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 04, 2018

An Eclipse Award doesn’t make a horse a star

A new bevy of champions will be crowned at the Eclipse Awards on Jan. 25. But it's overly optimistic to think any stars will be born. Mainstream sports fans hardly know them. Likely Horse of the Year Gun Runner ran only six times in 2017. Two, possibly three, of the winners made just three starts. On average, each of them started less frequently than once every 10 weeks. Out of sight, they were out of mind. Meanwhile, in California, the CHRB has held itself up to scorn for an out-of-proportion penalty meted out to Ron Ellis, a trainer with an almost spotless record over 35 years.

The Eclipse Awards celebrate all that's great about American racing. Slightly beneath the surface they also reveal something eating away at the sport. Only two of the dozen likely champions raced more than six times in 2017. West Coast made nine starts and Abel Tasman had seven.

The outstanding distaffer, Forever Unbridled raced just three times. So did likely 2-year-old filly champion Caledonia Road. The male juvenile champion will be either Good Magic or Bolt d'Oro. The former raced three times, the latter four.

Horse of the Year in waiting Gun Runner did not have a health or injury issue and was in training from January through December. Nevertheless, he made only six starts, one on the other side of the world in Dubai.

The 11 probable champions (Gun Runner will be a double winner) made 53 or 54 starts, depending on who wins the 2-year-old male category. This averages out to fewer than five apiece, less than one every 10 weeks.

Compare this to Secretariat, recently crowned the No. 1 thoroughbred of the past 50 years. Secretariat didn't begin his career until July 4 of his juvenile season yet still made nine starts as a 2-year-old. He made a dozen more during his Triple Crown winning season, including one at Arlington only three weeks after his breathtaking Belmont. Contemporary trainers would pass out at the thought.

When Secretariat raced, network television and major newspapers took notice. He made the covers of Time and Newsweek; not just Sports Illustrated but the ones whose prime space was generally devoted to world leaders and events.

It cannot be stated often enough that sports and entertainment, essentially the same thing, have become almost totally star driven. It's difficult to achieve star power when you are out of sight and thus out of mind, as today's best horses are.

Without stars, racing is a roulette wheel with saddle cloths. This is where the game is headed and nobody seems to care. Major stakes and what passes for star horses are relegated to early races on racing cards so as not to get in the way of feeding rainbow chasing jackpot pools which, no matter how huge, can't compete with the gargantuan payoffs on progressive slot machines.

The Eclipse Awards have become just another vehicle to service breeders. Why should casual sports fans, who showed up by the thousands to see American Pharoah work out and jammed race tracks to witness the likes of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, Buckpasser and Dr. Fager get excited about horses who made only three starts all year?

The only time racing insinuates itself into the mainstream of sports is during the five weeks of the Triple Crown. This is when casual fans become familiar with the major players and follow them. Once the Triple Crown ends, most of these horses disappear. So does the interest of less than hardcore fans.

The Eclipse Awards will barely get a line or two, if that, in most newspapers this month. The reason; outside the industry nobody cares. Several hundred people will be in Gulfstream's Sport of Kings Theater on Jan. 25 for the Eclipse ceremonies. There will probably be double that number in the slots parlors on the other side of the building.

Selfish breeders and trainers more concerned with their winning percentage than the good of the sport can blame themselves for this.

CHRB an embarrassment again

The California Horse Racing Board, the worst, most pig-headed, regulatory body in racing, has demonstrated again it's lack of common sense and fair-mindedness.

The Board has issued a draconian penalty--60 days and a $10,000 fine-- against Ron Ellis for a minuscule positive in Masochistic, second under the wire in the 2016 Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Ellis is one of the good guys. In a sport heavily populated by cynics and knockers, it would be difficult to find anyone to say a negative word about him.

A trainer more than 35 years, he has a near spotless record. You won't find his name near the top of the trainers' standings because he is devoted to his horses to a fault. If they are not absolutely fit and healthy, he doesn't run them. When he does enter, his horses are invariably well backed. Fans know they will get a good run for their money.

Nevertheless, the CHRB is treating him as if were the late Oscar Barrera. The significance of 60 days is it is the threshold for dire ramifications, which threaten to put him out of business. Most significantly, he has to disband his stable. So not only is he being punished far beyond what his ffense merits but 15 employees are suffering with him. They are out of a job. This is not justice.

It is not as if Ellis hasn't already suffered. Beyond the harm to his reputation, he was forbidden to enter a horse in the 2017 Breeders' Cup. You have to wonder how many top class horses this cost him.

His daughter Elizabeth, who is married to jockey Joe Talamo, penned a heartfelt defense of her dad that would make any parent proud and makes more sense than anything you get from the CHRB. Her epistle convincingly points out the circumstances that make the penalties against Ellis so outrageously out of proportion.

The overage of a legal steroid, stanozolol, found in Masochistic are so minute, they had to be measured in picograms. A picogram is a trillionith of a gram. You would need the Mount Palomar telescope to see it. It is beyond absurd to think this amount would be performance enhancing.

Moreover, Ellis made no effort to hide or deny that he treated Masochistic with stanozolol, which he used to keep weight on the horse. Stanozolol is said to pass through a horse's system within 60 days. Masochistic's last treatment was 68 days out.

Ellis had Masochistic tested three times, with the CHRB's knowledge, before the Breeders' Cup. The last test was eight days prior to the race. Traces of the steroid were still in Masochistic's system but in such small amounts, it was believed it would be gone by race day.

Fully armed with this knowledge, the CHRB, which is supposed to protect the bettors, allowed Ellis to enter and run the horse. It eventually disqualified him but bettors who had the exacta with Mind Your Biscuits, who was elevated to second well after the fact, were SOL. So who screwed the betting public more: Ellis or the CHRB?

Under the circumstances, shouldn't each of the CHRB's members be subject to the same or additional sanctions?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, December 28, 2017

NHL arena could alter NY racing forever

The new arena for the NY Islanders, which will be built in Belmont Park's backyard, is an efficient use of the vast expanse of land that goes mostly unoccupied except on Belmont Stakes Day. But it could be the first step in changing NY racing. The third jewel of the Triple Crown will probably have to be moved for a few years to Aqueduct, which thanks to the casino takeover is not the same facility it was when the Belmont was contested there from 1963-68. Also, a more compact Belmont grandstand, which seems inevitable, might rule out the Breeders' Cup ever returning to the Big Apple.

John does the heavy lifting at Horse Race Insider. I'm a regular presence. But our bi-weekly contributor Mark Berner uncovered the Scoop of the Year. Mark was ahead of New York's major newspapers and all its TV and radio stations in reporting months ago that a new arena for the New York Islanders hockey team will be built on what is now part of the backyard at Belmont Park.

I'll leave the details to Mark, who has been on top of every development. As an observer from afar I see serious potential ramifications for New York racing. As Mark also beat the pack on, it means the Belmont Stakes will have to be run at Aqueduct for a year or two (or three; almost nothing ever gets built on time in New York), starting probably in 2020.

This might seem like merely a geographic inconvenience, since the third jewel of the Triple Crown was run at Aqueduct from 1963-68 while Belmont was being rebuilt . It wasn't ideal to start such an important race on the far turn but otherwise it was no big deal.

Unfortunately, there is a huge difference between then and now. Aqueduct could handle 50,000-plus back in the pre-casino days. With the once enormous grandstand refitted for slot machines, it would be a stretch to squeeze in 10,000.

The alternative? I can't think of one. The floor is open.

There is another issue. With Belmont a construction zone, there is no possibility that the Breeders' Cup, which hasn't been run in New York since 2005, could return before some time in the mid-2020's. This is if it ever could return.

Something NYRA board member Michael Dubb said at the Islanders arena announcement set off a red flare with me. Speaking of what will become the new Belmont, Dubb said that NYRA would like to work out an extension of its current lease and work with designers "to take Belmont Park to its highest best use to promote horse racing and the racing industry."

This sounds like a plan for winterizing in a one-racetrack metropolitan area. Also, no one in the racing industry believes Belmont needs to be its current size. Almost all conversations about a new, probably winterized Belmont have centered around a greatly reduced capacity, more suitable for the reduced crowds that have become racing's new normal. But a significantly smaller Belmont would take NYRA out of the running to ever host the Breeders' Cup again.

This is exactly what has happened at Gulfstream. Also like Gulfstream, plans to include a mammoth hotel and retail spaces development in what is now the backyard also will shrink the track's footprint.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It actually makes sense in the big picture. However, Belmont and NY racing will never be the same.

The winners are...

Every Eclipse voter has his or her own standards for what constitutes a champion. I refuse to even consider a Euro off one big race in the U.S. The continent has its own championships.

I also shy away from turf specialists in categories that were created for main track horses and horses whose credentials are one big race. To me, the Eclipse Awards are for a body of work.

But flexibility is as important in picking champions as it is in handicapping individual races. I'm not even considering Breeders' Cup upsetter Bar of Gold as top female sprinter. Her only other win was in a NY-bred stakes. That doesn't do it for me.

This isn't the case in both juvenile categories even though one of the candidates in each has only the Breeders' Cup as a stakes win. I'm splitting my ballot. My vote for 2-year-old female goes to Caledona Road, who was 2-for-3, with a second in the Frizette, before capturing the BC Juvenile Fillies.

However, I'm passing on Good Magic in the male category because he went into the Breeders' Cup a maiden. Meanwhile, Bolt d'Oro had three wins, two in stakes, and was the victim of a brutal trip in the BC Juvenile.

I don't expect to be on the winning side but the idea, just as in political races, is to vote your convictions, not who you think will win.

Here is the way my vote went in the other Eclipse categories:

Horse of the Year--Gun Runner should be a unanimous choice in this category and as Best Older Male Dirt Horse. Anyone who votes otherwise should have his or her credentials scrutinized.

3-Year-Old Male-- West Coast gets my vote and will almost certainly win but it isn't as one-sided as it's being made out to be. Always Dreaming has the Kentucky Derby hole card, the greatest tie-breaker in racing. This more than offsets West Coast's Travers. Always Dreaming's Florida Derby and West Coast's Pennsylvania Derby cancel each other out. West Coast's good third against older at the BC--Always Dreaming never stepped out of his division--is the difference maker.

3-Year-Old Filly--Abel Tasman won three Grade 1 stakes and was second to an older champion in the BC Distaff. Elate mounted a late season campaign with big wins in the Alabama and against older in the Beldame, but couldn't handle Abel Tasman when the title was on the line.

Older Female--Forever Unbridled got a late start on her campaign and only raced three times but it was more than enough to assert her dominance. The clincher for me was when she ran down two-time champion Songbird, who had set soft fractions, in the Personal Ensign at Saratoga.

Male Sprinter--Roy H won five of six, had an excuse in the loss, and won the big one at Del Mar in November.

Female Sprinter--A case could be made for about a half-dozen candidates, each with as many con's as pro's. Unique Bella fired last in the La Brea, her fifth graded stakes win and finally a Grade 1. That's good enough for me.

Male Turf--World Approval always wanted to be just a miler but it took a while for his connections to figure that out. When they did, he was all but unbeatable, capping a three Grade 1 streak at the Breeders' Cup.

Female Turf--Let's finally formalize what everyone in racing has known for three years. The inspiring Lady Eli is a champion.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, December 21, 2017

California racing needs Stronach more than he needs California racing

The Stronach Group is heavily invested in California racing and Frank Stronach told horsemen he is prepared to spend millions more to build new barns to replace those lost at San Luis Rey. All he asks in return is for the omnipotent TOC to work with him in areas such as reduced takeout experiments. But with Mike Pegram leading the way, they have dug in their heels and refused to budge. It's a short-sighted strategy. Stronach could throw up his hands and sell Santa Anita's property for development ala Hollywood Park, leaving horsemen with nowhere to race.

December 26 is a big day in many places. It's Kwanza in the U.S. In Canada and the UK, it’s Boxing Day. And in Southern California, it’s opening day of the prime winter racing season at Santa Anita.

The traditional joy and enthusiasm for the latter is mitigated this year by the tragic San Luis Rey fire. The only good to come out of it is the demonstration of the love and affection people in the game have for horses, so much so that they were willing to put themselves in harm's way to save the equine athletes.

If the Eclipse Awards had a Person of the Year--and it should--there is no question who the first recipient would be. Martine Bellocq suffered second and third degree burns over 50 percent of her body as she repeatedly dashed into burning barns to save as many horses as she could. She couldn't have been more determined and dedicated if these were her own children.

If Bellocq is up to traveling, the Eclipse people should bring her to Gulfstream for the annual awards on Jan. 25 so she can get the standing ovation she deserves from everyone in the sport.

This is not meant to diminish all the other heroes and heroines, who put their lives at risk to save horses, and the thousands who have donated money and equipment to help the recovery of the horsemen and horsewomen, who suffered devastating losses.

The deaths of at least 47 horses and potential lung issues facing an untold number of others couldn’t come at a worse time for Southern California racing, which already is at a crisis point due to the shortage of ready to race horses.

Prior to the fire, Tim Ritvo and The Stronach Group had taken creative steps to help alleviate the problem. One measure, Ship and Stay, offers a bonus to horses, who come in from other jurisdictions to race. Alas, in light of the fire, Santa Anita will be lucky to achieve a wash between new horses and those lost.

“We’re trying to find a way to get more horses here rather than guys taking them out of town,” Ritvo said.

The circuit suffered a noteworthy loss when classy Glen Hill Farm and its trainer, Tom Proctor, decided it was pulling up stakes and heading back East. The problem for Glen Hill was an inability to get its horses into races, which shouldn’t be an issue in the crowded Northeast corridor. If you can’t find a race at one track, there are two or three others within reasonable vanning distance. This is not the case in California.

In an attempt to rebuild racing's middle class, Ritvo announced plans to card races for barns with fewer than 20 horses and for home bred maidens and those who sold at auction for less than $100,000. This way, modest stables can make a living without having to take on the big ticket stock from Bob Baffert, Doug O’Neill, John Sadler and other elite outfits.

I’d like to suggest another novel condition, claiming races for horses who have run with the past 21 days. Not only would this level the playing field for those who chose to enter, it would show everyone that horses don’t need two or three months between starts.

Santa Anita also has cut more than a half-million dollars from its stakes program, so that daily purses could be kept at last year’s level. The biggest casualty is the Santa Anita Derby, a former million dollar event, which fell to $750,000 last year and will go for $600,000 in 2018. The cut is merited because of how the Pegasus and Dubai World Cup have strip-mined the top-of-the-line horses from the no longer such a Big 'Cap.

Ritvo also would like to try new betting options but he is being obstructed by the powerful Thoroughbred Owners of California, which cares only about those at the top. Ritvo wanted to initiate a second Pick 5 at the end of the card with the same 14% rake as the early Pick 5, which has proven so popular.

Unfortunately, Mike Pegram, who thinks TOC stands for Teamsters of California and he is the new Jimmy Hoffa, told Ritvo that if the takeout is going to be reduced, it will have to come out of the track's share. He won't budge a dollar.

Pegram was the driving force in jacking up the takeout on exotic bets to more than 23 percent, a move that threw Southern California racing into a tailspin from which it has not recovered.

Pegram made his fortune with a chain of McDonald’s. I wonder if he allows the help to tell him how he should run those businesses. Of course, I don’t wonder; I know the answer.

It was encouraging to see Frank Stronach play a little hardball back with the TOC. At a meeting with horsemen he reminded them that without Santa Anita there is no racing in Southern California.

Stronach indicated a willingness to build new barns on the Santa Anita backside to replace those lost at San Luis Rey at a cost of millions. But he wants the horsemen to make concessions, too, rather than act like the Resistance in D.C.

If Santa Anita goes the way of Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows, Stronach, who could pocket hundreds of millions of dollars, will still have his Florida and Maryland tracks as well as his breeding and racing operations. California horsemen will be left with nothing. They should keep this in mind.

No Battle of Sexes

The Pegasus suffered a key defection this week when Charles Fipke announced that he intends to run only Clark winner Seeking The Soul in the $17 million race on Jan. 27.

The Pegasus won't have a California Chrome-Arrogate showdown this year but it looked as if there would be a highly promotable Battle of the Sexes between Horse of the Year cinch Gun Runner and certain-to-be filly and mare champion Forever Unbridled, also owned by Fipke.

Now the race looms to be a stroll around the park for Gun Runner. Collected and West Coast, if Baffert sends both, are quality horses but Gun Runner dusted them in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and there was nothing about that race to suggest the next time will be any different.

Fipke hasn’t totally closed the door on entering Forever Unbridled. For the sake of the race, and racing in general, here’s hoping he reconsiders.

Written by Tom Jicha

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