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, November 30, 2017

It’s December and the racing is scintillating

December was once a down month in racing. No more. Racing this Saturday is as good as it gets. NYRA has its last big hurrah until spring with four graded stakes, headed by the Cigar Mile, being run at the latest date ever. Gulfstream launches its prime season with what has become the traditional winter opening event, the Claiming Crown. It's a magical day for those who like full fields of blue collar horses. Each of the nine stakes has at least a dozen starters.

Racing hardly gets any better than this Saturday—the first weekend in December. NYRA stages its final big hurrah until spring with four graded stakes, including the celebrated Cigar Mile, which is being run later in the year than ever. Closer to my home, Gulfstream launches its prime winter season with the nine-stakes Claiming Crown.

The Cigar should be a beauty. Jorge Navarro’s Sharp Azteca, who has been right there in a slew of important stakes for older horses, faces off against Chad Brown’s crack 3-year-old Practical Joke, who has never been beaten around one turn.

The Grade 1 Cigar, Grade 2 Remsen for 3-year-olds and Grade 2 Demoiselle for fillies are carded as the final three races on the card. A maiden race for NY breds separates those three from the Grade 3 Go For Wand, probably to service the NYRA Bets Late Pick 5, which resumes Saturday.

If not for Gulfstream, there probably would be no Claiming Crown. The imaginative series for horses, who have raced for varying claiming prices, kicked around the Midwest without notable success for 13 years. It was headed toward extinction when Gulfstream stepped up in 2012 and made it the opening day feature of the winter season.

South Florida fans embraced it like stone crabs, mojitos and tanning lotion. After three years of generating $10 million-plus handle, the Claiming Crown had its first $11 million day last December.

There's no secret why. The nine Claiming Crown races attracted 132 entries. No field has fewer than a dozen before scratches. The Claiming Crown packs appeal for those who appreciate stakes caliber racing as well as fans of the blue collar horses who fill the racing cards at Gulfstream and other tracks that don’t get a lot of attention most of the year.

The early highlight of the meeting is the second edition of the Pegasus on Jan. 27 with a purse jacked up to a world record $16 million. This year’s renewal could feature something I can’t recall happening before. Three Eclipse winners could be in the starting gate. Gun Runner, a cinch to be named Horse of the Year and Best Older Dirt Horse at the Eclipse ceremonies at Gulfstream on Jan. 25, is pointing to the race, as is surefire best older dirt female Forever Unbridled. Also, Bob Baffert has said it’s his intention to ship in West Coast, the favorite to earn 3-year-old male Eclipse honors.

A couple of other Eclipse contenders, Good Magic and Caledonia Road, winners of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies, respectively, will be stabled at Gulfstream or one of its satellites and could begin their sophomore campaigns in South Florida.

It wouldn’t be a winter season if Todd Pletcher didn’t roll out a few maidens who go on to become stakes horses and maybe even a Kentucky Derby winner like Always Dreaming last year.

An interesting addition to the Gulfstream agenda, the Classico del Caribe, the Kentucky Derby of Latin America, will be run in North America for the first time on Dec. 9. Five other stakes for horses from south of the border are scheduled. It’s a risky gambit for Gulfstream on a prime meet Saturday since the majority of horses, riders and trainers will be unfamiliar to local fans. Then again, few thought bringing the Claiming Crown to Gulfstream was a great idea. Not everything the Stronach Group tries works but you have to give them credit for trying.

More proof the boycott succeeded

Some horseplayers inexplicably want to diminish the impact of the Keeneland boycott and label it a failure.

The fall Del Mar and Gulfstream West (nee Calder) seasons, which concluded Sunday, provides the latest evidence to debunk such naysaying. Gulfstream West handle skyrocketed 10.33 percent despite a blustery couple of months in which 58 races had to be taken off the turf and 14 fewer races were offered than in 2016.

Even without the two Breeders’ Cup afternoons, Del Mar handle was up 7.5 percent, the seaside track’s best fall performance ever. These mirror autumn meeting upticks at Santa Anita, Belmont and Laurel. Simultaneously, Keeneland was down about 8.7 percent.

Given what happened at other major tracks, there is no reason other than the boycott why Keeneland also shouldn’t have been up. Racing was top notch and field size was roughly comparable to previous years. So the almost 9 percent drop in handle understates the full impact of the boycott.

I’ll concede one thing to the knockers. Unless horse players pick up where they left off for the Keeneland spring 2018 meeting, it all will have been for naught. Tracks considering raising their own takeouts will be comforted that they might have to bite the bullet for one meeting then reap the profits thereafter. Horse players cannot allow this to happen.

Derby future an ego trip

The Kentucky Derby future bets are not for thinking players. Trying to come up with the winner of a race six months out, when many of those who will line up in the starting gate in May are still unknowns—Always Dreaming was an 0-2 maiden, both sprints, this time last year—is all about ego, not common horse playing sense.

Those who play want to be able to boast, “I came up with the Derby winner” months ago. The payoff is a bonus. If bettors were really in it for the money, they would put more thought into hidden opportunities.

Bolt d’Oro wound up going off the top individual horse in the first round win pool at 7.50-1. If the third-place finisher in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile—the winner, Good Magic closed at 11.40-1—picks up where he left off during Derby prep season, $17 will be a fat mutual.

But if Bolt d’Oro’s fan base put a little thought into it and paid closer attention to the odds, there was a better opportunity. In an effort to squeeze a few extra dollars out of fans, Churchill also offers a Sires Pool; pick the father of the winner and you get paid.

Bolt d’Oro is by Medaglia d’Oro. If any of his offspring capture the roses, the payoff is 5.90-1 or 13.80. Along with Bolt d’Oro, those who settled on Medaglia d’Oro, also get Enticed, who overcame an eventful trip to win Saturday’s Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes over the strip where the Derby will be contested, and Montauk, a colt from the Todd Pletcher barn so highly touted that his 17-1 odds are the fourth lowest among 23 individual entries despite only a maiden sprint win.

“But wait,” as they say on cable TV. “There’s more.” You would also get any other offspring of Medaglia d’Oro, who come along between now and May and make it into the Derby.

Which is a better bet, 5.90-1 on three or more Medaglia d’Oro horses, including Bolt d’Oro, or 7.50-1 on only one. Of course, people who bet the Derby future don’t think a lot.

For the record, if I had played, I would have put a few bucks on Avery Island, who closed 29-1, and will be in the Remsen Stakes.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, November 23, 2017

Racing provides so much for which to be thankful

On a day of reflection of our blessings, horse racing should be somewhere on the list, below health and family. Things for which I am thankful include outstanding racing after the Breeders' Cup this weekend, Pegasus Stakes 2.0, last season's Triple Crown race winners coming back as 4-year-olds, the end of Gulfstream West, daylight standard time arriving and, of course, all of our regular readers and commentators.

This is the day to reflect upon how fortunate we are. Racing is down the list of our blessings, compared to health and family, but it is still an important element of so many of our lives for the pleasure, entertainment and occasional profit it provides. I hope you share many of the following thoughts.

I’m thankful there is racing life after the Breeders’ Cup. Aqueduct, Churchill Downs and Del Mar have stakes-loaded cards this coming weekend. Many of the biggest stakes will be run on Friday. Churchill has the Grade 1 Clark, the Mrs. Revere and the Dream Supreme. The Comely, Gio Ponti and a state-bred stakes are carded in New York. The Hollywood Turf Cup will be renewed at Del Mar.

Why are so many stakes on a weekday? It’s because tracks across the nation realize there are millions of people off work and available. I would be really thankful if I thought the Breeders’ Cup was paying attention.

Pegasus produces again

I’m thankful for the Pegasus Stakes. Problems still abound with how the race is funded, which brings into question whether the concept is viable on an ongoing basis. However, on the track, there will be another attention-grabbing showdown in Pegasus 2.0.

Gun Runner vs. Forever Unbridled might not pack the wow factor of Arrogate vs. California Chrome but the battle of the sexes injects a fascinating element . When the two face off a couple of days after the Eclipse Awards, it will be the Horse in the Year vs. the Female of the Year.

Without this gender clash, the Pegasus would amount to a romp in the Florida sun for Gun Runner, who has trounced almost every other horse likely to show up.

More to anticipate

I’m thankful that for the first time in memory, three different winners of Triple Crown races are coming back to race as 4-year-olds. I wish perfectly healthy BC Dirt Mile winner Battle of Midway was also coming back.

Fie on the breeders who took him away from us prematurely but it’s par for the course for the most greedy, selfish people in the game.

Pharoah stands alone

I’m thankful we haven’t had a Triple Crown winner the past two years—but only in retrospect. I rooted for Nyquist and Always Dreaming to replicate what American Pharoah accomplished, the only horse to sweep the Derby, Preakness and Belmont in four decades.

But the fact that they didn’t underlines how extraordinary Pharoah’s feat was. If there was a Triple Crown winner every year or two, it would become ho-hum. Every year that goes by without a Triple Crown winner only enhances appreciation for the amazing talent it requires and anticipation every spring that this could be the year of the next one.

Viva Frank Stronach

I’m thankful for Frank Stronach. He might be a little eccentric and some of his ideas come off as strange but every one of has the goal of advancing racing, a rare business attitude in an increasingly bottom line world.

Stronach is one of those people who will not be fully appreciated until he is no longer on the scene.

RIP Gulfstream West (I hope)

I’m thankful (or is it hopeful?) that the upcoming week could be the final one ever for Gulfstream West. It’s a travesty that Florida allows this faux meeting to qualify Churchill Downs Inc., owner of what used to be Calder Race Course, for a casino.

I’m not thankful for the state officials, who sanctioned this and for Hialeah to qualify to keep its casino license by running a couple of worn-out nags about 100 yards eight times a day for 40 days.

The latter all but eliminates any hope that “the most beautiful track in the world” will spend the money to get back into the thoroughbred picture, regardless of what happens with Gulfstream West, which provides an essential break--if it were a real race meeting--from year-round racing at real Gulfstream.

Decoupling, which failed in the Florida legislature last year, faces better prospects this coming spring because one of the issues that short-circuited it, casino expansion in the state, has been settled in the courts. Passage of decoupling will free CDI from the obligation to lease its vacant lot adjacent to a racing oval to Gulfstream.

Good riddance

Del Mar out of the picture

I’m thankful Florida, New York and other major venues I play have better photo finish cameras than Del Mar. How many more faux deadheats must there be before Del Mar does whatever is necessary to get it right.

I guess I’m thankful, too, that there were no really tight photos at the Breeders’ Cup.

They can do it, if asked
I’m thankful for Voodoo Song, the New York bred who won four races, two within four days, during the 40-day Saratoga stand. This fortified my belief that the only reason horses don’t run as often as they used to is because they are not asked to.

They are babied by trainers who collect their per diem whether the horse is in the barn or on the track.

Racing Form does right thing
I’m thankful the Racing Form has opened its editorial copy, albeit for only 30 articles a month.

It’s in the Form’s interest to promote racing to the greatest degree possible. No major newspaper still maintains a racing beat writer. Without the Form, there would be no daily coverage of the entire racing world in one place. This would work against the Form’s ADW site.

Cyber sites, including Horse Race Insider, the Paulick Report, Thoroughbred Daily News and the Blood Horse, have become essential for racing information and opinions but they typically prioritize regional coverage and national high spots. Only the Form has coverage of virtually every track, every day.

The price of the print edition has become so expensive it virtually rules out attracting new customers. This will eventually lead to the same kind of attrition that is bringing down print newspapers. I don’t think many in racing realize how important the Form is and the negative effect its absence would create.

One week to go

I’m thankful for the end of daylight savings time because the onset of earlier darkness alleviates at least some of the post dragging that has become a trademark of racing at Gulfstream.

That said post dragging is a minor annoyance that doesn’t detract from how thankful I am that Gulfstream’s prime winter meet is only a week away.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

There’s a universal lesson to be learned from BC Betting Challenge manipulation

The winner of the $300,000 first prize in the Breeders' Cup Betting Challenge made his score by violating the spirit, if not the letter of the rules. He was willing to endure a slap on the wrist punishment to gain the advantage that put him over the top. The same things happen often on the racetrack. Trainers and jockeys are willing to take an edge because the penalties when caught are so lenient they provide no real deterrent.

I find it ironically amusing that professional bettors, who scream loudest when they suspect a trainer is taking an edge, have found a way to subvert the spirit, if not the letter of the law of a big money handicapping tournament.

As of this writing, Breeders’ Cup has not released the prize money from the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge while questionable tactics are being investigated.

Long story short, Nisan Gabbay, the winner of the million dollar event, was willing to flaunt the rules because with a windfall on the line the penalty wasn’t sufficiently discouraging. Contestants in the live money event were supposed to bet at least $600 of their $7,500 starting bankroll on five races on Friday and $900 on five races Saturday.

The penalty for not doing this was a 1,000 points per race deduction on Day One and 2,000 points on Day Two. Gabbay didn’t bet at all Friday and stayed inactive until the final three races Saturday.

The loophole in the rules was the penalty points were subtracted from the final score but a comparable amount was not subtracted from the available live bankroll. So Gabbay was able to preserve his whole cache until late Saturday, when he could judge what he needed to do to win.

Reportedly, he took home the $300,000 first prize with a $4,000 win bet on 14-1 Talismanic in the Turf and used the proceeds to make huge exacta bets on the Classic, including a $15,000 punch on Gun Runner-Collected, which put him over the top.

If he had $5,000 subtracted from his $7,500 buy-in for Friday’s abstinence and $4,000 more for sitting out most of Saturday, he wouldn’t have had the funds to do this.

There’s a lesson to be learned, which should spill over into all of racing. Trainers are willing to take a shot at juicing a horse because if they are caught, the penalties are generally not severe enough to outweigh the major scores to be made at the windows.

Remember Jorge “The Juice Man” Navarro and company gloating in front of a TV screen at Monmouth. His penalty was a $10,000 fine, possibly (probably?) less than he would have made betting.

Likewise, jockeys can herd or shut off opponents because if the stewards come down on them, the suspensions are laughable. They can appeal until they feel like serving the days, often during low spots in the season or the holidays. These aren’t penalties, they are vacations.

Racetrack justice has to be made swift and severe. They have to hurt and succeeding offenses should result in graduated punishment. Appeals should come with an expensive price, the same as regular citizens face when they go to court to contest a ticket.

What is now a 30-day suspension for trainers should start at 90 days with 60 forgiven if there is no appeal. The penalties should double, then triple for subsequent offenses within a year. Five-day suspensions for riders should start at 30 days with 25 forgiven if there is no appeal.

Unless and until this is done, there are no disincentives to take edges.

BC ratings an also ran

The Breeders’ Cup was an aesthetic triumph. On TV, it was another story.

The ratings were a Grade 1 bummer. The prime-time hour on NBC when the Classic was run was the lowest rated hour all night. An estimated 2,150,000 were tuned in.

This was not just the low point on NBC. It was the lowest rated hour on any broadcast network.

A repeat of an old “Dateline,” which immediately followed the Breeders’ Cup, drew an average audience of 3,180,000. An hour of old clips from “Saturday Night Live” at 10 p.m. pulled in an average of 2,970,000.

The under-performance of the Breeders’ Cup telecast plunged NBC into last place for the night in total viewers. More importantly, it also dropped NBC into the broadcast network cellar in the 18-49 demographic, the currency for ad sales. The Breeders’ Cup had an 0.3 rating and 1 share. The two rerun hours that followed doubled that with 0.6/2 apiece.

The afternoon Breeders’ Cup on the NBC Sports cable network was another downer. It didn’t crack the Top 25. To put this into perspective, one of the shows tied for No. 25, “Justice League Action” had 627,000 viewers—at 7 in the morning on the Cartoon Network.

If there is a glimmer of light, it can safely be said that the ratings were depressed by the fact hundreds of thousands, if not more potential viewers were at race tracks and OTB outlets watching and betting the races.

Gulfstream shut out again

Some say there is no such thing as a coincidence. But coincidence seems to be a plausible explanation for something happening for the second straight year at Gulfstream.

The Eclipse Awards will be presented at Gulfstream for the seventh straight year in the heart of what is dubbed the Championship Meeting. But the Breeders’ Cup results sealed the reality that not one of the divisional champions will have raced in South Florida during the 2016-17 December-April prime season. The same thing happened last year.

It seems inexplicable that with all the outstanding thoroughbreds, who launch their campaigns at Gulfstream, not one has gone on to earn an Eclipse statue for the past two years.

Horse of the Year California Chrome made his final start there in last January’s Pegasus, a showdown with then 3-year-old champion Arrogate. But Chrome was retired and Arrogate threw in the towel himself after big wins in the Pegasus and Dubai World Cup. These won’t be enough in light of what Gun Runner has done since.

The shutout could have been avoided except for the quarantine at the Fair Grounds last winter. The connections of Gun Runner, certain to be a double Eclipse winner (Horse of the Year and Older Dirt Horse), tried to extricate him from New Orleans to run in the Pegasus. Gulfstream, exercising extreme caution, made this difficult to impossible.

Gun Runner is expected to make the second Pegasus in January. Surefire older female champion Forever Unbridled is also being pointed for the world’s richest race.

Always Dreaming became the second Kentucky Derby winner in a row to come out of the Florida Derby. Like Arrogate, his major achievements ended in the spring.

Nevertheless, Always Dreaming is the only horse with even a remote chance of breaking the Gulfstream Eclipse Award drought. With “what have you done for me lately?” a significant factor, it’s almost certain West Coast will be voted 3-year-old champion.

I have no problem with that. But I am puzzled by some of those comparing credentials. West Coast’s Travers and Pennsylvania Derby triumphs are being put on an equal plain with Always Dreaming’s Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby, because they are all Grade 1’s. I’ll concede the Gulfstream and Parx races are comparable but there’s no way the Travers-- or any other race--is the equivalent of the Kentucky Derby.

One is the Midsummer Derby, the other is The Derby. The first question asked of owners, trainers and jockeys is not, “Have you ever won the Travers?”

The difference between the two contenders is West Coast’s solid third behind the best older horses in America in the BC Classic. It’s a slim difference but slim differences are decisive in racing every day.

Written by Tom Jicha

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