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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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Friday, February 14, 2014


NYRA’s New Belmont Stakes Day: Feast or Famine?


MIAMI, February 14--The Belmont Stakes Day lollapalooza is a bold gambit. This will be one of the greatest days, if not the greatest day in racing history not called the Breeders’ Cup. NYRA should be applauded.

But it could be too much of a good thing. Coupled with two additional races on July 5—the Belmont Derby (nee Jamaica) and Belmont Oaks (nee Garden City)—fortified with million dollar purses during Belmont’s spring meeting, it could turn into an orgy of unjustified excess.

Come Belmont Stakes day, all will have a better idea whether or not a million-dollar purse guarantees a million-dollar field. Stakes can’t be turned into instant classics just by throwing money at them.


A rubber match between Princess of Sylmar, who should have won the 3-year-old filly championship, and Beholder, who did, would justify jacking the purse of the Ogden Phipps to $1 million. The greatest East-West showdown since Easy Goer vs. Sunday Silence also would be deserving of a day of its own. However, if only one of these great fillies makes the race, it will become such a non-event it will probably be scheduled early in the card to keep it out of the Pick Six.

The otherworldly purses are fueled by slots money. But several states and Canada have already begun to question the social justice of tens of millions going to racing that could be going to schools and infrastructure.

It’s one thing to pump up the Belmont Stakes. For more than a century, it has been an eagerly anticipated component of the Big Apple social calendar. But creating million dollar races just because you can is inviting scrutiny. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is no friend of racing and the new mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, is an avowed socialist.

What’s more, de Blasio made outlawing horse drawn carriages in Central Park one of his earliest goals. He says it’s inhumane. So you know where his head is when it comes to horses.

It’s a matter of when, not if, these politicians start making eyes at the slots funds allotted to horse racing.

I get the explanation that this is money that must be spent on purses--for now. It won’t necessarily be there forever, especially when such an ostentatious distribution by NYRA hands political opportunists powerful ammunition to snatch it away.

This also is a shot across the Breeders’ Cup bow. It’s a not very subtle message that enough is enough. If Southern California is awarded the 2015 Breeders’ Cup after three years at Santa Anita, NYRA is demonstrating that it is ready, willing and able to stage a competing championship event for horsemen in the East and Midwest. This is especially true if Del Mar and its synthetic main track get the 2015 nod.

Also, packing so many traditional late spring and early summer stakes onto one program could degenerate into egregious overkill. If a Triple Crown is on the line in the Belmont Stakes, you could card 12 supporting races of maiden New York bred claimers going five furlongs on the turf and there will be in excess of 100,000 people on the grounds.

With no Triple Crown at stake, anything more than half that audience will be a good day. Given the likely cost of admission for fans, it will be an exceptionally good day.

NYRA CEO Christopher Kay said during a teleconference that the prices had not been set and would be announced shortly. You have to be pretty gullible to take this at face value. With all the planning it took to put this day together, it would be irresponsible for the NYRA hierarchy not to have solid projections of what they can anticipate coming back.

When Kay said admission and seats would be comparable to the tariffs at the Derby and Preakness, it became clear he didn’t want the prices to become the story that day, which they would have.

Using the first two jewels of the Triple Crown as a gauge, fans can expect to have to come up with several hundred dollars for decent seats, more for good ones. General admission is likely to be in the $35-$50 range with the clubhouse roughly double. (Last year, it was $10 and $20). This will be just to walk in the door.

Kay is either a cockeyed optimist or delusional. He also said he envisions Belmont weekend filling hotel rooms in New York. Are there that many owners, trainers and jockeys? With simulcasting, ADWs and OTB, players have no compelling reason to travel, especially into the teeth of New York prices.

He also says he hopes to have European representation in the stakes. Good luck with that. The Belmont coincides with Royal Ascot. If NYRA does attract any Euros, it will be third stringers (who often are good enough).

Historic events such as the Met Mile as well as the Princess of Sylmar-Beholder showdown will be reduced to afterthoughts, no matter how heavily increased their purses. The Belmont will be the sole focus in the media and among fans. This will be true to a great extent even in the absence of a Triple Crown possibility. Ardent fans might relish the great afternoon of racing but to sports editors in the print and electronic media, the Belmont Stakes will be the story.

With all the great horses who run at Churchill Downs during Derby week and the lure of the richly endowed Belmont supporting card an ideally spaced five weeks later, I’d hate to be the racing secretary at Pimlico trying to put together the Preakness festival.

The creation of a super-sized Belmont Day almost comes across as an exercise in reverse psychology. “You know the first year we do something like this, there will be a Triple Crown possibility.”

We can only hope.

Written by Tom Jicha

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