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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Monday, February 04, 2013

Florida Racing’s Future: Same Old Politics?

MIAMI, February 3, 2013--Chicago Mayor and former Obama White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel has a cynical political credo: Never let a good crisis go to waste. In other words, exploit an unfortunate situation to get something you couldn’t get under normal circumstances.

The urgency to enact tighter gun control laws in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy is an example. The National Rifle Association and Second Amendment absolutists make meaningful gun control all but unattainable. However, public dismay with the horrendous mass slaughters in Connecticut and elsewhere has generated new momentum for the effort to try to outlaw at least military-style weapons.

Under normal circumstances, Hialeah Park is dead as a thoroughbred race track. Gulfstream and Calder have carved up the calendar to ensure there are no open dates and Hialeah president John Brunetti said he has learned his lesson and will never again attempt to run a meet in conflict with either of the other two tracks. However, a looming crisis in South Florida racing could provide the impetus to resuscitate Hialeah through the back door.

At the tailend of the 20th century, state regulators became disgusted by the annual acrimonious battles between Miami-area racetracks and deregulated the dates. Tell us when you plan to run and we’ll rubber stamp it became the new state policy.

Ownership of Gulfstream and Calder has changed since then and their alliance teeters on the brink of disintegration. Gulfstream has filed to run year-round starting with the opening of its traditional winter season in December 2013. Unless this request is amended by the deadline at the end of February, a scorched earth showdown between the two tracks seems inevitable.

It almost happened in 2011, when Gulfstream decided it wanted to open in December rather than the customary first week in January. Calder initially refused to budge. It warned its horsemen, who make up almost half the fields for Gulfstream races, that any horse who left the stable area to race at Gulfstream would not be welcomed back. Gulfstream countered that it would build new stalls to accommodate horsemen stuck in this predicament.

Bellicose threats raged right up to the 11th hour and 59th minute when, miraculously, an agreement was reached. Gulfstream would open in December and Calder would be compensated by getting a few weeks in April, which had made up the tail of the winter season.

For Calder, this was akin to a department store giving up the month before Christmas for a month at another time of year. Churchill Downs Inc., Calder’s parent, obviously got something, probably something substantial. If it didn’t, it owes stockholders an explanation. However, the quo for the quid has never been disclosed. All that matters is, when the moment of truth came, Churchill Downs Inc. caved.

This emboldened Gulfstream owner Frank Stronach. Less than two years later, he is not satisfied with a bigger piece of the pie. He wants the whole pie. Calder/CD I have two options. Dig in and take a stand or fold again.

This brings us back to Hialeah. If neither Calder nor Gulfstream blink, chaos will ensue. The two tracks are only eight miles apart and the national shortage of horses is especially acute in South Florida outside the winter months when barn areas are swollen with snowbird horses.

Calder has had to cut back from six days a week to five, then four. Even with the lesser regimen, races with five or six horses are the rule. Two tracks racing head to head will split this inventory. Even with Gulfstream running only on weekends during what are now its off months, there wouldn’t be close to enough horses to go around.

This is not to mention the necessity to maintain two staffs of racing officials, gate crews, mutual clerks and the scores of other employees behind the scenes of a day at the races. Many who now fill these roles move seamlessly from Calder to Gulfstream and back.

The billion dollar Florida thoroughbred industry, the hundreds of farms it supports and the thousands of jobs it creates will be put into jeopardy. The state could not allow this to happen. The only solution would be for the state to get back into the business of assigning non-conflicting dates.

This is where Hialeah and its president John Brunetti will be waiting to take advantage of the crisis. Brunetti has been running a short quarterhorse meeting the past three winters for the sole purpose of qualifying for a casino license. But he aches to get back into thoroughbred racing, his true love as an owner, breeder and fan. You can expect him to go the legislature with a plea that state needs to find a place for Hialeah in any new racing calendar.

Brunetti, whose race track is located in an overwhelmingly Hispanic area, will be well armed with the support he has built within the potent Latin caucus in the legislature. Their numbers aren’t sufficient to get bills passed independently but they have enough strength to be able to swap votes with legislators from elsewhere in the state with local pet projects of their own.

Another argument Brunetti has used in the past might resonate well with Florida lawmakers, who can be embarrassingly parochial. He’s the guy who lives in Florida and has worked tirelessly to preserve a treasured landmark. Meanwhile, Gulfstream is owned by an absentee Austrian and Calder is controlled by an out-of-state conglomerate, which, despite its revered name in racing, seems to have become more concerned with casinos. It’s a low road approach but this has always been the most trafficked avenue in battles over Florida racing dates.

Rahm Emmanuel would be proud.

Written by Tom Jicha

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