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 Sentinels horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Friday, June 07, 2013

One loss is no reason to jump off the Orb bandwagon

The Orb bandwagon emptied quickly after his dull Preakness but I'm staying aboard. All the factors that made the Derby winner look like a potential champion are still in place. He has the pedigree and style for the grueling mile and a half. Shug McGaughey is a master at getting horses good, then keeping them good. Joel Rosario is too fine a jockey to put in another ride like the one in Baltimore. What's more, there should be no walking on the lead in the third jewel of the Triple Crown. Orb's disappointing showing in the Preakness was a bummer for those yearning for a Triple Crown winner. But the upside is, he should be a generous 3-1 or so, rather than 1-2 or less had he won in Baltimore.

MIAMI, June 7, 2013--Every fan has a favorite horse. Mine is Riva Ridge.

I’m not saying he was the finest horse I’ve ever seen. That would be Seattle Slew, who might never have lost if the owners hadn’t shipped him anywhere for a buck, then change trainers when their misguided ventures blew up in their faces. Slew’s consistent brilliance gives him the edge in my eyes over Secretariat.

Riva Ridge was more a blue collar hero. I’m still convinced he would have been a year ahead of his more heralded stablemate in becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948 if it hadn’t rained on Preakness Day 1972.

I received an advance screener for the movie “Secretariat.” I have not watched it and probably never will because others have told me how it treated Riva Ridge as a non entity. Maybe it’s because three Triple Crown winners followed him onto the scene in the ‘70s, “The Decade of Champions.”

Riva Ridge might not have completed a Triple Crown but he was an Eclipse winner at 2 and 4, track record setter four times and still co-holder of the world record for a mile and three sixteenths. He was a millionaire when that was a mark of distinction.

He didn’t need to take his track with him, as long as it wasn’t wet. He won in New York, of course. But he also won the Laurel Futurity and Garden State Stakes, when those races were juvenile championship deciders, the Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs and Hollywood Derby in addition to the Kentucky Derby. He rebounded from the muddy debacle in Baltimore to win the Belmont by 7.

I see a similar thing happening, albeit under opposite circumstances Saturday. Orb won the Derby on a sloppy track, ran out of the money on a fast Pimlico surface, and is almost certain to be confronted by another off track Saturday.

Wet or dry, I’m convinced Orb will dominate the Belmont Stakes and I wouldn’t be surprised if he does it by daylight, just as Riva Ridge did.

My faith is based on several factors. The optimism after his Derby triumph that he was Triple Crown timber was steeped to a great degree in the fact that his pedigree and style screamed Belmont Stakes, the race that has tripped up so many would be Triple Crown winners. This hasn’t changed because of what happened at Pimlico.

Shug McGaughey brings horses along slowly, so when they get good, they stay good. Point of Entry, who will be odds-on to win the Manhattan one race before the Belmont, is a prime example.

There is no hotter rider in America than Joel Rosario. He might not have put in the ride of his life in the Preakness but those who blame him for Orb’s failure are way off base. While Oxbow was cruising along on a ridiculously easy lead, it seemed some of the other riders were as much determined to keep Orb pinned inside on a tiring track as they were to get the best of their mounts. Orb’s No. 1 post abetted this conspiracy. Great riders like Rosario don’t allow this to happen twice.

There should be no walking on the lead by Oxbow or anyone else this time. Ken McPeek has said publicly that he is telling Alan Garcia to go to the front from the rail with Frac Daddy. Freedom Child won the Peter Pan gate-to-wire on a sloppy track. Midnight Taboo, who has only a maiden win in three starts but was quick enough to run second at Saratoga in his 5 ½ furlong debut, seems to be in the race to assure an honest pace for Mike Repole’s more dangerous stablemates, Arkansas Derby winner Overanalyze and outstanding filly Unlimited Budget. On credentials, Midnight Taboo has no business in a Grade 1 classic at this stage of his career.

Most of all I like Orb because I still feel he is the best horse of his generation. I was on a crowded bandwagon three weeks ago. One defeat in a race with an unchallenged leader setting sundial fractions and almost everyone jumps off. Not me.

Orb’s Derby capped a remarkable five-race run, the final three wins in stakes that separate the best of the crop from the rest.

Revolutionary, third in the Derby, is the biggest threat on accomplishments. But three of the others I fear most come from among the new shooters. Freedom Child has that win in the prep over a sloppy track. Incognito's Peter Pan was better than it looks on paper and he is being sent out by Kiaran McLaughlin, who is hot enough lately to spontaneously combust. The son of Belmont winner A.P. Indy and Octave, who ran second to Rags to Riches in the 2007 Kentucky Oaks and third at 10 furlongs in the Alabama, should love the distance. Unlimited Budget is built like a colt.

Repole, a figs guy, says her numbers stand up to the colts. Females beat males so often in Europe it isn’t considered noteworthy when it happens. The big reason it doesn’t happen on this side of the Atlantic is it is more rarely attempted.

Todd Pletcher has already beaten a champion, Curlin, in the Belmont with the filly Rags to Riches. However, I would feel better about the chances of Unlimited Budget if I was convinced the decision to run her was Pletcher’s and not Repole’s. The ego-driven New Yorker said at the post position draw that he wants to win the Belmont more than the Kentucky Derby, which explains him throwing three horses at it.

Then again, as D. Wayne Lukas often says, you have to be in it to win it. No matter which horse earns the blanket of carnations, “The Coach” is the towering human figure of this Belmont. Nine of the 14 starters can be traced to him.

In addition to Oxbow and late-running Will Take Charge, a couple of former assistants, who honed their craft under Lukas, will start seven others: five for Pletcher (Repole’s three, Palace Malice and Revolutionary), Incognito for McLaughlin and Derby runnerup Golden Soul for Dallas Stewart.

I’ve never been a fan of uncoupled entries. But if Team Pletcher had been combined as one unit, as they would have been in days gone by, and Lukas’ pair also were coupled, there would be only nine betting interests and I wouldn’t collect as much as I expect to on Orb.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, June 04, 2013

A fan-friendly platform for a would-be racing czar

The idea of a racing czar to rule the sport nationally is not going to happen. Tracks and local jurisdictions will never surrender their power. But as long as people like the ivory tower crowd at The New York Times want to daydream about a strong, central leader for racing, there are fan-friendly fixes that should be at the top of the czar's agenda. The best thing about this to-do list is almost all of them require nothing more than some common sense by racetrack management and could be put into place immediately.

MIAMI, June 4, 2013—Tears for Fears was a bit off with their hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

Response to my recent column on the likelihood of a racing czar, which was suggested in The New York Times, was as passionate and divided as some of the debates in Washington. A sizable segment of the racing community wants someone, anyone to rule their world.

It might be an appealing thought but it's as undoable as creating Utopia. Too many insurmountable obstacles are in the way to have it come to fruition. First and foremost is the plethora of individual racetracks and jurisdictions, which will never surrender their power.

With the comfort of knowing a racing czar is a pipedream, I have the ideal candidate—Me.

Fans would be my win, place and show considerations. Without them, racing is polo, a costly hobby for the rich ignored by the masses.

The best part of my candidacy is the edicts I would issue are actually easily accomplished. Well, maybe not the first one, but all the others.

A sport without stars is like an album without a hit single. Only the hardcore pay attention. Racing needs its stars to stay on the track at least through their 4-year-old campaigns. I would urge (or if I were really the czar, order) the Jockey Club not to register foals conceived by a stallion before he was 5.

Thoroughbreds generally live into their 20s, or close to it. Surrendering one breeding season for the good of the game isn’t asking too much in light of how it could enhance interest in the sport. The healthier racing is, the more everyone, including breeders, benefits.

NYRA’s rule on one part of a coupled entry being scratched after betting has begun would be adopted nationwide. That is, the other part of the entry is considered scratched, too, and runs for purse money only.

Florida bettors continue to be regularly screwed because Calder and Gulfstream refuse to bend on this issue. The latest example came in Calder’s 10th race on June 1. Trainer Stanley Gold had a coupled entry, Hand Picked and It’s a Done Deal. Hand Picked threw his rider and ran off as the field was being loaded. He was properly ordered scratched.

It’s impossible to know which of Gold’s horses fans had made the 2-1 favorite--maybe some just wanted strength in numbers--but they were stuck with It’s a Done Deal, who drifted up to 7-2. It would have taken Olympic speed to get to a window or SAM to cancel the ticket.

But there were also multi-race tickets involved. Those holding them had no opportunity to change and were SOL when It's a Done Deal was soundly thrashed.

A similar situation happened on a Sunday at Gulfstream this winter with a Frank Calabrese entry, in which what seemed to be the much stronger half was scratched. The one that did run finished up the track.

There is no excuse for the Florida tracks (and any others with the same policy) to not have adopted the NYRA rule yesterday.

Another NYRA practice, posting multi-race will-pays immediately after the just run race payoffs, also should be adopted anywhere it isn’t.

The Southern California tracks are the worst. Try to decide your options to “save” when you have to sit through post-race interviews, replays, promos for the next food truck day, commercials for area restaurants and all other manner of extraneous crap before the potential payoffs are posted. There were occasions at Santa Anita this winter when they weren’t up until inside five minutes to post.

NYRA has areas it can improve, too, starting with posting all payoffs based on $2 bets. Only a fool bets $2 Pick 4’s or Pick 3’s, because of the tax implications. In fact, there should be an advisory in track programs that as long as the confiscatory IRS tax grab persists bettors should buy the least expensive multi-race combinations allowed. Those who want to bet more per combination have the option of multiple tickets.

In harmony with this, payoffs should be posted according to what the minimum wager is (with the exception of win-place-show for tradition’s sake). If you can bet a 50-cent Pick 3 or Pick 4, the payoff based on that should be displayed. For bets with a $1 minimum, the single buck payoff should be the norm.

Multi-tasking is in vogue but it shouldn’t come into play when watching races. New York, Southern California and Florida in the winter/Kentucky in the spring and fall, should never spring the gate on a race until one in progress at another of the big three has been decided.

The number of tracks operating, especially in the warm weather months, makes it impossible to avoid all conflicts. But the big three are where most of the simulcast money is bet. Players shouldn’t have to go cross-eyed trying to follow two races at once.

At least three times on a Saturday last winter, Santa Anita’s first race of a Pick Six with a huge carryover was run simultaneous to a graded stakes at Gulfstream. The two tracks are owned by the same person, Frank Stronach.

This would be as much in the tracks’ interest as the fans. Research has shown substantially more is bet when there is spacing between simulcast races.

Only extreme provincialism and contempt for the bettors allow this to happen. The officials who can order a race held a minute or two have access to the same TV monitors as fans, so there is no excuse. If I were Stronach, who has shown zero hesitance to fire people, the first time would have brought a warning not to let this happen again. The second time would have brought a pink slip. I’ll bet there wouldn’t have been a third time.

Picking a winner is so challenging that even the sharpest handicappers are right only about a third of the time. Stewards would be instructed never to disqualify a horse, who committed an infraction that didn’t change the final placings. To anyone who says, “How would you know?” this is no more a judgment call than deciding if a disqualification is warranted.

The most disheartening situation for a player is to see his selection win easily, only to be taken down for crossing over too soon or bumping a rival en route to an easy win when the “fouled” horse holds on for second. Disheartened fans can easily become former fans.

A simple remedy exists. Fine the offending jockey the amount he made for riding the winner and strip the win from his record. This is what would have happened with a DQ anyway and you don’t have disgruntled fans.

This is only the start of my platform. I’m sure you have ideas, too. Fire away.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, May 31, 2013

Calder-Gulfstream deal could be imminent

With a month to go before Gulfstream is scheduled to begin racing head-to-head against Calder, there is a strong belief, supported by recent history, that Churchill Downs, Inc., is on the verge of striking a deal to allow Frank Stronach's track to run unopposed. On another front, some of the security precautions NYRA has announced for the Belmont Stakes are way over the top. If some of the same restrictions are extended to the Saratoga meeting, they will kill the atmosphere that has made a day at the Spa one of sports biggest joys.

MIAMI, May 31, 2013--All is quiet on the Gulfstream-Calder front. But it’s one of those eerie news blackout quiets which frequently occur before something big is about to be announced. There was a meeting this week between high ranking executives of both sides and no one is talking publicly about what transpired, generally a sign progress is being made and a deal is imminent.

The expectation remains that before the head-to-head racing nightmare begins in July, Churchill Downs, Inc., will accept some kind of settlement, which will either turn Calder into a going-through-the-motions-to-keep-our-casino venue or end racing there entirely.

The imminent closure of Hollywood Park is an example why this belief is so prevalent. CDI sold Hollywood to its current owners without any regard for the future of racing. CDI knew and didn’t care when it sold the track to a development company that it was dooming Hollywood as a racetrack. The only thing that kept it operating as a track as long as it has was the crippling recession, which dried up the money supply to finance the ambitious commercial/residential project Hollywood’s new owners envisioned.

Churchill also negotiated a settlement a couple of years ago when it allowed Gulfstream to usurp December, one of the most profitable months of the year for Calder.

Faced with the reality that strong willed Frank Stronach is determined to run year-round, with or without competition, there is no reason to believe CDI will act differently this time.

The company’s behavior in New Orleans is another example of the diminishing regard it has for racing.

A recent Ray Paulick column ( decried the deterioration of the Fair Grounds turf course since CDI bought the facility.

Paulick quoted former Fair Grounds owner Louie Roussel, who said CDI has neglected the infield grass course since 2004.

The piece also quoted a letter sent by Stanley Seelig, president of the Louisiana HBPA, to the Louisiana Racing Commission. “This is not a new problem, and one that the Fair Grounds has done a poor job of addressing the last few years.”

Weeks went by this past season without the turf course being usable, even when there was minimal or no rain. Under the circumstances, a responsible, dedicated-to-racing owner would have made repairing the turf course after the meet closed in March a priority.

CDI added insult to injury, allowing tens of thousands of fans to trample all over it at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in late April, early May. The track—more precisely, CDI—is contractually committed to the festival but more effort could have been made to protect the troubled turf.

The net result, Paulick wrote, is “CDI makes money, horsemen lose money (from simulcasting and slots being shut down at times during the festival) and the turf course is severely damaged.” Insiders are saying that the damage is so extensive that it might negatively impact the 2013-14 meeting. For CDI, regrettably this has become business as usual.

So whether it’s Florida, California or Louisiana, CDI’s attitude has been to take the money and not worry about running a race track. This does not bode well for the future of Calder.

Start Spreading the News

The Belmont Stakes has a self-styled status as “The Test of Champions.” This might have been true in another time, back in the 20th century. It has not been the case during this millennium.

Only once since 2000 has the winner of the third jewel of the Triple Crown been voted the ultimate honor for a champion, the Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year. That was Point Given 12 years ago.

And only three times in the 21st century has the Belmont winner been named outstanding 3-year-old male—Point Given, Afleet Alex (2005) and Summer Bird (2009).

The filly Rags to Riches, who upset Curlin in 2007, was voted best 3-year-old female.

During this same period, the Belmont has been won by Ruler on Ice, with a only a maiden win in five starts going into the Belmont and one-for-12 since (an allowance win over Aqueduct’s winter track); DaTara, who subsequently went zero-for-nine before being retired; Jazil, who went into the Belmont with only a maiden win in eight starts and didn’t win in three post-Belmont starts, and Sarava, a 70-1 shot, who failed to hit the board in his two post-Belmont races.

The Belmont has become a victim of the mania to breed for win-early speed, stamina be damned. Modern thoroughbreds, who can handle the grueling mile and a half, don’t often fit that paradigm. Union Rags last year was an exception.

We'll take a more detailed look at the Belmont field after it's set at Wednesday's post draw.

One other Belmont thought: a kneejerk over-reaction is inevitable whenever there is an act of terrorism. Racing is not immune. In the wake of the Boston Marathon tragedy, the expanded security precautions put in place by NYRA threaten to reduce New York’s biggest day of racing downstate into as much fun as a trip through airport security.

Taking reasonable precautions is laudable but some measures are, pardon the expression, overkill.

I have no problem with prohibitions against laser pointers, mace, pepper spray and certainly weapons. It’s dumbfounding that these haven’t been on a forbidden list forever. But the reasoning behind no umbrellas, even in the backyard, where rain has been known to fall and there is no cover, will have to be explained to me.

Limiting the size of a woman's purse, which is going to be searched at the entrance gate anyway, also seems a bit much.

There has been a thwarted terrorist attempt at detonating an underwear bomb on a plane. I guess we should be grateful NYRA didn’t decree everyone has to come to the Belmont commando style.

With a new regime in place, we can only hope more reasonable voices will prevail before Saratoga. If the same prohibitions, especially those banning coolers and alcoholic beverages, are put into place at the Spa, they might as well start saddling horses under the trees again. There will be nobody else there.

Written by Tom Jicha

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