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, January 05, 2017

Pegasus stuck on 7 but has only 2 who matter

The Pegasus missed out on a couple of attractive starters when the connections of Midnight Storm opted to keep him in California and Gun Runner became locked into the Fair Grounds by an EHV-1 quarantine. But the big two, California Chrome and Arrogate, are still on target for the Jan. 28 super race. The $12 million stakes might be leaving Gulfstream after one year for the greater capacity of Santa Anita, according to a Stronach Group executive.

MIAMI--A glass just a bit over half full is not almost half empty when it's the Pegasus Stakes. Three weeks out the prospective field is stuck at seven of the available dozen stalls in the starting gate.

The connections of Midnight Storm briefly considered the $12 million race after he dominated Sunday's San Pasqual, which was passed by Arrogate. On second thought, Midnight Storm's people opted for discretion over valor. He'll stay home on the West Coast for the rich races for older horses at Santa Anita.

Gun Runner, who finally got his Grade 1 in the Clark, had his participation in the Pegasus put into doubt when an EHV-1 outbreak at the Fair Grounds closed the New Orleans facility's backstretch to horses coming in and out. The quarantine could be lifted in time for Gun Runner to ship to Gulfstream for the Jan. 28 Pegasus but nothing is certain.

For now, this leaves the seven who have been probable all along, including the only two who matter, presumptive Horse of the Year California Chrome and even more certain 3-year-old champion Arrogate.

Some of the others are not without credentials. Woodward winner Shaman Ghost will represent Gulfstream owner and Pegasus creator Frank Stronach. Keen Ice will live forever on being the horse who upset American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers.

War Story, winner of the recent Queens County, is intriguing more for his connections than his achievements. He switched barns this week from Pennsylvania-based Mario Serey Jr., who has had four recent drug positives (all four horses won). War Story joins the barn of Jorge Navarro, who hit at a 30 percent clip last year and is currently second in the Gulfstream standings despite slumping to only 25 percent this season.

Entry level allowance winner Neolithic and Argentine import Eragon appear to be in the Pegasus because their owners had $1 million slots and there is a guaranteed $200,000 consolation prize.

Pegasus to Santa Anita

The Pegasus' run at Gulfstream might not be an extended one, according to Mike Rogers, president of racing for The Stronach Group. A Thoroughbred Daily News report quoted Rogers as saying Santa Anita, also owned by TSG, is under consideration for the 2018 renewal.

The relative capacity of the two tracks is a factor, according to Rogers. Gulfstream, whose main building is dominated by slots facilities on its first two floors, is strained by crowds approaching 20,000. Santa Anita has handled crowds in excess of 70,000.

The greater capacity on the West Coast might also alleviate the need to price the event as exorbitantly as it has been at Gulfstream. A tipoff to resistance to the $100 general admission and $50 parking fee, where otherwise both are free, is an unheralded drop to $20 for parking in recent ads.

Unless there is a corresponding drop in the cost of admission, the Pegasus might attract a lesser crowd than a normal Saturday and about half a typical Florida Derby Day. This would be too bad for an event of this magnitude.

Jerome gets points, MMM doesn't

Absolute rules can produce absolutely unfair results. The two-turn Jerome on Monday at Aqueduct was worth 10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to El Areeb, who romped over a suspect field by more than 11 lengths.

In addition to putting the winner on the Derby trail, the result casts some doubt on the magnitude of Mo Town's victory in the Remsen. The late-season juvenile stakes has produced a succession of highly touted winners, including Mohaymen last year, who have been busts in the spring classics.

Mo Town can't be faulted for who he beat but Takaful, who pushed him in the Remsen, had nothing in the Jerome. He spit it out three furlongs from the wire.

Meanwhile this Saturday's Mucho Macho Man at Gulfstream, which generally attracts a more promising group of Derby hopefuls, is endowed with zero Derby points because it is a one-turn mile and one-turn races are not eligible for qualifying points.

This might as well be called the anti-Gulfstream rule, since the South Florida track is the only winter venue that offers one-turn miles.

New year, old issue

The debate over decoupling will be a major topic of conversation in Florida the first third of the year. (The Florida legislature meets in March and April.)

Dog tracks and jai alai frontons continue to push hard for permission to maintain poker and slots without pari-mutuels. Some form of decoupling seems inevitable. It's mandatory that horsemen and their representatives keep a close eye on any forthcoming legislation.

A plan almost got through last year, which would have excluded Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs from decoupling and paid horsemen and the two tracks millions in subsidies for operations and purses. This is a good starting point but there must be a perpetuity provision for the two thoroughbred tracks, so Gulfstream and/or Tampa can't go back to the legislature in a few years asking for equal treatment with the former dog tracks and jai alai frontons.

Beware Genting

Gulfstream horsemen also need to keep a wary eye on Genting's new association with the South Florida track's casino. This is the same outfit that is royally screwing horsemen at Aqueduct by moving the most lucrative slots off the books from which horsemen benefit and putting them on the Nassau County OTB account.

There is a connection to decoupling. Genting has proven itself to have no affection for horse racing. It's not hard to imagine Genting advising Gulfstream to renovate the building to open more slots space at the expense of the already limited space for racing fans. An opening created by decoupling would only increase the likelihood of this occurring, not immediately but eventually.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Masochistic DQ another shameful disregard for players

Masochistic, who should be a charter member of Racing's Hall of Infamy, is expected to be disqualified on Friday from his second-place finish in the BC Sprint for a steroid overage. The owners, trainers and jockeys of horses who finished behind him will benefit from increased purses. Bettors who would have had the new official exactas, tri's, etc., will, as usual, get nothing. But this situation is different from the norm. The stewards had a reasonable expectation that he would test positive yet they allowed him to run.

MIAMI, Dec 29--The year ended in keeping with the way it played out. Bettors were played for fools again. I was going to say one last time but there are still a few days left in 2016.

Not surprisingly, it happened in California, ground zero for bettors being screwed.

Masochistic is expected to be disqualified on Friday from second in the Breeders' Cup Sprint for a steroid overage. The owners of Mind Your Biscuits, third under the wire, will inherit the difference between the show purse and the place. The other minor place finishers also will experience a windfall. Ditto the jockeys and trainers involved.

But bettors who had the Defrong-Mind Your Biscuits exacta will get bupkis. The same goes for those who wagered on what will be the new official tri and super.

These situations, when discovery occurs well after the fact, happen every now and then. Because of the time lapse, it would be unwieldy--but no longer impossible with computer betting and the like--to make bettors as whole as the owners, trainers and jockeys.

This time is different. Masochistic's DQ could be seen coming. The horse, who coincidentally (or not) was involved in the apparent betting coup of the millennium on Derby Day 2014, tested positive three times for the steroid stanazolol in the days leading up to the Breeders' Cup.

Masochistic's trainer, Ron Ellis, knew a post-race positive was possible, if not likely. The Santa Anita stewards knew. It's debatable whether Breeders' Cup knew beforehand because of medication confidentiality rules, though there might have been some winking and nodding involved. Yet Masochistic was allowed to run.

Samantha Siegel, one of Masochistic's owners, was quoted as saying, "I was shocked that we weren't automatically scratched."

The stanazolol overage was so slight as to be laughable, in the trillioniths of a gram. But a positive is a positive and there is zero tolerance for steroids on race days. (There should be zero tolerance at all times. Allowing out of competition use is like letting baseball and football players juice up during their offseasons.)

Nevertheless, the stewards allowed Masochistic--by their definition a drugged horse--to race against rivals who were found to be clean. The only ones who didn't know this were the bettors.

The potential impact extends beyond the final order of finish. Masochistic, who according to the rules had an illegal advantage, pushed Drefong through torrid fractions. Only Drefong's superiority allowed him to gut it out to the wire. But this exertion could have caused Drefong to be caught late by the surging Mind Your Biscuits. Absent Masochistic, Drefong is on an easy lead and probably coasts home.

Only seven horses started in the Sprint. If Masochistic had been scratched, the field would have been one of the shortest in BC history, meaning dramatically fewer combinations in horizontal and vertical pools. Could this have been the Santa Anita stewards protecting the track (in this case, the Breeders' Cup) handle, as they did with the Jimmy Durante Handicap when flying debris at Del Mar should have resulted in the stakes being ruled "no contest"?

Given the litany of fan-screwing outrages in California, it's difficult to give the stewards the benefit of the doubt.

A promising start to 2017

It appears the new year will get off to a more positive start. Also on Friday, Ramon Preciado is expected to lose his license for multiple drug offenses. Anyone buying his tale of a disgruntled female groom hopping his horses because she hated him?

Preciado will join another serial offender, Kirk Ziadie, on the sidelines, although a lot of people around Gulfstream remain convinced he is still a factor in horses running under his father's name, Ralph Ziadie. At least Gulfstream is trying to clean up the game.

Along these lines, Marcus Vitali and his alleged beard, Allan Hunter, also have been told they are not welcome at Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs.

Yet, unbelievably, Vitali has been nominated to serve as a director of the Florida HBPA. This is like nominating Bernie Madoff for a seat on the Security and Exchange Commission.

For those with short memories, Vitali tried to avoid punishment for numerous drug violations in Florida by turning in his license and relocating his stable to Maryland. When Tim Ritvo realized what was going on, he banned Vitali from entering his horses at Laurel.

Meanwhile, evidence emerged that Vitali was using Hunter as a program trainer at Gulfstream for horses he formerly trained.

If the FHBPA doesn't have a rule that someone in Vitali's circumstances is ineligible to hold office, it should. ASAP.

Driving finishes

Before I close the page on 2016 there are a few other things I'd like to get off my chest:

The Pegasus is the most talked about event to come to racing in years. However, it's introduction comes at the expense of the Donn Handicap, which had been the most significant race for older horses of the winter. Gulfstream owes its existence to the Donn family, so it would be a nice gesture to recognize this by rechristening another major race with the Donn name. The Gulfstream Park Handicap is the obvious candidate.

Del Mar's out-of-state wagering for the fall meet was up more than 15%. I'm claiming a major contributing factor was the 12:30 first post. The 2 p.m. opener (5 p.m. in the East) during the summer session loses an untold number of East Coast bettors, who opt for dinner at a normal hour. Santa Anita has 12:30 and 1 p.m. posts so an earlier start at Del Mar would also provide bettors with consistency.

The Eclipse Awards came up with a winning parlay in selecting Steve Crist and Andy Beyer for Awards of Merit. They have long been an entry. They were in the vanguard of turf writers who brought real journalism in place of puff pieces to the sport. As publisher of The Racing Times, Crist introduced previously unavailable information to bettors, most noticeably the Beyer figures. The Racing Times didn't last but Crist's innovations have.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, December 22, 2016

No suspense in this year’s Eclipse Awards

The Eclipse Awards asks voters to list first, second and third choices, even though only first-place votes count. The purpose is to eliminate the possibility of unanimous vote-getters tipping off the results when the finalists are announced. This year more than any other, the Eclipses are well served by this process. The winners in the majority of divisions are so clear-cut there could be a half-dozen fields with unanimous winners.

MIAMI, Dec. 22--There are no place and show prizes at the Eclipse ceremonies. Members of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and other voting groups are asked to list their second and third choices on ballots, which arrived during the past week. But only the first-place votes matter. The reason for adding second and third is to try to create some suspense leading up to the Jan. 21 presentations at Gulfstream Park.

This year the winner of almost every division is so obvious. There used to be more drama in an old episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

California Chrome is the Horse of the Year. End of discussion. Arrogate beat him in the Breeders’ Cup Classic but the Eclipse Awards are supposed to be for a body of work, not just one race. Winning seven of eight in a campaign that stretched from January to December and included a pair of wins in the Middle East, California Chrome towers over the field. Obviously, he is best Older Dirt Horse, too.

Beholder is almost as much a layover as top Older Dirt Female, her fourth Eclipse without ever winning a race outside Southern California. Stellar Wind, who beat her twice, had her chance to end Beholder’s reign but couldn’t get it done in the BC Distaff.

Songbird should get every vote in the 3-year-old filly division. A case could have been made for Horse of the Year if the BC Distaff photo had gone her way.

The Kentucky Derby is usually the be-all and end-all among 3-year-old males. Not this year. Arrogate’s breath-taking brilliance in the Travers and BC Classic outweigh Nyquist’s spring triumphs.

The irony and unfair aspect of Eclipse voting is if Nyquist had retired after the Derby, he very well could have held on to the title despite Arrogate’s late-season surge. But inexplicably disappointing performances—a growth spurt is not an excuse-- in the Preakness, Haskell and Pennsylvania Derby doom any case that could be made for Nyquist.

Classic Empire, the early favorite for next May’s Kentucky Derby off his BC Juvenile win, and the fact that he has never been beaten in a race in which he carried his jockey to the finish, did more than enough to out-rate Bob Baffert’s undefeated Masterly.

Champagne Room is a lot shorter than the 33-1 she was in the BC Juvenile Fillies to grab the Eclipse in her division. She had only one other stakes win but she took the big one and no other young filly distinguished herself enough to overcome that laurel.

Every season there seems to be one unfortunate horse, who does enough to capture an Eclipse in any other year only to be denied because a rival did even more. Maybe we should create an Alydar Award for this.

Miss Temple City would be the prime candidate this year. She beat males in the Makers Mark and Shadwell Turf Mile and went out to California and won the Matriarch, all Grade 1’s.

But Tepin’s six straight wins, including a world class triumph in the Queen Anne at Ascot, gets the gold as Female Turf champion. Miss Temple City also went to Ascot for the Duke of Cambridge, where she finished fourth. In their only head-to-head meeting, Tepin was second in the BC Mile while MTC checked in fifth.

As strong as the distaff turfers were, the male division was weak. Like Tepin, Flintshire ran second in his final two starts of the season. Unlike Tepin, Flintshire had no serious rival for the title. His wins in the Manhattan, Bowling Green and Sword Dancer are more than enough since no other North American horse stood out. I refuse to vote for a Euro, who wins one start in the U.S., as Highland Reel did.

Male Sprinter is one of the divisions still up for grabs. Drefong’s campaign mirrors Arrogate’s. He won five in a row but didn’t win his first stakes until the Kings Bishop on Travers Day. Then he encored at the Breeders’ Cup.

His Bob Baffert stablemate Lord Nelson was undefeated in four races, three of them Grade 1’s, and would have been a heavy favorite at the Breeders’ Cup only to be scratched with an injury that sent him into retirement.

If Drefong makes it six in a row in the Grade 1 Malibu this coming Monday, he gets my vote. If he comes up short, I’ll support Lord Nelson.

Female Sprinter is another case of no one really rising above the class, so Finest City, on the strength of her BC victory and an overall (4) 2-1-1 record around one turn gets my vote to take home the trophy.

In the key human categories Chad Brown has saddled the winners of the most money, dethroned perennial champion Todd Pletcher at Saratoga, the nation's glamor meet, and conditioned Turf champion Flintshire. He also deserves plaudits for bringing Lady Eli, the year’s feel good story, back from near death to Grade 1 form.

Bob Baffert trained a couple of likely Eclipse winners, Arrogate, and either Defrong or Lord Nelson, in addition to Masterly. But Brown finally should get his first Eclipse.

I’m going slightly outside the box for top jockey. Javier Castellano again cleared the pack in purses and "Money Mike" Smith had a career year, even for him. However, I’m going with Jose Ortiz, who really broke through, for winning the most races and almost every riding title in New York. He also traveled well for stakes engagements elsewhere.

Knocks on Wood

The downgrading of the Wood Memorial has generated a firestorm of conversation and controversy. This isn’t the first time the Wood was lowered from Grade 1 to Grade 2, but it could be a lot harder to climb back to the top this time.

With Grade 1 options and million dollar purses at Gulfstream, Oaklawn and Santa Anita, it’s going to be difficult to lure the type of horses that can propel the Wood back to the top.

The only way to make it happen is for the Todd Pletcher’s, Chad Brown’s and Kiaran McLaughlin’s to set an example to other New York trainers by making an all-out effort to support their home circuit with their top Kentucky Derby hopefuls, not their mid-level 3-year-olds who might show well in the Wood but aren’t going to have a significant impact on the Classics.

There is little loyalty in racing but this is one instance where the guys who have become rich and famous on the NYRA circuit need to give a little back.

Merry Christmas (and/or Happy Hanukah). You people make all my seasons bright.

Written by Tom Jicha

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