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, June 04, 2015

Let’s hope the Belmont isn’t deja vu all over again

There are no sound handicapping principles that suggest American Pharoah shouldn't complete the Triple Crown. He has buried every one of his foes. But strange things have happened in the mile-and-a-half Belmont.The main danger appears to be Materiality, who had a horrendous trip in Louisville and has been pointed for this since, a winning tactic in recent years. Other than Frosted, the rest appear in it for their owner's ego. But to reiterate, the Belmont has a history of strange results.

MIAMI, June 4, 2015---Here we go again. We’ve been in this spot a dozen times since Affirmed became the last horse to sweep the Triple Crown in 1978. On almost every one of those occasions, the potential successor to Affirmed has looked as extraordinarily formidable as American Pharoah does going into the Belmont Stakes.

The list of scalps on American Pharoah’s belt includes the winners of the Wood Memorial, Florida Derby, Blue Grass, Santa Anita Derby, UAE Derby, Tampa Bay Derby, Sunland Derby and a load of lesser Derby preps. He has beaten every other horse in the field. None of his triumphs have been close. With the same past performances, if the Belmont Stakes were a mundane race on a weekday card, American Pharoah would be about 1-5. So if he goes off at his 3-5 morning line, you could almost argue he is value.

Post position is unlikely to be a factor in an eight-horse field going a mile and a half but American Pharoah is ideally drawn in the middle of the pack at No. 5. Bob Baffert says this has always been a lucky post for him but you get the feeling that he would have said that no matter where American Pharoah had drawn, with the possible exception of the rail.

Frammento just inside him and Frosted immediately to his outside are late runners, so Victor Espinoza should be able to get American Pharoah away and into stride cleanly.

Should American Pharoah join the roster of those who were undone in the Belmont Stakes, it will be more likely a result of contemporary breeding strategies than the tight spacing of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. There have been too many close misses to buy into the rationale that the brief separation between the three races is too much to overcome.

Real Quiet came out on the wrong end of a heart-breaking photo in 1998, the closest any horse has come to a Triple Crown since Affirmed. The previous year, Touch Gold ran down Silver Charm in the shadow of the wire. Smarty Jones suffered a similar fate in 2004. To contend these slight margins were solely the result of three races within five weeks is sophistry.

Moreover, given the brilliance of American Pharoah’s post-Preakness workouts, the notion that he will be a fatigued horse is a reach. He seems to be getting stronger, if that is possible.

But American breeders’ penchant for speed and precocity renders few horses capable of handling 12 furlongs at the highest level of competition. This is a quarter-mile further than they have ever been asked to race. So it could be not that Derby-Preakness winners couldn’t go a mile and a half but that they ran into a rival genetically more suited to the challenge. Touch Gold in ’97, Victory Gallop in ’98 and Birdstone in 2004 all were horses who became tougher as the distances got longer.

American Pharoah’s pedigree is a mixed bag as it relates to 12 furlongs. His top end says yes. Grandsire Empire Maker ended Funny Cide’s bid for a Triple Crown in 2003 by running away from him in the Belmont Stakes stretch.

The bottom half of his pedigree says, not so much. It is speed oriented but if you go back a few generations, you get to champions Storm Bird and Storm Cat. A little further back, you’ll find Northern Dancer and Secretariat, who ran the fastest Belmont in history. That’s the blood American Pharoah will need to call upon in the final yards.

But you never know if one of his seven rivals will turn out to be a 12-furlong freak. This appears to be the only way American Pharoah will be denied.

American Pharoah’s task seemed to have gotten less challenging when Todd Pletcher declared Carpe Diem, who does have distance breeding, out of the Belmont.Maybe Pletcher feels that with Materiality and Madefromlucky, he doesn't need him.

Materiality and Frosted can legitimately claim troubled trips in the Derby. Of the two, Materiality has more upside. The Derby was only his fourth start and first defeat, so there is ample room for a move forward. If he does, it could be a real horse race. Materiality, who lost all chance when he got away slowly in the Derby, also should benefit from the outside post. If he’s tardy again when the latch is sprung, he shouldn’t be squeezed back as he was in Louisville. Pletcher said he expects Materiality, who vied for the lead all the way in the Florida Derby then drew off, to be prominent going into the first turn.

Being outside American Pharoah should be beneficial, allowing him to track the favorite without getting trapped down on the inside. It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which Materiality could pin American Pharoah on the rail behind dead speed. I’ll have Materiality on at least some of my multi-race wagers. But he's the only other one.

Frosted is reminiscent of Wicked Strong last year, a disappointment in Florida followed by a big Wood Memorial then an off-the-board finish in the Derby. Frosted has won only twice in eight starts, both at Aqueduct. At the price he is likely to go off as the second choice, he offers no value. I’ll let him beat me.

Mubtaahij is intriguing solely because his trainer Michael de Kock is a magician, who has specialized in developing horses to handle the extended distances overseas. Still, off his Kentucky Derby, Mubtaahij appears to be in deep against a field far stronger than whatever it was he was beating in Dubai. Even de Kock conceded that if American Pharoah runs his race, the others are in it for minor awards. But you could do worse than include him on exotic tickets.
Since strange things have happened in the Belmont, anyone looking to cash a ticket at a big price might as well pick one of the other four out of a hat or bet each of them equally, since the return will be many times 4-1. There are no logical reasons to zero in on any one of them to win.

If you want to take a wild stab, put a few bucks to show on anyone but American Pharoah. If something goes amiss with the odds-on favorite (remember the seemingly unbeatable Big Brown), the show payoffs could be astronomical. If American Pharoah comes through and your selection finishes second or third, you’ll get your money back and make a dime.

But American Pharoah is the bet from the head and the heart.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, June 02, 2015

American Pharoah can end Triple Crown drought fatigue

The thrill isn't gone from pursuit of a Triple Crown but it does seem that the excitement level for American Pharoah's bid has been muted in the lead-up to Saturday. Tickets are still not sold out even with NYRA's attempt to create artificial scarcity by announcing a 90,000 cap. It could be that some fans, who have helped pack Belmont for previous Triple Crown attempts, have given up on the possibility of it ever happening again.

MIAMI, June 2, 2015--Could racing fans be suffering from Triple Crown drought fatigue?

Shock and dismay describes my feelings last week when a NYRA email arrived, informing that there were still plenty of tickets available for American Pharoah’s pursuit of the Triple Crown Saturday. After the Preakness, they should have been snapped up faster than primo seats to a Bruce Springsteen concert.

That an ample supply was still available a week and a half later seems to bolster what I suggested when the 90,000 cap was announced just before the Preakness. It was an attempt to jumpstart ticket sales, which had been going slowly, by creating an artificial scarcity.

Adding insult, the recent NYRA ad was dominated by pictures and the names of the bands who will present post-races concerts on Friday and Saturday. There was an image of a horse in Zayat colors but he was not identified as American Pharoah, the star of the show.

The potential of witnessing racing history, not a concert, should be the magnet. That it isn’t should be troubling to everyone in racing. The Kentucky Derby is the Kentucky Derby, an annual spectacle of Americana. Otherwise, there is no bigger event in the sport than a bid for a Triple Crown. Yet it appears to be eliciting yawns.

It could be just me but it also seems there has been considerably less attention in the mainstream media to American Pharoah’s attempt to end the long drought between Triple Crown winners. Then again, most of the mainstream media no longer treats racing as worthy of a regular place in the sports section. Where there used to be stories almost every day between the Preakness and Belmont, it looks as if the best racing can hope for is an advance on Saturday and coverage of the race on Sunday.

Maybe many of those who have gone again and again to the Belmont Stakes with high hopes that this would be the year have given up and decided it isn’t worth enduring the hassles with such a high expectation of disappointment.

A more positive explanation is racing fans are not conditioned to purchase advance tickets but they will show up and fill the place on Saturday. Reserved seats for the Belmont have sold out. So to the casual racing fan, there was no urgency to buy general admission early. At every previous Belmont and even when the Breeders’ Cup was in New York, you could walk up the day of the event and pay your way in with no problems.

However, the possibility that a “been there, done that, don’t need to be disappointed again” mindset is taking hold is one more reason to root for American Pharoah to complete the sweep. A victory would make the next dozen attempts enticing because it will have been established that it can be done. Another failed effort will enhance the negative vibe that it has become an impossibility, so why get excited?

Return Met Mile to Memorial Day

The Met Mile will be a terrific race this Saturday as it always is.

Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Bayern will be there and I’ll be shocked if there is an attempt to rate him as there was in the Churchill Downs on Derby Day. A tardy start was a factor but this is a horse who went 44 1/5 for a half-mile then drew away to win by more than 7 in 1:20 3/5 in the Woody Stephens on Belmont Day 2014.

Belmont Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup champion Tonalist will be shooting for his fifth consecutive win at Belmont. Cigar Mile winner Private Zone, who also twice won the Vosburgh and outran Bayern in the Churchill Downs, will be trying to enhance his resume of Grade 1 wins. Honor Code, who beat Private Zone in the Gulfstream Park Handicap at the Met Mile distance, is back on his home grounds for Shug McGaughey. Wicked Strong could fire another big one at any time and the price will be more than right.

This is a traditional classic that deserves its own stage, not burial on an undercard of a stakes laden program that doesn’t need it. Adding such a prestigious event to the star packed Belmont program is overkill. I’ll keep reiterating this until the Met Mile goes back home to Memorial Day.

Meanwhile the Memorial Day card has been taken over by New York bred stakes, nice races but hardly an incentive for a fence-sitting fan to opt for Belmont over other events on the unofficial kickoff of summer.

There are rumblings that big changes are coming at NYRA. At the top of the list should be returning the Met Mile to Memorial Day.

$250K for 2YO’s in June outrageous

I was highly critical when it was announced that the run-up to the Belmont Stakes would include a pair of $250,000 stakes for juveniles at 5 ½ furlongs. I predicted they would be America’s richest non-winners of one other than. I feel vindicated.

The first of them, the Astoria Stakes, drew a field of only six, two of them maidens, one of those a first-time starter. It came up so soft, it is being run as the third race on the Thursday card. For this, NYRA is putting up a quarter-million dollars.

I know NYRA is awash in casino cash, which has to be put into purses, but there surely has to be a better way to spend it.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

American Pharoah the latest star leaving the game too soon

The announcement that American Pharoah will almost certainly be retired at the end of his 3-year-old campaign has stripped some of the excitement from his pursuit of the Triple Crown. Instead of a new star for fans to get enthused about, he will soon be no more than a memory.

MIAMI, May 26, 2015--American racing desperately needs a star on the track, not another potential star in the breeding shed. Sports-- all forms of entertainment--has become star and big event driven. Racing has been lacking in both areas, especially star power.

This is why the announcement that American Pharoah will almost certainly be retired at the end of his 3-year-old season hit like a punch in the gut, knocking the wind out of the joyful anticipation that the Triple Crown finally might be completed after 37 years.

If American Pharoah were to finish the sweep a week from Saturday, he would become sports’ superstar du jour. The cover of Sports Illustrated would be almost a sure thing. Maybe even one of the news magazines, ala Secretariat. American Pharoah’s subsequent races would get national TV exposure. Newspapers that have abandoned racing coverage would find room for it again.

Alas, all of this might be only a dream unfulfilled. Instead of packing race tracks, American Pharoah will soon become just a memory like Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.

It wouldn’t be shocking if next Saturday is the last time he is seen under silks. His owner Ahmad Zayat said this isn’t going to happen. He was quoted on saying, “He is not going to be retired after the (Belmont)… I am not depriving myself and racing fans from continuing to see him race.”

In fact, he is. Assuming good health, there is no sporting reason why American Pharoah could not race as a 4-year-old, as Seattle Slew and Affirmed, the most recent Triple Crown winners, did.

But Zayat has about 20 million financial reasons to send American Pharoah to the farm after this season. If he were to complete the Triple Crown, he could command $100,000 a pop in the breeding shed. His sire, Pioneer of the Nile, stands for a reported $60K and he didn’t win any of the Triple Crown races. In demand stallions now are bred to 200 or more mares a year. Do the math. In one season, American Pharoah could earn twice as much as racing’s leading all-time money earners did in their entire careers.

If American Pharoah wins the Belmont, he will have no more significant worlds to conquer. The Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic would be the whipped cream and cherry atop his career but those races have a winner every year. The Triple Crown hasn’t been conquered since the Carter administration.

American Pharoah can only diminish his luster should he be defeated. It isn’t going very far out on a limb to predict that if American Pharoah does continue to race, he will lose only once before a reason will be found—injuries, real or phantom have a way of popping up to excuse a disappointing performance-- to bring his career to a premature end.

I have a suggestion that would keep racing’s stars on the track at least through their 4-year-old seasons. The Jockey Club should refuse to register foals sired by any stallion younger than 5-years-old. This would do more to strengthen the game than any of the hand wringing over medications.

However, this proposal has absolutely no chance of being adopted. It would require sacrifices by some for the good of all. When has that ever happened?

A rare Gulfstream misstep

Tim Ritvo has done a masterful job running the racing operations of The Stronach Group. So it was out of character for Gulfstream to do something last week that was short-sighted from a business perspective as well as fan unfriendly.

The Rainbow 6, which has been copied all over the map, is geared to be paid out only in the event one player has all six winners. However, when it has gone un-hit for a long period and built to an astronomical figure in the millions, Gulfstream has designated certain dates for it to be paid out to bettors with the most winners on that particular day.

Last Friday, May 22, was one of those days. Why is difficult to figure. The carryover was so slim that the track felt compelled to guarantee the pool would be at least $350,000. Moreover, Friday was the last work day before the start of the three-day Memorial Day weekend.

This made it difficult for weekend warriors, who put most of the money into the pool, to participate. This was true in South Florida and at simulcast sites across the country. Fans did pour more than $903,000 into the bet but logic dictates it would have been so much more if the mandatory payoff would have been reserved for Saturday, Sunday or Memorial Day. A guarantee would have been unnecessary.

Gulfstream doesn’t normally race on Monday and in spite of it being a national holiday, there was no major race to bring out fans. A huge Rainbow 6 jackpot would have provided plenty of incentive to spend the holiday at the track and for fans elsewhere to get involved. Thanks to NYRA’s ill-advised decision to relocate the Met Mile off Memorial Day, there wasn’t much to get excited about on the national scene.

Gulfstream has made few missteps under Ritvo’s leadership but the Friday mandatory payoff strikes me as one of them.

Written by Tom Jicha

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