Bowl in its first year of legalized sports gambling. Not bad, even if it is about $65 million short of what was predicted.

For the record, the Garden State reported losses of $4.6 million as bettors hammered the Patriots minus 2, 2 ½ points. This figure is slightly misleading. What wasn’t reported was how much the various venues profited from other bets made Sunday, lodging (Atlantic City), food and drinks, etc.

Suffice it to say, it will not be necessary to stage any bake sales to bail out the legal bookmakers. In fact, they probably gained many times $4.6 million in positive publicity. Nothing will bring out future crowds more than “players win, house loses” tales.

What a pity New York, Florida and California are still shut out of sports betting. This is especially true in Florida. Super Bowl LIV will be played at Dolphin Stadium, walking distance from Calder’s casino and eight miles west of Gulfstream, where there is likely to be an alluring weekend of racing.

It’s almost certain Pegasus Day will be moved in 2020 from the bye weekend between the NFL conference championship games and the Super Bowl to the day before the big game to take advantage of the tens of thousands of fans, celebrities and media, who will be in town. The sky is the limit for how much they might bet on the game and, while they are there, racing.

Gulfstream has fallen into a natural connection. Its entertainment area near the top of the stretch where Snoop Dog performed on Pegasus Day is called LIV. The track can boast it must be related to the Super Bowl because they share a common last name. The NFL might bristle but Gulfstream can demonstrate beyond dispute it had LIV first.

Alas, Amendment 3, a misleading referendum bankrolled by Disney and Indian casinos, which passed in November, forbids any expansion of casino gambling in the state and has been interpreted to include sports betting.

A referendum to counteract it, which couldn’t be on the ballot until November 2020 anyway, would need 60 percent approval. Given the money Disney and the Indians would again pour into any such referendum, this is as unlikely as the Pegasus being snowed out.

But there could be a loophole. Isn’t there always?

I scrutinized the amendment and it specifically and repeatedly references “casino gambling.” There is not a word about sports betting.

Moreover, citizens, who signed the petition to get it on the ballot, had no reason to think it had anything to do with sports betting. Amendment 3 was certified to have attained the necessary 766,200 signatures in January 2018. The Supreme Court didn’t overturn the federal law prohibiting sports betting until four months later.

Here is how Amendment 3 was summarized for voters as they cast their ballots.

“This amendment ensures that Florida voters shall have the exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling by requiring that in order for casino gambling to be authorized under Florida law, it must be approved by Florida voters.”

It also defines casino gambling. Here, too, there is no mention of sports betting.

“Casino gambling means any of the types of games typically found in casinos and that are within the definition of Class III gaming in the Federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act…This includes, but is not limited to, any house banking game, including but not limited to card games such as baccarat, chemin de fer, blackjack (21), and pai gow (if played as house banking games); any player-banked game that simulates a house banking game, such as California black jack; casino games such as roulette, craps, and keno; any slot machines as defined in 15 U.S.C. 1171(a)(1); and any other game not authorized by Article X, section 15, whether or not defined as a slot machine, in which outcomes are determined by random number generator or are similarly assigned randomly, such as instant or historical racing. As used herein, casino gambling” includes any electronic gambling devices, simulated gambling devices, video lottery devices, internet sweepstakes devices, and any other form of electronic or electromechanical facsimiles of any game of chance, slot machine, or casino-style game, regardless of how such devices are defined under IGRA. As used herein, “casino gambling” does not include pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing, dog racing, or jai alai exhibitions.”

Do you see anything relating to sports gambling? I have never heard sports betting referred to as a casino game nor is it a game of chance.

Newspapers and electronic media referred to it as a control on the expansion of casino gambling, not as a prohibition of sports gambling.

To reiterate, the wording was composed well before the Supreme Court removed the prohibitions on sports betting.

The passage opponents of sports gambling would likely seize upon in any legal challenge are “house banked game,” which sports betting is.

However, Florida has a law that amendments have to be in clear language. It seems any reasonable interpretation of this bill refers to table and slots games “typically found in casinos.” In January 2018, sports betting was not only not typically found in casinos, it wasn’t found at all in any of the state-sanctioned non-Indian casinos outside Nevada.

So a legal challenge might be worth a shot. Maybe the Indians could be coaxed to join in, since Indian casino exclusivity is safeguarded by Amendment 3 and sports betting might help their business.

This is Florida, where well placed political donations can get almost anything done. The state somehow found a way to give Hialeah a casino even though the amendment legalizing casinos in South Florida specifically omitted it.

This is also a state that found a way to sanction barrel racing, the same two jai alai players throwing the pelota around against each other several times a day and two sorry horses cantering down the stretch of Hialeah race track every half-hour sufficient to qualify for a card room and/or casino.

The annual legislative session is about a month away. If any of the legal gambling establishments want to take a shot, now is the time to get their legal briefs and political contributions ready.

The alternative, given the low odds of a successful petition drive, is to forget sports gambling forever.

© Tom Jicha 2019

Written by Tom Jicha

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Sunday, February 03, 2019

Derby preps show there’s Baffert and then everyone else

Saturday's trio of Kentucky Derby preps confirmed what has been fairly obvious.The Run for the Roses goes through Bob Baffert's barn. Mucho Gusto, considered no better than Baffert's third string, dominated the Robert B. Lewis at rainy Santa Anita. Among those trailing him home was Sham winner Gunmetal Gray, who is probably the top colt on the left coast not in Baffert's barn. At Gulfstream, the wheels came off the Maximus Mischief bandwagon in the final stages of the Holy Bull as 29-1 Harvey Wallbanger ran by the previously unbeaten, untested colt. To add insult, a 129-1 shot beat MM for the place. The Withers was a good horse race, with three together on the wire, but is unlikely to produce a serious player for rich races down the road.

Bob Baffert probably slept very well Saturday night even with heavily favored McKinzie’s failure to hold off Battle of Midway late in the San Pasqual.

Saturday was all about Kentucky Derby hopefuls and if nothing else, the three preps established that Baffert's third-string is superior to anyone else's first string.

With his one-two punch of undefeated colts, Game Winner and Improbable, relaxing in their stalls, Baffert sent out Mucho Gusto to a workmanlike triumph in the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita. In winning for the third time in four starts, Mucho Gusto has been beaten to the wire only by Improbable.

Mucho Gusto's most immediate victim was Gunmetal Gray, who had moved to the head of the non-Baffert West Coast class last month winning the Sham, beating among others Baffert's ridiculously over-hyped Coliseum.

Gunmetal Gray put in his characteristic game effort, closing from last, a style which is exciting to the eye but doesn't often get the money in the biggest stakes. He’ll be a factor wherever he goes but Jerry Hollendorfer ought to send him someplace Baffert’s stars aren’t. Then again, Bullet Bob has so many stars, it might be hard to do that.

Although there is no reason to diminish Mucho Gusto's ability, the soupy texture of Santa Anita's main track after a night and day of torrential rain mitigates against reading too much into the result other than Mucho Gusto would be the standout in any other barn.

Getting back to ridiculously over-hyped colts (I am guilty), Maximus Mischief, the colt Baffert had to be most concerned about in the East, came up flat in the stretch of the Holy Bull, settling for third in not the strongest renewal of the stakes ever.

The winner, 29-1 Harvey Wallbanger, had only a maiden victory in four starts and Everfast, who got up for the place in the final strides, was a well deserved 129-1 after being beaten more than 80 lengths in five starts since breaking his maiden at Ellis Park.

Maximus Mischief had no excuses. Jose Ortiz had him in the dream position most of the way, second with daylight in front of him and daylight behind him. The fractions were reasonable—23.18, 46.76, 1:10.89. Nevertheless when Ortiz asked his colt to pick it up going to the turn, he took forever to close on pace-setter Epic Dreamer, who was coming out of a sixth in the Springboard Mile at Remington Park.

The effort took so much out of Maximus Mischief, who was turning back from the Remsen’s 9 furlongs, that he had nothing left to hold off Harvey Wallbanger and Everfast.

Butch Reid speculated MM might have been a little short of conditioning, having not raced since Dec. 1. But prior to the race, Reid said, “No excuses.” The same could be said after he checked in third.

Harvey Wallbanger could be one of those horses who makes a big leap from 2 to 3. His juvenile races were all solid, although you have to look warily at any horse who finishes second in three straight races. Ken McPeek said his colt learned his lessons from those efforts. He did get the money in his final start in Kentucky.

McPeek and Reid said the Fountain of Youth on March 2 is a possibility. However, McPeek has Signalman being pointed for that spot and said he wants to keep the two colts apart.

Even more disappointing (for everyone but Baffert) were the performances of Mucho Macho Man winner Mihos, who never got involved and finished fifth, and Todd Pletcher’s two-for-two Federal Case, who was tipped before the race as training exceptionally well. He beat only two of the nine.

The Withers in New York didn't seem like it would be a significant stop on the Derby trail and it lived down to this billing. Only three horses did any serious running—former claimer Tax, who went favored at 2-1, New York bred Not That Brady and Our Braintrust--and they finished lapped on each other at the wire. Tax, who managed to slip up the rail after a ground-saving trip, had a head on Not That Brady, who had a neck on Our Braintrust.

When three horses finish that close, it's either a very special race or just a race. The Withers was not a very special race.

Pletcher had another bust, Moretti, who went off a very close 2-1 second choice off a second in his debut followed by a convincing maiden breaker. Saturday, he beat one horse.

On the way out, another media member asked me, “Who’s Pletcher’s top Derby horse now?”

Without attempting sarcasm, I replied, “I don’t know that he has one.”

Positive Feedback

The most impressive performance Saturday at Gulfstream was turned in by Chad Brown’s 3-year-old filly Feedback. Brown said before the race that he didn't have her fully cranked for the Forward Gal, her first race since a sensational maiden-breaker at Saratoga.

The three-time Eclipse winning trainer estimated Feedback was at about 80%. Heaven help the rest of her generation when the other 20% kicks in.

Feedback toyed with a field of accomplished fillies, who took turns taking shots at her. She broke alertly and went to the lead. Fashion Faux Pas, coming off a five-length romp in Tampa's Sandpiper, charged up the rail in a full drive and briefly went past her.

This lead lasted only as long as Irad Ortiz Jr. on Feedback wanted. As soon as he let his filly go, she dusted Fashion Faux Pas like flicking dandruff off a collar.

Bye Bye J was up next. She took her shot on the turn and looked like she was going to go by Feedback. Ortiz gave Feedback a little nudge and that part of the race was over, too.

Champagne Anyone was the final one to take a shot, rushing up the rail late but her rally was an optical illusion as Ortiz allowed Feedback to cruise to the wire.

Brown said he ran Feedback at less than her best because he had to get her started if she is to make the Kentucky Oaks. "She's that good."

No one who witnessed the Forward Gal would dispute this.

Written by Tom Jicha

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