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, February 22, 2018

Here we go again with the curse of Apollo

Every spring, a precocious colt or two, who did not race as a juvenile, emerges to be the latest candidate to break the curse of Apollo, which dictates a horse must have raced as a 2-year-old to be a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender. For 136 years, the curse has not been conquered. The latest candidate is Justify from the Bob Baffert barn, who debuted Sunday with the fastest Beyer fig of his generation, 104, and was immediately put on the Triple Crown trail by Baffert.

Just when it looked like we were going to get by 2018 without having to mention the curse of Apollo, Bob Baffert rolled out a speedball named Justify. The son of Scat Daddy annihilated four rivals Sunday running seven furlongs in 1:21.86 for an eye-popping Beyer of 104, the top fig of the year for a Derby age colt.

Justify was no secret. Baffert, the clockers and their clients were laying in wait for him to debut. He was sent off at 1-2.

Baffert’s immediate reaction after the race was to announce Justify is on the Triple Crown trail. My immediate reaction was to scoff. How could a horse, who not only did not start as a 2-year-old—the curse goes back to 1882-- but didn’t make his debut until less than 11 weeks before the Derby be taken seriously? In all likelihood, the Derby would be the third or fourth start of his career.

Then I thought about it. Why not, if he has the ability? Big Brown essentially beat the curse with an even later start. Big Brown did have a start as a juvenile but it was on the turf on closing weekend at Saratoga. He crushed an MSW field and was tagged a future grass star.

Fate intervened. He wasn’t entered again until March 5 of his 3-year-old season at Gulfstream—in an entry level grass allowance. It rained and the race was shifted to the main track. Big Brown buried his competition and was immediately put on the Triple Crown trail.

Not even the dreaded 12 post going a mile and an eighth in the Florida Derby was a hindrance in his next start. He won for fun. It was on to Louisville, where he cruised in the Kentucky Derby, then did the same in the Preakness in career starts 4 and 5. Technically, he didn’t snap the curse of Apollo. Practically speaking, he did.

For the record, Todd Pletcher also has an Apollo-defying candidate, a colt named Magnum Moon, who has won his first two starts. Neither was as dazzling as Justify’s debut and, I mean this as a compliment, doesn’t Pletcher have one or two brilliant late arrivals every spring?

Baffert said he has a plan in mind for Justify. It would be surprising if this included tackling Eclipse champion Good Magic in Florida or Bolt d’Oro in California. But the Tampa Bay Derby, Louisiana Derby and Sunland Derby could be interesting targets, especially the latter since he probably wouldn’t be meeting any superstars and it wouldn’t be as taxing a ship.

Justify saved what was a disappointing weekend for Baffert. Mourinho bombed as a big favorite in the Southwest. Another highly touted sophomore, Zulfikhar, failed to hit the board in the race following the Southwest. Baffert did win a Cal-bred stakes with Heck Yeah but he’s destined for state-bred races, primarily on the turf even though Monday’s stakes was on dirt.

But Baffert is like Nick Saban in football and John Calipari in basketball. He doesn’t regroup. He reloads.

Too many stakes?

It seems as if as the foal crops decrease, the number of stakes races increase. Not surprisingly, tracks are having a difficult time filling some of them.

Saturday’s card at Gulfstream was supposed to have three stakes. The Hal’s Hope for older horses is the headliner. A pair of turf sprints for 3-year-olds, the open Texas Glitter and the Melody of Colors for fillies, were listed to support it. The Texas Glitter will go. The Melody of Colors won’t. It didn’t fill. Maybe it will be re-carded later. It's hard to believe a sprint on the grass would have a hard time drawing a decent field.

This is at least the second stakes of the winter that had to be scrapped. The Skip Away, a nine furlong event for older horses, didn't make it to the gate on Jan. 13. With the Harlan’s Holiday, Fred Hooper, Sunshine Millions and Pegasus all within a month or so of the Skip Away, this shouldn’t have been a surprise.

The number of stakes for older horses during the winter really needs to be re-examined. There just aren’t that many stakes-worthy horses available early in the year. The cream of the crop are pointed to the Pegasus and then the Dubai World Cup.

The winners of all three 2017 Triple events—Always Dreaming, Cloud Computing and Tapwrit—are training at Gulfstream or one of its satellite facilities. But it’s questionable any of them will find his way into the entries this season. The only realistic possibilities are a Grade 2 mile on the Florida Derby undercard or a specially arranged allowance race where they would be 1-20.

Any of them really would have dressed up Saturday’s Hal’s Hope. As it is, the stakes will still have some of its luster salvaged by the 2018 debut of Irish War Cry, hero of last winter’s Holy Bull and Wood Memorial and second in the Belmont. He hasn’t been out since September but Graham Motion said he’s ready, which is endorsement enough.

The price probably won’t be that short. Todd Pletcher is starting 2017 Rebel winner Malagacy and Send It In, who hasn’t been out since being credited with an otherworldly 119 Beyer in last April’s Excelsior. That number is suspiciously high, especially since it came after a pair of 97’s and a 96. Also the Excelsior was a mile and a quarter, a distance rarely run at the Big A, making comparisons a challenge. In any case, it knocked him out for the rest of the year. But fans likely will see Pletcher and 119 and head to the windows.

If Irish War Cry is close to himself, he might be decent value at 5-2/3-1.

Best laid plans

NYRA laid out a creative plan to lure Florida horses back north a little early this season. It offered to pay $1,500 in shipping expenses for horses who come up from Florida and start at least once during the Aqueduct spring meeting, which runs through the third week in April.

Alas, a quarantine of at least three weeks has been ordered for Barn 10 at Belmont after a filly trained by Tom Albertrani, Ladies Day, had to be euthanized after she was diagnosed with EHM.

NYRA is doing all the right things in keeping horses from that barn isolated from the general population and there’s still plenty of time to ship in for the bonus. However, late February, early March is when trainers are starting to map out their shipping plans. If any other horse tests positive for the disease, the quarantine clock starts anew.

If anything, the uncertainty might keep some horses in Florida longer than usual.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, February 15, 2018

Lessons to be learned from first half of Derby prep season

Kentucky Derby prep season turns a corner Saturday with the first 50-points to the winner race, the Risen Star. The early races have produced some promising new shooters but the big horses, Good Magic and Bolt d'Oro, are still ranked well above the rest in the opinion of the media and the betting public. But there are lessons to be learned from the early events that could prove profitable in the 17 remaining stops on the Derby trail.

Halfway through the Kentucky Derby qualifying process, nothing has significantly changed since the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

The leaders after Nov. 4, Good Magic and Bolt d’Oro, who finished one-two in the closest of the Eclipse categories, have yet to start since Nov. 4 at Del Mar. Nevertheless, they remain the horses to outrun for the roses, in the opinions of the media and betting public. Good Magic is atop the weekly NTRA poll and Bolt d’Oro still is second. In the latest Derby futures pool, which closed Sunday, the public made both exactly 8-1, the shortest odds of the individual contenders.

This pecking order is likely to hold for the rest of the month. Good Magic isn’t expected to make his 3-year-old debut until the March 3 Fountain of Youth. Bolt d’Oro has the March 10 San Felipe penciled in for his sophomore coming out party. McKinzie, the top new shooter who didn't make the BC Juvenile, also could run in that race.

The final two 10-point Derby qualifiers, the El Camino Real at Golden Gate and the Southwest at Oaklawn, will be run over the Presidents Day weekend. More significantly, the first 50-pointer, the Risen Star, will go Saturday at the Fair Grounds.

However only one of the top 10 in the NTRA poll, No. 5 Instilled Regard, is expected to be in action. With no ranking contenders to beat in the Risen Star, Instilled Regard has more to lose than gain in status. More on him shortly.

While the big picture is in a holding pattern, there are many useful hints for handicapping purposes from what has happened between early November and mid-February. Most notably, a gauge can be gleaned on which of the juvenile and early 2018 stakes have been productive and which might be over-rated. There will be only one Derby winner but bets will be taken on 17 preps in North America between now and April 14 and most will feature horses shipping in from other venues, so it’s useful to know how stakes stack up.

Instilled Regard comes out of what might be the toughest of the late 2017 juvenile stakes, the Los Alamitos Futurity. Solomini, who split Good Magic and Bolt d’Oro in the BC Juvenile, got to the wire first but was disqualified in one of those dubious California stewards’ decisions.

Stuck between horses in a three-way stretch battle and the one the stewards adjudged to be fouled in the San Felipe, Instilled Regard next shipped halfway across the country to the Fair Grounds and tallied a workmanlike victory against a decent field in the LeComte. He will take a lot of beating Saturday.

Principe Guilherme, second in the LeComte, also is coming back. Todd Pletcher has the stranger danger in Noble Indy, 2-for-2 at Gulfstream. His close victory margin in his most recent race is deceiving, according to Pletcher and Johnny Velazquez. Noble Indy is a fighter, a coveted trait for a Derby contender, and tends to relax when he hits the front. Todd and Johnny excel at working young horses through these quirks.

As seems to be the case every spring, Todd might have another one or two even better back in the barn. Audible unleashed an awesome turn of foot in winning the Holy Bull, brushing away Grade 1 winner Free Drop Billy, who looked like he was going to run past Audible at the top of the lane.

The Florida Derby is the next likely spot for the New York bred. He could go back to Aqueduct, where he is 2-for-2, for the Wood, but Pletcher has shown a preference for the five-week gap from the Florida Derby to Louisville as opposed to the four weeks from the Wood.

Baffert, who treats 3-year-old stakes at Oaklawn like annuities, is bringing back Smarty Jones winner Mourinho in the Southwest, where he is likely to hook up with D. Wayne Lukas’s Sporting Chance, idle since winning the Hopeful at Saratoga. Two turns off a six-month layoff could be a tough nut to crack for the Coach’s protege.

McKinzie, who was placed first in the Los Alamitos Futurity, made his official record 3-for-3 in crushing the Sham Stakes. Baffert has McKinzie and Solomini listed as possibles for the San Felipe but history teaches there is no way Baffert is going to have these two stars in the same starting gate before the first Saturday in May. One of them will be going out of town. Maybe both, if Baffert wants to duck Bolt d’Oro at Santa Anita.

A 2-year-old race I have been down on over the years, the Remsen, also is coming up as a key indicator of 3-year-old talent. Avery Island, second to Catholic Boy at Aqueduct in December, easily disposed of Champagne and Jerome winner Firenze Fire, in the Withers. Firenze Fire is one of only five Grade 1 winners and one of two sophomores to win two Derby points races (McKinzie is the other).

Catholic Boy got his campaign off to a promising start with a strong second to Flameaway’s stakes-record Sam F. Davis despite being forced wide on both turns. Catholic Boy lost more ground than his margin of defeat. The Florida Derby could be next for him, too.

Another one to keep an eye on out of the Sam F. Davis is Pletcher’s third-place finisher Vino Rosso, who was 2-for-2 going in. He labored between horses down the backstretch, looked like he was going to fall totally out of it on the turn, but rebroke to make up ground on Flameaway and Catholic Boy, who weren’t coming back. He's probably on a lot of "horses to watch" lists.

The Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes should be looked at warily when others out of that race show up in a Derby prep. The race came back slow and the one-two finishers, Enticed and Tiz Mischief, gave credence to this assessment when they were both beaten more than a dozen lengths in the Holy Bull.

Another BC stakes; why?

Though there was little demand or discussion in advance, the Breeders’ Cup has added still another stakes, the Juvenile Turf Sprint. This will make 14 for this coming fall’s renewal at Churchill Downs.

With turf sprints becoming more ubiquitous even for younger horses, the addition is easily defended although there has been no known clamor for it. The newest event seems aimed at attracting more Euros, where, of course, all sprints are on grass.

Meanwhile, most juvenile sprints in North America are conducted on the main track, so the Breeders’ Cup should take another look at a dirt sprint for 2-year-olds.

The Juvenile Sprint had a two-year trial in 2011 and 2012 but it wasn’t a fair one. The 2012 race was run under the admirable but misguided experiment with forcing juveniles in the Breeders’ Cup to race without Lasix. Horsemen staged a de facto boycott. Only five ran and the Breeders’ Cup was embarrassed when an eight-race maiden, Hightail, won the only race of his career.

However, the 2011 running was taken by Secret Circle, who beat eight rivals. Two years later, he went on to win the BC Sprint.

Nevertheless, under the guise that it detracted from the other juvenile events, the BC discontinued it after 2012. This rationale disintegrates with the newest race, which could be just as harmful to the Juvenile Turf and Juvenile Fillies Turf as a dirt sprint would be to the longer 2-year-old main track races.

Surely, there are more young horses ready to run six furlongs than there are for a mile and a sixteenth.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, February 08, 2018

Horse players rejoice! Your voices have been heard

The boycott of Keeneland that many said was a waste of time and effort has achieved its goal. Keeneland has caved and rolled back the takeout on WPS to pre-boycott levels for its spring meeting. Exactas also are returning to almost pre-fall meet levels. This is far more significant than victory over a single track. It sends a message to the entire industry that the days of horse players meekly accepting whatever is offered them are over. Elsewhere, a lot of Las Vegas sports books took a beating on Super Bowl Sunday. This should strike a cautionary note among those who thinks sports betting is the next panacea for race tracks.

Victory! Vindication!

Keeneland has caved to the horse player’s boycott many said was an exercise in futility with no chance to succeed. (You know who you are.)

Keeneland announced Wednesday that takeout on win-place-show wagers will be rolled back from 19 percent to 17.5 percent, the rate prior to the boycott. Exacta wagers will be charged at 19.5 percent, down from the 22 percent in effect for the first time at Keeneland’s fall meet.

Victory wasn’t total. It rarely is. In what could be argued is a face-saving move, exactas are still a half-point higher than prior to last fall. Takeout on other multi-horse wagers will remain at 22 percent.

This is the first time in memory a concerted action by horseplayers, with leadership from HANA (Horse Players Association of North America), has succeeded in getting a major racetrack to back off an increase in takeout. HANA President Jeff Platt reacted to the news. "All of us at the Horseplayers Association of North America would like to applaud Keeneland for its decision to partially reverse its 2017 takeout increase. This would not have happened without support from a lot of horseplayers."

Thanks to the boycott, Keeneland handle in the fall, which had been on a regular upward trend, declined 8.7 percent. There is no other reasonable explanation for the decrease since it came during a period when handle at other major venues was increasing, some by double digits. It could be some of that can be traced to wagering moving from Keeneland to other tracks.

Nevertheless, until Wednesday’s surrender, Keeneland maintained the boycott was ineffective. One sign that this was disingenuous came when Keeneland announced that all stakes at its upcoming spring meeting, with the exception of the Transylvania, which was bumped up $75K, would be run for the same purse as the previous year, a reversal of trends. Keeneland said the purpose of the increase in takeout was to raise purses.

The impact of Keeneland crying uncle cannot be overstated. It will have a chilling effect on any other race track that ponders raising its takeout. It also could signal a movement toward horse players being paid heed when it comes to matters effecting pricing.

For now, horseplayers can savor a victory that for the first time shows their voices can be heard when it is done as part of a concerted chorus.

Another Trojan horse?

The employee, who used to be the boss, and the boss, who used to be the employee, had a successful Super Bowl Sunday. So did a lot of people in Las Vegas, who sent it in, according to the LV Review-Journal.

The Sin City newspaper reported that the William Hill sports book empire endured a multi-million loss. CG Technology books were hit for a mid-six figure loss. Boyd Gambling and the Wynn also reported losses.

This should be a sobering reality for those in New Jersey and other states salivating over the possibility of the U.S. Supreme Court giving a green light to legal sports betting by this spring.

Here’s a basic tutorial most of you know, so I beg patience while I educate others not so tuned in to the inner workings of gambling. Race tracks can’t lose. They accept bets and pocket their takeout. Sports betting doesn’t work like this. The house can lose, as Sunday proved.

Over the long haul, sports books are on solid ground because of the “vig” tacked onto bets. It’s $110 to win $100 on football and basketball. Baseball, which doesn’t have point spreads, has its own complicated vig system. The key is to keep the money relatively equal on both sides.

This might not be easy in an area where the Giants, Jets and Eagles have rabid fan bases. If a couple of those teams have big seasons against the spread, the New Jersey books could get into trouble. If the New Jersey books have to raise the odds to achieve equality, sharp-shooters from around the nation will jump in.

Indeed, despite the losses posted by some operations, Nevada’s almost 200 sports books, which handled a record $158.6 million on the Super Bowl, had a combined profit of $1.17 million.

For all of 2017, Nevada sports books had a record “hold” of just over $250 million. Divide this by the 200 books and it comes to not much than a million bucks apiece before expenses. Granted some of the bigger outfits do a lot better. Conversely, some smaller operations slip into the red if enough games fall the wrong way.

The point is, sports betting might not be the panacea for New Jersey that advocates are predicting, especially when you consider more than a dozen states, including New Jersey's neighbors could piggyback onto New Jersey winning in the Supreme Court.

Also, sports betting revenue is not guaranteed as slots dollars are. Let’s say people in New Jersey are allowed to bet on next season’s Super Bowl. What happens if the players have another big day? Where is the money to cover those winnings going to come from? What happens to the racing purse accounts, which are supposedly going to be fortified by sports betting?

The likelihood of SCOTUS giving the green light to New Jersey caused me to reflect upon my own views. I realized I am guilty of something I have often accused many in racing of doing, putting my own self interest first. The fact that I like to bet on games blinded me to the downsides.

There is a very real possibility that legalized sports betting will be a dagger to the heart of racing. The impact of racetrack casinos underscores this. Promised to be a savior of racing, racinos have proven to be just the opposite.

They have cannibalized gambling dollars, which otherwise might have been spent on horses and are now going to the push-button bandits. They also have put tracks without casino subsidies in a precarious fiscal state because they can’t compete purse-wise with neighboring jurisdictions with racinos.

When states begin to withdraw the doles gambling has provided, a process that has already started, it will be Armageddon for racing as we know it. Sports betting could accelerate the time table.

People who like to gamble on sports have much more in common with horse players than slot players. In a vast number of cases, sports gamblers are horse players and vice versa.

Also, the migration of sports dollars from illegal bookmakers to race track sports books might not be as pronounced as proponents predict for one significant reason. Sports betting is cash intensive and bookmakers let you bet on credit. In many cases, they’re also more accessible. The big season for the Jersey shore, where Monmouth sits, is Memorial Day through Labor Day. The horses and crowds are gone after that.

Football, which attracts more action than the other sports combined, is just getting started in September. The second biggest betting event of every year, March Madness, also occurs outside the racing season. Monmouth is a long drive from the major population centers in the Northeast.

Let me reiterate. I hope sports betting gets the OK from SCOTUS. I hope it spreads as rapidly to other states, including Florida, as predicted. But I don’t see how it will help racing to any great extent, if at all, and it might actually hurt.

Written by Tom Jicha

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