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 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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Thursday, February 01, 2018

All hail the champ Gun Runner but let’s hold Hall of Fame talk

Gun Runner proved again in the Pegasus that his 2017 Horse of the Year title was well deserved. He blitzed many of the same horses he had been beating, including at the Breeders' Cup. But one super season, preceded by a couple of good but not great ones, shouldn't qualify a horse for the Hall of Fame at Saratoga, a honor some are saying is inevitable. While Gun Runner heads to the breeding shed, racing's beat goes on with a huge weekend of 3-year-old stakes, which put Triple Crown prep season into high gear.

Gun Runner was the Horse of the Year for 2017. No argument. He earned it and proved decisively he deserved it again in the Pegasus, which is more the last piece of unfinished business from the previous year than the first big race of the new campaign.

Gun Runner should have been a unanimous Eclipse choice, but there’s always one contrarian voter, or in this case, two.

But let’s put this into perspective. Every year has a Horse of the Year.

I maintain what I have throughout Gun Runner’s career. Attrition was his best friend. He wasn’t good enough in the 2016 Triple Crown. He wasn't good enough in the Travers and he wasn't good enough when Arrogate was at his best. Arrogate beat him 15 lengths in the Travers and when you consider Arrogate's trip from Hell in Dubai, he might have been even more superior in the desert.

Gun Runner didn’t become a world-beater until his world had shrunk. The best of his generation, the horses he couldn’t beat in the 2016 Derby and avoided in the Preakness and Belmont, went to the sidelines early. He also took the course of least resistance at the Breeders’ Cup, skipping the Classic and Arrogate in favor of the Dirt Mile and he didn’t win that. He wound up second to Tamarkuz.

This year, the winners of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont never faced older foes and didn’t race at all after August. It was an extraordinarily weak year for older horses once Arrogate went sour.

So let's give Gun Runner his due for this year but let's not put him in the category of the truly great horses of recent years; Arrogate, California Chrome and Steve Asmussen’s other HoY’s , Curlin and Rachael Alexandra.

Horse of the Year is sufficient reward for a super year. It shoudn’t be a win- and-you’re-in for the Hall of Fame.

Most wonderful time of year

Older horses had their day at center stage in the Pegasus but they will be taking a step back for the next few months as the newly turned 3-year-olds rev their engines for the road to the Triple Crown. From this weekend through the middle of April, there will be only one weekend, Feb. 24-25, without a major Triple Crown prep.

This weekend brings Triple Crown preps in Florida, New York and California. Kiaran McLaughlin holds strong hands in both stakes east of the Mississippi.

Firenze Fire will be favored to add the Withers at Aqueduct to his impressive credit sheet, which includes the Champagne and Jerome but my money will be on Nashua winner Avery Island, a horse I’ve liked since his first start at the Spa. I suspected his second to Catholic Boy in the Remsen was a learning experience and McLaughlin confirmed as much this week. Besides, he has the huge advantage of coming up from Florida, where horses never miss a beat in their training. Firenze Fire has been wintering in New York where horses train when it isn’t too cold, isn’t snowing and the track isn’t frozen. Big edge to Avery Island.

McLaughlin also has the likely favorite, Kentucky Jockey Club winner Enticed, in the super loaded Holy Bull at Gulfstream. Dale Romans has the strength in numbers. He has entered four and will run three, he said. Tiz Mischief, second by a head to Enticed at Churchill Downs, is the nominal strength of Romans’ ticket but if Romans opts to start Breeders Futurity winner Free Drop Billy, he’s my choice. His Breeders' Cup was so uncharacteristically awful that it must be thrown out and it could help his price.

Nothing jumps off the page among those entered for Santa Anita’s Robert B. Lewis. However, in recent years the Lewis has produced outstanding runners Mor Spirit, Dortmund and 2012 Derby winner I’ll Have Another.

Eclipse runnerup Bolt d’Or and his new rider Javier Castellano have the March 10 San Felipe as their first major target of 2017.

Remsen champion Catholic Boy is expected to make his 3-year-old debut a week from Saturday, Feb. 10, in Tampa Bay’s Sam. F. Davis. Romans says if Free Drop Billy skips the Holy Bull, he will cross the state for this one. (Eclipse turf champion World Approval is also expected to make his 2018 debut on that card.)

It’s probably coincidental but the Davis has been more an indicator of success in the Belmont than the Derby. Tapwrit, who went on to win the Belmont, was second to McCraken last year and Destin, who missed in the 2016 Belmont by a nose, won that year’s Davis.

Mask, the eye-catching winner of the Mucho Macho Man, was scheduled to make his two-turn debut in the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds on Feb. 17 but an injury, described as minor enough to cause only a two-week break in his training, will cause Chad Brown to regroup and look elsewhere.

Brown is also looking for a spot for Eclipse champion Good Magic. Gulfstream’s Fountain of Youth on March 3 looms the most likely landing spot.

To borrow a title from a Christmas standard, for racing this is the most wonderful time of the year.

Breeders’ Cup moving?

To pick up on something which got short shrift last week due to the Eclipse Awards and Pegasus, it’s nice to see the Breeders’ Cup is considering something I’ve been advocating for a couple of years, moving the two-day event later in the year.

The proposal floated at the meeting of the Breeders’ Cup last week would push the Breeders’ Cup into mid-December to move it away from the glut of college football competition on TV the first week in November. As with almost any new suggestion for horse racing, it elicited a chorus of howls that it is a horrible idea. One objection is it would discourage participation from Euros, whose season essentially ends by mid-October.

Nonsense! Has anyone noticed how many top Euros go to Japan for their monster-money stakes in December?

Ticking off the Japanese was given as another reason not to move the Breeders’ Cup. Yeah, we wouldn’t want to lose all the Japanese horses who have come to the Breeders’ Cup.

A mid-December Breeders’ Cup would also take cold-weather locations in Kentucky, New York and even Maryland out of the mix.

Unfortunately, the idea I have been proposing for several years, which would achieve the ends the Breeders’ Cup desires without the side effects, isn’t being considered: stage the Breeders’ Cup over Thanksgiving weekend.

The day after Thanksgiving is the only Friday of the year when many Americans are off work and available in great numbers. There are a handful of college football games on TV but, by this point in the season, many have no great national impact.

The Saturday after Thanksgiving usually does feature some big rivalry games but not the packed lineup of other Saturdays in the fall. Thanksgiving weekend would only require horses to extend their season by three weeks, which shouldn’t be a burden for even the Euros.

Weather could be an issue in the Midwest and East but Churchill Downs and NYRA have traditionally run a big slate of major races on this weekend. NYRA even pushed the Cigar Mile, Remsen and other stakes back an additional week into December this past season and there were no significant weather issues. What’s more, every indication is the Breeders’ Cup is going to be held in California more often than not in future years.

The cavalcade of big races, which have always been held on or around Thanksgiving, negates the argument that a Breeders’ Cup would steal the holiday from horse people.

Now more than ever, with a possible shift on the table, I’m not going to give up pushing this proposal until someone convinces me why it would be a bad idea.

Written by Tom Jicha

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