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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Thursday, October 08, 2015

Last year’s BC winners an under-achieving group

It might be a good idea to draw a line through last year's winners when handicapping the 2015 Breeders' Cup. Lady Eli was 3-for-3 this season but none of the other nine who returned managed to win more than once. Three were shut out. On the good news front, Gulfstream ended its second unopposed summer meeting with handle up more than 11% then topped itself with an opening day at Gulfstream West (Calder) that was up 87% from a year ago.

MIAMI, Oct. 8, 2015--A handicapping theory that has come into vogue in the era of the Breeders’ Cup is to look past horses, especially the winners, in their first race after the Breeders’ Cup. They are almost always short prices and their success rate is so low, it’s a losing proposition to back them. Last year’s group has taken this to new extremes.

Ten of the 13 winners of 2014 Breeders’ Cup races returned to race in the United States this year. (Fillies and Mares Turf champion Dayatthespa and Dirt Mile winner Goldencents were retired and Mile upsetter Karakontie went back to Japan.)

Juvenile Fillies Turf winner Lady Eli was the valedictorian of the class, winning all three of her 2015 starts before going to the sidelines with an injury that became life-threatening when it was compounded by the onset of laminitis. The good news is she is making a remarkable recovery.

Not one of the other nine won more than once. Classic winner Bayern was a spectacular flop, turning in as many last-place performances (two) as he did third-place finishes, the best he could get from five starts. I continue to want to believe karma came into play.

Filly & Mare Sprint winner Judy the Beauty and Turf Sprint hero Bobby’s Kitten are also winless, the former from three starts, the latter from two, most recently last Saturday’s Shadwell Mile, in which he struggled home ninth.

Untapable has a superior record to Bayern but she also ranks as one of the biggest disappointments of the year. Unbeatable against her own gender as a 3-year-old, including a triumph in the BC Distaff, she can’t seem to get the job done this year.

The only time she got home first was in the Apple Blossom. It’s a bad sign that she has four seconds and a third since, inasmuch as she had every chance to win those races. Off all those close calls, she’s likely to take the most money of last year’s winners when she seeks a repeat in the Distaff. However, it’s hard to get excited about a filly who seems to have lost her will to win. Maybe she misses Rosie Napravnik.

Turf champion Main Sequence got his 2015 campaign off to a strong start with a score in Gulfstream’s Mac Diarmida last winter. Next he was shipped to Dubai. As often happens, he was never the same. After a seventh in the Sheema Classic he came back to Monmouth and ran seventh again in the United Nations, the stakes that launched his undefeated Eclipse winning year in 2014. He was retired after that race.

Juvenile Fillies winner Take Charge Brandi also looked like she was going to pick up where she left off. She started her 3-year-old season with a win in the Martha Washington at Oaklawn. It would be the last race she would win. Sidelined several months by injury, she returned in August to run tenth in the Test then 11th in the Cotillion, in what would be the last race of her career.

Take Charge Brandi’s male counterpart, Texas Red, had an injury plagued season and won only once in four starts. But it was a big one, the Jim Dandy. He couldn’t reproduce that effort in the Travers and also has been retired.

An overseas trip might also have had a negative effect on Juvenile Turf winner Hootenanny. After winning an allowance prep at Keeneland, he was shipped to England where he came home 11th in the Commonwealth Cup at Ascot. He hasn’t been seen since.

Sprint winner Work All Week has one win in four starts, the ungraded Sen. Robert C. Byrd Memorial at Mountaineer. But he might have the best chance of all to repeat off his better-than-looked third in Keeneland’s Phoenix last week.

Take away Lady Eli’s undefeated record and the Breeders’ Cup Class of 2014 has produced six wins from 32 starts, a decent resume for a claimer but not for horses who less than a year ago qualified as America’s best.

Gulfstream is magic

The Gulfstream brand continues to be magical. Savvy management, which is willing to try new things, is a big part of it.

On the heels of a summer meet in which handle increased more than 11 percent, opening day at the Gulfstream West (Calder) meeting was an even bigger success with wagering up 87% from last year’s opening.

Also, the introduction of three new bets—a rolling Super Hi 5, an additional Pick 5 on the first five races and a $5 quiniela on the last race--were well received. All are candidates to be added to the wagering menu when the prime Gulfstream meeting opens Dec. 5. (I might tackle the Pick 5 but the other two do little for me. I'm interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments section.)

The amazing aspect of this success is Gulfstream managed to do it despite the concerted efforts of Churchill Downs to sabotage the meeting.

Churchill ruled most of the grandstand off limits last year. This year, it went all the way and closed the entire building to the public for no good reason other than it could. Seeking to outdo itself every year, Churchill has announced plans to demolish the building after this season. So next year, the Calder site could be a construction zone. You get the feeling that if Churchill knew how to create sinkholes, it would do that, too.

Bettors were herded into a couple of large tents on the track apron. That’s non-air conditioned tents. It was a typical 90 degrees on opening day.

One small restroom building and one permanent concession stand, both near the paddock were available. Simulcasting was limited to tracks whose race cards ended proximate to the last race at Gulfstream West/Calder.

Gulfstream, which has almost no control over the situation, encouraged fans to come to the mother track only eight miles away where the building is air conditioned, restrooms and concession stands are plentiful and simulcasting from throughout the country is offered from noon through almost midnight.

The sham meeting is a product of the agreement between the Stronach Group and Churchill Downs Inc. to end head-to-head racing and give Gulfstream unopposed dates year-round. Gulfstream had to agree to run eight weeks a year at Calder to fulfill the state requirement for Churchill to keep its casino at Calder even though CDI has absolutely nothing to do with the meeting.

It’s infuriating that this makes a mockery of at least the spirit of the casino law. The only consolation is anything that separates Churchill Downs from racing is a good thing.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, October 01, 2015

Jockey Club Gold Cup is an Effinweak race

The Jockey Club Gold Cup used to one of the most important races on the national calendar, often the decisive event for year-end titles. Not this season. The best in the East, Honor Code and Liam's Map, are skipping it to prep in other ways for the Breeders' Cup. American Pharoah and Keen Ice are also training up to the Breeders' Cup. Defending champion Tonalist is nothing like the horse who won last year. Meanwhile, it's possible that last weekend produced three or four Breeders' Cup winners.

MIAMI, Oct. 1, 2015--Figure this one out. The “big” horse scheduled to run on Belmont’s Far From Super Saturday is Honor Code. His race, the Kelso, has been scheduled as the fifth on the card.
I get it (but don’t agree) that in contemporary racing building a big Pick 6 pool is a priority but seven horses have been entered in the mile.

Honor Code will be a solid favorite but is far from a bingo free space in multiple-race wagers. Todd Pletcher scratched Mylute out of a stakes last Saturday at Churchill Downs named for the mentor he reveres, D. Wayne Lukas. He knew Honor Code would be in the Kelso.

White hot Cristophe Clement brought Red Vine back from the West Coast, where he probably would have been among the top three betting choices in the Awesome Again, also aware Honor Code was pointing for the Kelso.

If these world class trainers think it's worth taking a shot against Honor Code, that’s good enough for me.

Moreover, Shug McGaughey has made it clear the Kelso is merely a prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Meanwhile, the Jockey Club Gold Cup is keeping the featured 10th race slot, within the Pick 6, in spite of only six entrants and being arguably the least attractive million dollar race in history.

Defending champion Tonalist has won once in four starts this year, his season-opener in May. His competition includes Wicked Strong, zero-for-six this season, and Constitution, who won the Donn last winter at Gulfstream, the only track over which he has ever won. Then he was off for seven months before running fifth in his Gold Cup prep.

Coach Inge is two-for-six, with the wins in an allowance race and the Brooklyn, at the specialty distance of a mile and a half. Looks to Spare, a former (and likely future) claimer, ships in from Mountaineer.

Effinex is the over-achiever with three wins. This makes this renewal of the Gold Cup an Effinweak race.

Looking ahead by looking back:

The unthinkable little more than a month ago has become a realistic possibility. Beholder could go favored over American Pharoah in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

I’m not predicting this. American Pharoah is still the public’s horse. He drew 15,000 to see him gallop at Saratoga. No disrespect to Beholder but I doubt she has ever attracted 15 fans to see her work.

Also, there are a lot of amateurs playing the game on Breeders’ Cup Saturday. Even if Beholder is not the betting choice, the spread will be closer than anyone would have imagined after the Triple Crown winner made a shambles of the Haskell the first week in August.

I won’t be on the Beholder bandwagon. It has nothing to do with gender. I’ve often written that the only reason females beating males in America is a big deal is because it is so infrequently attempted. Gender is not even a handicapping consideration in Europe. The top distaffers beat males regularly.

In my opinion, there are at least a couple of horses American Pharoah has been facing—Keen Ice and Frosted, for starters-- who could have thrashed the same fields Beholder has been crushing on the West Coast, the only place she has ever won. Honor Code could also jump ahead of Beholder in my rankings if he runs big in the Kelso.

Beholder’s huge win in the Pacific Classic was diminished in the faux Grade 1 Awesome Again. Smooth Roller’s biggest previous credential was a nose win in an entry-level allowance. He subsequently failed to hit the board in a minor ungraded stakes at Del Mar. Four of the seven horses he beat Saturday came out of Beholder’s Pacific Classic.

It’s too bad Rachel’s Valentina is skipping this weekend’s Frizette and Alcibiades and will train up to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. Cautious Todd didn’t want to run her back so quickly out of the Spinaway, which was only two months ago.

Had Rachel‘s Valentina run her record to three-for-three in one of the final BC preps, the most anticipated race of Breeders’ Cup Friday would have been her Juvenile Fillies showdown with California sensation Songbird. It’s still a race to look forward to but unless hopeless romantics tilt the toteboard backing the daughter of Rachel Alexandra, the still untested Songbird will be a deservedly solid favorite off her romp in the Chandelier.

Swipe, who just missed soiling Nyquist’s unbeaten record in the Frontrunner, will be the wise-guy horse in the BC Juvenile. He was intimidated if not fouled by Mario Gutierrez in the stretch and when he got room galloped out better than the winner. However, Saturday was the third straight time Swipe ran second to Nyquist. What’s that they say about doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?

Unless Untapable reverts to her unbeatable 3-year-old form in Keeneland’s Spinster, the BC Distaff will be a good betting race but nothing to get excited about aesthetically. Wedding Toast showed she is at the top of her game running away with the Beldame. However, even though she has won around two turns she strikes me as better around a single turn.

Also she might be a New York specialist. She’s seven-for-eight with a second on NYRA tracks, one for three with a third and a fourth away from NYRA tracks. The one was in a $60K stakes-in-name-only event at Gulfstream early last winter.

Vosburgh winners have a miserable record in the BC Sprint. There hasn’t been a horse to pull off the double in this millennium. But Rock Fall is as game as they come. He looked beaten in the Vanderbilt at Saratoga but fought back to get his nose in front at the wire. He appeared to have no chance to hold on in early stretch on Saturday with challengers sandwiching him but fought to the wire to prevail. Whoever beats him at Keeneland gets the money.

Santa Anita’s Rodeo Drive has an even bleaker record in the BC Distaff Turf. Under its current name and the previous Yellow Ribbon, its winner has never repeated in the BC. This is not likely to change this year.

Photo Call was no better than a Grade 3 winner in the East and it took an almost perfect trip to get her first Grade 1 Saturday. It requires a vivid imagination to see her beating the Euros as well as whoever emerges from Saturday’s Flower Bowl, a far superior bunch to the Rodeo Drive group.

With three horses on the wire and the fourth-place finisher less than another length back in the grassy Pilgrim, this is either an exceptional group of 2-year-old male turfers or a well-matched bunch of unexceptional horses, who would have to really step it up to compete with the Euros in the Juvenile Turf. I’m going with the latter supposition.

On the other hand, Tin Type Girl has the look of this year’s Lady Eli. She unleashed a Euro-like turn of foot in taking the filly counterpart, the Miss Grillo, running the final 2 ½ furlongs in under 29 seconds and more than a half-second quicker than colts the day before despite going four wide around the turn and into the stretch.

The daughter of Tapit got the money by only a nose over but she gave away several lengths to runner-up Thrilled, who was glued to the inside from a few strides out of the gate to the payoff pole.

In closing…

What were bettors thinking taking 1-10 on the Beholder-Songbird daily double? The payoff, 20 cents less than Songbird paid to win, wasn’t a surprise. The DD will pays leading into the Zenyatta showed $2, so the maximum potential payoff was $2.80.

What were Bayern’s connections thinking in taking two days after the Awesome Again to officially retire the Breeders' Cup Classic champion. He should have been taken off the track after last-place finishers in his first two 2015 races. “He didn’t want to run,” jockey Martin Garcia said, a statement that has been true all year.

What were the fans, who made him 6-5 off that dismal record, thinking?

What was I thinking, allowing myself to get suckered into the conventional wisdom that the lack of a contested pace made him worth singling in a Pick 4?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Efforts to tighten medication rules are at the mercy of horsemen

The campaigns to ban race day medication and create a testing system overseen by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency are doomed to frustration unless a way is found to remove the ability of horsemen to shut down simulcasting, a hammer they have shown they are not averse to using. Also, Saturday opened my eyes to someone who, based on recent history, might be among the greatest trainers who ever lived.

MIAMI, Sept. 22, 2015--The Water, Hay, Oats alliance and others campaigning for the elimination of race day medications and the adoption of the Barr-Tonko Horse Racing Integrity Act of 2015, which would turn over drug testing to an organization created by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), are wasting their time.

They have no shot at achieving their goals until they win a more important and probably more difficult battle. They must get the provision in the Interstate Horse Racing Act of 1978, which gives horsemen’s groups the ability to shut down simulcasting, overturned.

It was well intentioned when it was included in the bill. It protects horsemen from tracks relying on out of market signals to run roughshod over the people who put on the live show. Alas, it has been egregiously abused to the point where it has become almost government sanctioned extortion. “Give us our way or we will shut you down.”

In 1978, few foresaw this becoming an issue. Simulcasting was a novelty, a chance for fans to bet on horses beyond the perimeter of their local track. This was especially appealing to fans at minor circuits, who suddenly could bet on the big races from New York, Kentucky, Florida and California. It was also a tool to counter the argument that racing was boring because there is nothing to do during the half-hour between races.

Nevertheless, many tracks dragged their feet on implementation. New York offered an extremely limited menu of out of town tracks. So did Calder in South Florida. Some states put a cap on the number of out-of-state races that could be imported.

As often as has been the case in racing, it took the fans to lead the tracks. Bettors couldn’t get enough simulcasting. They demanded with their betting dollars as many signals as could be brought in. Simulcasting evolved into the backbone of the sport. Millennials, the prized demographic du jour, don’t know the racing world without it. If simulcasting suddenly disappeared, so would many tracks.

The simulcasting provision in the IHRA of 1978 gives horsemen’s groups the power to make it disappear. I can’t imagine this was the intention of the framers of the bill.

This is not an argument in the abstract. As recently as a week ago, the Ohio HBPA used its power to shut off simulcasting at Thistledown. It was the second time in three years this has happened. The dispute was over something I would argue is important but not dire enough to take such drastic action. The Ohio HBPA says it has a contract that calls for 1050 stalls. Only 1020 were available.

A shortfall of less than 3% was enough for the horsemen to attempt to cripple the track.

This isn’t an isolated incident. It has been used several times, including on racing’s biggest stage.

The Breeders’ Cup attempted to take the lead on the Lasix issue. It decreed the anti-bleeding medication would not be permitted in the 2-year-old stakes starting in 2013 and it would be banned in all Breeders’ Cup races in 2014, which were scheduled for Santa Anita.

California horsemen countered that if the Breeders Cup tried to enforce this edict, it would withhold permission for Santa Anita to simulcast the championship races. Breeders’ Cup understandably backed down. Even the 2014 juvenile races permitted Lasix. There has been no attempt, nor is there likely to be in the foreseeable issue, to resurrect the issue. What's the point as long as horsemen have the hammer they do.

The hope that horsemen in other jurisdictions might have different attitudes were dashed as recently as a week ago. Kent Stirling, a level-headed leader of the Florida HBPA , took a survey of his membership, more than a thousand horsemen, about their attitude toward race day Lasix. He said it was in response to allegations that HBPA leaders don’t always reflect the views of their members. The results were as one-sided as an Iranian election.

More than 90 percent of the respondents said they favor race day Lasix. Fewer than 10 percent are opposed. Not surprisingly, Stirling interpreted this as a clear mandate. He was quoted in the Blood Horse saying, “The vocal minority makes a lot noise with no surveys to back up their assumptions but now the silent majority has had an opportunity to speak and they have spoken loud and clearly.”

So unless and until the powers-that-be in racing devise a way to get Congress to repeal horsemen’s ability to knock out simulcasting, all efforts to eliminate race day medication are an exercise in futility.

The greatest ever

Parx is not a regular part of my betting agenda. So I wasn’t aware that one of the greatest trainers who ever lived plies his trade there.

I’m talking about Ramon Preciado, who’s winning at an other worldly 31% clip in 2015. For perspective, Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert, with barns loaded with the finest horseflesh in the world, have a 24% strike rate. Bill Mott hits at 20%.

Preciado’s stats aren’t from a small sample. He has had about 400 starters this year.

The win rate stats don’t tell the entire story.Preciado is primarily a claiming horse guy. But he proved Saturday he can crank them up in stakes, too, sending out Trouble Kid to upset the Grade 3 Gallant Bob.

John Pricci touched on this in his Monday column. I’d like to add some depth. Trouble Kid broke in for $12.5K maiden at Calder and Gulfstream last fall, rock bottom. He managed a fifth and a second with 23 and 56 Beyers.

He changed barns for his next start in March and ran third for $25K maiden but his Beyer declined to 48. He didn’t resurface again until July 5 at Parx in a $15,000 maiden claimer. He ran second and delivered a 59 Beyer.

Preciado claimed him from that race. He ran him back on July 25 in a $25K maiden claimer. Trouble Kid freaked. He won by more than 16 and exploded to a 90 Beyer. He was even better a month later in a modest allowance. He won by 9 and his Beyer jumped again to 93. Act 3 was the Gallant Bob.

A reader commented that Trouble Kid was gelded after Preciado acquired him. According to the Racing Form, he was gelded on July 25. This is the same day he ran first time for Preciado so it’s probably the day he was reported as a gelding. If this “equipment” change is responsible for the turnaround, we might be looking at another Forego or Kelso.

Experience with other Preciado acquisitions suggest gelding might be only part of the explanation. Preciado’s Beach Hut, still a full horse, finished first in the fourth race Saturday, an optional two-other-than claimer, but was disqualified. Preciado took him out of a $16K claimer on May 28. He ran sixth of sixth that day and had a 44 Beyer for a 25% trainer.

Preciado ran him back on July 19 in a restricted $15K claimer. Beach Hut won by more than 6 and his Beyer jumped to an 81. In two subsequent starts, he improved each time, to 82 then 90, the last two in allowances. Then he outran the best field he has faced Saturday.

In Saturday’s final race, Preciado had Stevie’s Wonder, who broke his maiden in a $10K claimer for non-winners on July 21 with a 63 Beyer, his career high. First time back for Preciado on Aug. 8, he won a restricted $25K claimer by 5 with a 99 Beyer.

I have no idea how Preciado works such magic but Saturday showed me enough that I don’t want to get involved in races in which he has a starter. No matter who I like, leaving out a Preciado horse is risky business. I wonder how many others feel the same.

Written by Tom Jicha

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