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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Friday, March 22, 2013

Juvenile Stakes Poor Precursors to Derby Success

The new Kentucky Derby points system has taken a lot of heat, deservedy so. Supposedly changes will be made for year two. If Churchill Downs wants to do something dramatic, it should cease awarding points to any juvenile race. The one exception should be the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, whose prize should include an automatic qualifying berth in the Derby. If this isn't also the Eclipse champion, he, too, merits an automatic pass. Being a champion of a generation should matter. The total exclusion of turf races in the points system also needs to be re-examined. Animal Kingdom is as much a grass horse as he is a dirt horse and Barbaro went into the Derby with more starts on turf than dirt.

Miami, March 22, 2013--The Kentucky Derby points system, which ends its second phase this weekend, has been a more inviting target for barbs than Sarah Palin, including some from me. Inasmuch as Churchill Downs is promising that tweaks are going to be made, I have a few suggestions.

The allotment under fiercest attack deserves it. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile should be in a category of its own. The notion it is no more important than the Royal Lodge Stakes in England, the Grey Stakes in Canada, the Delta Jackpot on a bullring or a roster of other late-season 2-year races is wrong-headed.

The BC Juvenile should be a win-and-you’re-in. Many years, the winner is also the 2-year-old champion. Only one BC Juvenile winner has doubled in the Run for the Roses (Street Sense in 2006) but this is still a significant achievement, worthy of a berth in the Derby. I’ll take it a step further. If the BC Juvenile winner is not also the Eclipse winner, the champion, too, should be seeded into the Derby.

There would still be 18 or 19 other spots up for grabs. How many Derby winners do you suppose might be excluded, who wound up 19th or 20th on the points scale?

Conversely, I wouldn’t award points to any other 2-year-old stakes or even the runnersup in the BC Juvenile. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) the only 3-year-old in the Top 10 of the latest HRI poll, who was an outstanding 2-year-old, is Shanghai Bobby, the 2012 BC Juvenile winner and Eclipse champion.

As for shutting out the rest of the juvenile stakes, why not? Most recent Derby winners—e.g, I’e Had Enough, Animal Kingdom, Mine That Bird, Big Brown—have been on few Derby radar screens for their juvenile prowess.

It serves no purpose to go back too much further as horses are trained so differently now. Four or five races is considered a demanding campaign, so any analysis of form is based on samples too small to be meaningful.

Two-year-old stakes are fine conversation starters during racing’s hot stove period but rarely are precursors of Kentucky Derby success.

There is especially a tendency to get overly excited about late season 2-year-old stakes, especially those around two turns. There is no greater example of this than the Remsen, the first significant mile-and-an-eighth for 2-year-olds.

This year, as in many others, the Remsen is turning out to be an uber-negative key race. The top three finishers—Overanalyze, Normandy Invasion and Delhomme—catapulted toward the top of many preseason Derby rankings. Four months later, they might not even make the Derby field.

Overanalyze was fifth in a very ordinary (except for Vyjack) Gotham. Normandy Invasion was fourth in the Risen Star, which is also suspect since it was won by a 130-1 shot. Delhomme was 11th in the Rebel and is reportedly off the Derby trail.

Those who made the Remsen leap overlooked a basic handicapping rule. A race that produces a three-horse blanket finish probably is a race in which none are very special. This is true at every level.

Another consideration is the history of the stakes. The Remsen has been the source of a litany of 2-year-olds who have disappointed as 3-year-olds. In 2011, the top three were O’Prado Again, Souper Speedy and El Padrino.

The Remsen’s best recent year was 2010 when Honor and Serve outran Mucho Macho Man. MMM went on to finish third in the Derby but Honor and Serve didn’t win again until an allowance at Saratoga the following summer. For the record, the show spot in that Remsen went to Mountain Town.

Buddy’s Saint was all the rage after winning the 2009 Remsen. He ran ninth in his 3-year-old debut, the Fountain of Youth, then was never heard from again. The horses who finished closest to him in that Remsen were Peppi Knows and Citrus Kid.

The first three in 2008: Old Fashioned, Atomic Brain and American Dance.

The point is someone has to win this nine-furlongs-in late-November stakes. The really promising 2-year-olds are pointed toward the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile a few weeks earlier. The Remsen winner could be just beating the best of what’s left.

The Kentucky Jockey Club took a lot of heat at the end of last year because the Beyer figs identified it as an exceedingly slow race. The 3-year-old performances of the place and show horses, Frac Daddy and Dewey Square, have verified the figs.

Maybe the KJC winner, Uncaptured, can reverse this trend in the Spiral on Saturday. But given the price he is likely to go off, coming directly from a farm to a stakes, the value is in betting that he won’t.

The exclusion of all turf races from Derby points consideration also needs to be re-examined. Theoretically, this seems fair, since the Derby is a dirt race. Ergo, horses who perform well on that surface should get preference.

But Animal Kingdom is more than anything a grass horse and Barbaro was a two-time stakes winner on turf before he set foot on the main track in a race. Moreover, he went into the Derby with three turf races to two on dirt.

I’m not calling for all turf stakes to be treated equally on the points scale. But how about three grass races for 3-year-olds, one at Gulfstream, one at Santa Anita and one at the Fair Grounds, being given some Derby points consideration.

A seeming turf specialist, Rydilluc, could be a sleeper going toward this year’s Derby. His connections are putting all their eggs in one basket, the Blue Grass, which is often kind to turf-type horses.

I wish he had been included as a separate entry in the final Derby future pool, because if he runs in the Blue Grass the way I think he will, his price on the first Saturday in May will be appreciably shorter than it would have been in the futures pool.

Written by Tom Jicha

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