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, July 13, 2017

Continuing problems demand radical, outside-the-box solutions

The thoroughbred foal crop is declining because racing is almost a guaranteed losing proposition. A major contributor is per diem fees of $100 a day and up. A new system in which trainers would get more of a horse's purse earnings but no per diem would help bring new blood into the game and almost certainly increase field sizes because horses standing in their stalls earn nothing.

Crucial, seemingly irreversible declines in any business demand creative, out-of-the-box solutions. Continuing to do things the way they've always been done is a slow road to disaster.

Thoroughbred racing's alarming drop in foal crops and its subsequent impact on race days and field sizes isn't a chicken-and-egg situation. There aren't fewer owners getting into the game because fewer horses are being bred. There are fewer horses being bred because there are fewer people willing to get into ownership.

There's a simple explanation. It's well nigh impossible to stay solvent under the current business model. Something dramatically different needs to be attempted. Something like a shift away from trainer per-diems. This could not only make owning horses more financially viable, it could trigger an increase in field size.

I've been marginally involved in two pari-mutuel sports. One didn't involve per diems. The other did. The former was far more preferable.

Per diems, which typically run about $100 a day for thoroughbred trainers in South Florida and more on the larger circuits, are a killer for owners and offer limited incentive for trainers to race horses more often than they do now. While owners are hit with a bill for a C-note every day, the trainers are getting paid whether a horse races or not.

Of course, trainers don't get to pocket the whole per diem. They have to pay hot walkers, grooms and exercise riders. But unless they are poor managers, there should be enough left to provide a comfortable living.

Several decades ago, I was a partner in a litter of racing greyhounds. The owner-trainer arrangement in greyhound racing was you offered your dogs to a kennel, which kept two-thirds of the purses won. I received small checks when the dogs finished in the money but never got a training bill.

Granted, greyhounds vs. thoroughbreds is apples vs. oranges. Dogs race far more frequently and cost substantially less to maintain. On the other hand, purses are a pittance in dog racing as compared to horse racing. So the formula would have to be different. But the principle is the same.

Maybe 50-50 or 60-40 one way or the other would work with thoroughbreds. The numbers could be fine tuned to make it equitable for both parties once the new paradigm became accepted. Also there would have to be allowances made for extraordinary expenses such as vet bills.

But one thing is inarguable. If a trainer's earnings were determined by what his horses won, you would see them going to the starting gate more frequently than they do now. The more a horse earned, the more a trainer would make. A horse languishing in its stall earns nothing.

This would inevitably knock some small trainers out of the business but if they can't make a go of it by winning races, maybe they don't belong in the business.

The argument that struggling trainers might be influenced to send out horses when they aren't fit doesn't hold up. A horse that doesn't finish in the money earns nothing.

This would be such a dramatic shift in the status quo that most current trainers would resist it as vigorously as they do the elimination of race day medications. Why would they want any change in a system that works so well for them?

This leads to Part B of the new paradigm. A new generation of trainers, willing to play under the revised arrangement, would have to be brought into the game. Since this could not happen without stalls being made available to them, the only way to achieve this would be to put a cap on the number of stalls any trainer could control.

This, too, could be beneficial to the sport. Outfits like Todd Pletcher's, Chad Brown's and Bob Baffert's are assets but they come with a downside. They tie up an untold number of stalls, many occupied by horses who won't run for months.

Stronach Group presidentTim Ritvo recently pointed out that there are more than 3,000 horses in Southern California, so Santa Anita should not have problems filling four or five days of racing per week. Yet the Great Race Place is pressed to fill three because of the number of stalls filled by horses not ready to race. This is what training centers are for.
Consider a couple of prominent examples. Arrogate has been tying up a stall most of the year but chances are, he will not race at Santa Anita this year. The three starts on his dance card are all at Del Mar--next Saturday's San Diego Handicap, the Pacific Classic and the Breeders' Cup Classic. So thanks Santa Anita but sorry about that.

The same goes for Jerry Hollendorfer and Songbird. She has been training at Santa Anita but she made her first start of the year at Belmont and will run this Saturday at Delaware. It's understandable that Rick Porter, a credit to the game, would want to win the most prestigious stakes at the track nearest his home but this does nothing for Santa Anita, which would have benefited greatly if she had shown up in a race there.

I use these examples not to criticize Baffert or Hollendorfer but only because these horses, the best of their gender, have crowd magnet star power.

Think of how many lesser known horses fall into the same category. This is not to mention juveniles months from the races yet tying up stalls that could be filled by ready-to-run lesser horses. Young horses should not be allocated stalls at a track currently racing until they are within weeks of a start, no matter how prominent their trainers are.

I don't expect these suggestions to be immediately embraced but it is time to start a conversation, since what is happening now is not working.

New pick 4 a good try

NYRA and Los Alamitos deserve plaudits for trying something different, the East-West pick 4--two races from each track--that will be introduced Saturday. But other than that and the opportunity to attempt another multiple-race proposition with a 50-cent buy-in, there is not a lot to get excited about.

The leadoff race from Belmont, the Forbidden Apple, features record-setting Disco Partner stretching out to a mile. The final leg, the Los Alamitos Derby, is headed by one-time Derby hopefuls Klimt and West Coast. However the middle two legs, a 2-year-old maiden race from Belmont and an optional claimer from Los Al aren't going to inspire many to hang around for three extra hours (which might be the purpose of the bet).

Couldn't each track have attempted to dress it up by creating an overnight stakes as part of the package?

The Forbidden Apple has a 5:18 post. The Los Al Derby isn't scheduled to go off until 7:58.

The bet wasn't announced until mid-week, leaving scant time for promotion, and it's essentially a one-off, since this is the final weekend at both tracks. Let's hope it's a trial balloon for a similar wager featuring races from Saratoga and Del Mar.

That would be something to get excited about.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, July 06, 2017

Monmouth must be saved and help could be on the way

Monmouth Park, a gem of a racetrack, is fighting for survival and got some encouraging news recently. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear its arguments that the ban on sports betting, which Monmouth is hoping to introduce as a new revenue source, is unconstitutional. It might be overly optimistic that sports betting will be a life saver but it surely beats the alternative.

Monmouth Park is hanging on by a hoof nail So being in the vicinity on my trip north I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to visit the New Jersey track for the first time in years and hopefully not the last time.

I’m supposed to be the wordsmith but my brother-in-law said all that needs to be said: “You forget how nice this place is.” Something has to be done to keep this gem of a racetrack alive.

Saratoga is Saratoga. There never has and never will be anything like it. However, Monmouth is as close as anyone can hope.

The Jersey shore track could not be more family friendly. The top of the stretch area is more expansive than Saratoga’s. Even on a Saturday, late arrivals have no trouble finding a table with an umbrella to settle for the day. (In fairness, the backyard, while sizable, doesn’t approach the acreage of the Spa.)

As soon as you pass through the entrance gate, signs direct you to the “BYOB area.” Tough to get more friendly than that. There’s plenty to do for family members not totally consumed by racing. The day I was there, a chocolate and cheese festival was well attended. Someone told me that food truck days pack the place.

If you don’t want to tote a cooler, concession prices are exceptionally reasonable: $4 for a 16-once beer; $3 for a hot dog, $2 for a coffee or soda. I proved a point to myself that I have made here. Charge me $4 for a beer I’ll buy three or four. Charge me $7 or $8, I’ll buy none.

The ambiance is magnificent. The backyard paddock is well shaded and spacious enough that comfortable positions by the fence are easy to find, even if there are three or four in your party. Tables at the outdoor Lady’s Secret Bar, which overlooks the paddock, also were plentiful.

This seaside gem must not be allowed to follow Hollywood Park, Calder, Bay Meadows, Rockingham Park and other tracks into history.

Fortunately, a few days after my visit, it was announced that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments on whether the quarter-century old Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act—a title as misleading as the Affordable Care Act--is unconstitutional. Monmouth has been fighting to overturn the ban on sports gambling as a new source of fans and revenue but has been thwarted in lower courts for almost a decade.

A sports bar with a zillion TV monitors and almost as many stools has been created just in case.

A verdict could be as much as a year away and it still could go the wrong way but at least there is hope. Opposition from the professional sports leagues is not as strident as it has been. The NFL and NHL are putting teams in Las Vegas without demanding that their games be taken off the betting boards.

The infamously hypocritical NCAA, which fancies itself the guardian of “student athletes,” is still adamant in its opposition even though it has no problem with a half-dozen holiday and post-season conference basketball tournaments in Sin City as well as a full slate of UNLV football and basketball-- all on the boards.

Sports betting should have been legalized long ago. Billions are going offshore and to illegal bookmaking operations because it hasn’t been legalized. Anyone who wants to get down can, yet not a penny is going to legitimate concerns.

However, for myriad reasons, sports gambling is not a magic bullet for Monmouth or other race tracks anxious to get into the game.

Sports betting is cash intensive. I suppose $5 and $10 bets will be accepted but $50, $100 or more is likely to be the norm.

Sports players are more likely to be horse players than those who sit in front on a slot machine, but it is churn killing, the lifeline of horse racing. Money bet sits dormant for more than three hours.

Also, it is not a reliable source of revenue. The house can lose. Over the long haul, it doesn’t happen often but if games on a given day or week go the wrong way, a huge deficit can occur.

A veteran sports book operator once told me that every race book’s nightmare is a Thanksgiving Day when all the favorites and overs hit, since this is the way the majority of the action falls. Super Bowl Sundays can and have also gone the wrong way big time for the house.

Speaking of Thanksgiving Day, another issue for Monmouth is the heaviest sports gambling occurs during times of the year when the track isn’t open for live racing—football in the fall and early winter and March Madness. So it’s questionable how many new horse players will be created. However this would not be the case at other jurisdictions sure to jump right into the sports betting pool if Monmouth's arguments prevail at the Supreme Court.

All credit to Monmouth for fighting for sports betting the right way, as in the legal way. But if the verdict comes down against it, Monmouth should just ignore it and go ahead. On July 1, Nevada became the eighth state to legalize recreational marijuana, which is still fully against federal law. To add insult, pot is sold openly in D.C., within smelling distance of the Capital. Another dozen or so states appear on the verge of following suit. The government has done nothing to stop it. There is nothing to suggest the response would be any different if New Jersey and other states started taking bets on sports.

Racing a ratings killer?

Phil Mushnick of the New York Post is the platinum standard for media commentary. An item in his column at the end of last week should be cause for concern throughout the racing industry.

Mushnick reported that Mike Francesa, the Big Kahuna of New York sports talk, got into a screaming match with his boss at WFAN, Mark Chernoff, over a disappointing ratings book.

The issue, Mushnick reported, was Chernoff blaming the ratings dropoff on Francesa spending too much time discussing the Triple Crown. Even if this is not the cause, that the head of the industry leader in the nation’s largest market thinks so is chilling because of the message it sends to the rest of the market and the ripple effect it could have nationwide.

Among racing’s many problems, abandonment of coverage by the media is one of the most troubling and harmful. As best I know, there is not a single newspaper outside Kentucky that still has regular racing coverage. New York, which used to have tabloid wars over which had more thorough racing coverage, has totally cut it out of the daily sheets.

It’s hard to draw new fans to a game about which little information and excitement is generated. Devising ways to restore at least some coverage ought to be high on the agenda at the annual convention in Arizona and the Jockey Club Round Table in Saratoga, as well as in the media department of every race track.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Summit went to the top of racing quickly and has stayed there

Summer used to be truly the racing doldrums in South Florida. The conventional thinking was it was too hot to risk really outstanding horses. Calder's pre-Churchill Downs management team refused to accept this and created the Summit of Speed to lure top sprinters south in July. The series of rich races, which will be renewed at Gulfstream on Saturday, took off immediately and is now an established high spot in the lull month between the end of the Triple Crown and the openings of Saratoga and Del Mar.

Gulfstream has done such a splendid job elevating the status of South Florida summer racing it is easy to forget the foundation was laid by Calder's pre-Churchill Downs management team.

One of the cornerstones was the Summit of Speed, which will be renewed Saturday in a stakes laden Gulfstream card highlighted by a couple of Grade 2's and a Grade 3.

Prior to the inaugural Summit in 2000, the notion of a graded stakes during the blistering South Florida heat was a pipe dream. This gnawed at then promotion and marketing director Mike Cronin, a rare race track executive, who passionately loves racing more as a sport than a business.

Creation of the Summit was his of way of reminding horsemen, "Hey, guys, we're still here."

Cronin relied on a cardinal rule of business, find a void and fill it. “I knew sprints were an under-utilized category and there was a soft spot on the calendar for major events between the end of the Triple Crown and the openings of Saratoga and Del Mar.”

He asked his forward thinking boss, Calder president Ken Dunn, to approve $1 million in purses for the centerpiece events, the Smile Sprint and Princess Rooney, each endowed with $500,000 purses. Confident in Cronin, Dunn told him to go for it.

"We both felt we had to put on a big show to get noticed,” Cronin said.

Half-million dollar purses were unheard of windfalls for sprints anywhere during the summer. In fact, the Smile and Princess Rooney will each go for half the original amounts this weekend, although Gulfstream will disperse $1 million including the undercard stakes.

They were lucky to have the late Bobby Umphrey Jr. as racing secretary. "Bobby had worked on the West Coast for many years," Cronin said. "He still had a lot of connections out there, so every year he and I went out there recruiting. West Coast guys are used to shipping East for big races, so they were susceptible. By the second or third year, when they saw us coming around the barns, they would go, 'Here come the Summit guys.'"

It didn't hurt that Dunn also signed off on underwriting the cost of a plane to bring the Westerners back East and treated them royally when they arrived.

Getting a series as ambitious as the Summit off the ground can be daunting and time consuming. In this case, it was a success from the get-go, Cronin said. "It hit pretty quickly, We were over the hump after the first year."

The racing world noticed when Caller One took the initial Carry Back then went on to win the Golden Shaheen in Dubai twice. So much for the fear that Florida’s summer heat would debilitate a horse. In 2002 and 2003, Orientate and Cajun Beat competed in the Summit prior to winning Breeders’ Cup Sprint races. Crack sprinters have been coming south ever since.

In 2005, Lost in the Fog, one of the finest sprinters of the millennium, shipped in from the West Coast to capture the Carry Back.

The Breeders’ Cup eventually recognized what was happening. The Smile and Princess Rooney are now “win-and-you’re-in” events. There was a one-year break in continuity in 2014 at the height of the Calder-Gulfstream dates battle but once that was settled, Gulfstream picked up the baton and kept the series going.

The only discordant note during the early stages of the Summit, Cronin said, was local horsemen got their noses out of joint that out-of-towners were coming to town and scooping up big money they felt should be going to them.

This problem was solved the right way. Racing is a meritocracy. The Calder guys were urged to point their own best stock at the Summit. By 2010-11, this problem went away when locals won seven of the eight biggest stakes. They’ve been holding their own ever since.

This trend could continue Saturday. Dearest will take a ton of beating in the Princess Rooney. She won the Azalea on last year’s Summit card then encored in the Sugar Swirl during the winter meet. The latter was sandwiched by close defeats in the Prioress at Saratoga and Inside Information this past winter.

Distinta, who won the Inside Information, is also in the field but the race shape works in Dearest’s favor. She can consistently fire sub-45 second first quarters, something none of the others have demonstrated an ability to match. She should be long gone.

Three Rules, hero of last summer’s Sire Stakes, looks like a good bet to get back in the win column in the Carry Back. He won his first five career starts at Gulfstream but hasn’t won in his last five, all in top grade company. His only out-of-the-money finishes during this stretch were in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Kentucky Derby and he wasn’t disgraced in either.

His connections nominated him for the Carry Back for 3-year-olds as well as the open Smile and opted to stay against his own age to get him back on the winning track.

Awesome Banner, another Gulfstream development, is likely to be heavily supported in the Smile but he doesn’t appear to be the horse he used to be. He had five wins and three seconds in 11 starts last year but has only a pair of thirds in four 2017 starts.

An intriguing alternative is Mid-Atlantic shipper Imperial Hint, who has three consecutive triple-digit Beyers, which is three more than his rivals combined.

Cronin, whose heart was broken by the demise of Calder, now works for the HBPA in Minnesota but still follows the Summit. He can be proud of what he started.

Another mockery

Flavien Pratt is the latest jockey to make a mockery of riding rules. Pratt, in a tight race for the Santa Anita riding title, was hit with a three-day suspension for careless riding in the Summertime Oaks on June 16.

He should have served the days this weekend but to keep his hopes alive to win the championship, he appealed to the California Horse Racing Board. The CHRB turned his plea aside, so he went to court and got a stay. This is just what society needs, jockeys tying up the courts.

Don’t be surprised if he drops the appeal after this weekend so he is all set to ride at Del Mar, which opens July 19. This is standard operating procedure for jockeys.

The only way to stop these sham appeals is to come down hard on riders after the process plays out. If you get a traffic ticket and take it to court, the fine can be tripled or quadrupled. This should also be the case for frivolous rider appeals.

When Pratt drops his appeal, the CHRB should raise the suspension to 10 to 15 days. It’s the only way this nonsense will be stopped.

Miami, June 29, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

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