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, 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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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Clasico shows potential for more international races

Gulfstream was mobbed for the Clasico Internacional del Caribe with Latin fans, who rooted for their nation's horses as if it were an international soccer match. This enthusiasm demonstrated there is a substantial untapped market among fans originally from south of the border. It would be wise for Gulfstream and other tracks in areas with similar demographics--NY and California, for instance--to create similar events. Also, the 1-3 finish for fillies is the latest example that the U.S. is behind the times when it comes to segregating the genders. Meanwhile, out West, Southern California stewards became the story in another major stakes.

Gulfstream rolled the dice with the Clasico Internacional del Caribe, five races for horses unfamiliar to U.S. fans, and was richly reward with a crowd comparable to Florida Derby and Pegasus Days.

The initial inclination after an event as successful as the Clasico is, “How can we do this again?” The prudent answer is you probably can’t, at least not right away, and shouldn’t try.

Gulfstream COO Tim Ritvo gets this. He was beaming like an emoji at the crowd and handle figures Saturday. Nevertheless, asked if Gulfstream would try to get the Clasico back as soon as possible or try to make it an annual event as the Claiming Crown has become, he responded, “Not right away. Maybe in a few years. It’s best if the Clasico moves around like the Super Bowl.”

One reason for patience is there could be an Ugly American backlash if a track in the United States tried to commandeer one of the major sports festivals in Latin America. Hosting it every four or five years in the U.S. might add to the stature of the event.

Nevertheless, seeing the fervor among fans, who wore their nation’s colors and waved flags, it is worth exploring how a race or series of races featuring horses from south of the border could become a part of the calendar at Gulfstream, which sits in the midst of one of the largest Latin population areas in the nation.

Seeing so many people from this demographic, who appeared to be first-timers or occasional race-goers, underscored how untapped this market is.

The races for the best from Latin America wouldn’t have to be part of Gulfstream’s prime winter season. Year-round racing has created relative dead spots between April and December. The Summit of Speed and Sire Stakes fill some of the voids but there is plenty of room for another big day. An invitational race or two featuring horses from the nine nations in the Confederation, which stages the Clasico, could become another “offseason” high spot.

What weaker sex?

The victory by Mexican filly Jala Jala in the big race, the Clasico del Caribe, provided the latest evidence that American racing is out of step with the rest of the world in segregating genders. This lesson has been driven home repeatedly at the Breeders’ Cup as Euro females regularly beat our--and their--best males.

Three of the dozen entrants in Latin America’s Kentucky Derby were fillies. Two finished in the money as Jala Jala’s stablemate Joyme held the show. Clearly the difference in ability between males and females is mainly in the minds of those who control North American racing.

Races restricted to fillies and mares probably help fill cards but a drastic reduction in the number of stakes for females-only is long overdue. Among other benefits, it would help alleviate the short fields that plague so many stakes for older horses. It also would diminish the number of graded stakes, of which there are far too many considering the decline in foal crops.

Good to be high

One other tidbit picked up Saturday, worth filing away for if and when more Pan-American races are run in the States, is the influence of altitude. Mexican horses, who race and train at almost a mile and a half high altitude have a distinct advantage when coming down to sea level. “Absolutely,” said trainer Fausto Gutierrez, who trains Jala Jala and Jaguaryu, winner of the Lady Caribbean Cup. Gutierrez trains so many top Mexican horses that he quipped back home he is called “Pletcher.”

OK, so how long is it going to be before some enterprising trainer takes his horses to some mile high location to train for the Triple Crown or Breeders’ Cup?

Got the time?

Gulfstream race-caller Pete Aiello was about to call out the quarter-mile time for The Buffalo Man Stakes Saturday when he stopped in mid-sentence. He immediately recognized the time posted on the board, 25.53, was ridiculous for a talented group of juveniles sprinting six furlongs.

No time was posted for the half-mile or the finish. Thankfully, as John Pricci pointed out last week, Gulfstream has created a backup fail safe for the continuing timing problem. All races, dirt or turf, are now also hand-timed.

The correct quarter-mile time was 22.50 en route to a final 1:11.40.

The winner of the minor stakes, Diamond Oops, is one to keep an eye on in the coming months. He did it the right way, rating just off the speed then making his move near the top of the lane and drawing off by two lengths. Among those in his wake was a 4-5 Todd Pletcher colt, Mojovation, whose previous effort was a third in the Futurity at Belmont.

It's too soon to make Diamond Oops a Derby horse but he comes off as a colt who will take a lot of beating in stakes this winter and spring. The Mucho Macho Man on Jan. 6 at one mile out of a chute would seem to hit him right between the eyes.

Diamond Oops' breeding suggests the stretch out is well within his scope. His sire, Lookin at Lucky, won the Rebel, Preakness, Haskell and Indiana Derby and was fourth in the Blame-Zenyatta Breeders’ Cup Classic. His dam, Patriotic Viva, won the Serena’s Song around two turns at Monmouth.

Take this for what you consider it to be worth. Victor Espinoza, who guided American Pharoah and California Chrome to win five Triple Crown races, flew cross-county to ride Diamond Oops for Patrick Biancone even though the colt was coming off a sixth in the Saratoga Special in August.

Unanimity is a must

Once again Southern California stewards made themselves a big part of the story in a major stakes race, the Cash Call Futurity.

Solomini came from off the pace to engage McKinzie and Instilled Regard, who were in a ferocious stretch-long battle. It was reminiscent of the first Breeders’ Cup Classic when Gate Dancer came from well back to make it a three-horse free-for-all in the final strides with Wild Again and Slew O Gold.

As in that Classic, there was some light bumping. However, none of the three jockeys ever stopped riding all out. The result was left to stand in the first Classic and it should have stood in Saturday’s Cash Call.

Unfortunately, the stewards decided that Solomini, who finished first, drifted in enough on Instilled Regard, the third horse under the wire, to be disqualified.

It was a bad call for at least two reasons. It didn’t cost Instilled Regard a placing. Solomini clearly was going by him and Instilled Regard had the longest stretch in America to pass McKinzie and was unable to do it.

The other reason is a sore point with me. The vote in the stewards’ stand was 2-1. No horse should ever be disqualified on a less than unanimous vote. If one of the stewards, hired for his expertise (justified or not) feels a DQ is not warranted, there should be no change.

A disqualification is like a conviction in a court of law. No one can be convicted on a less than unanimous decision. Racing would do well to adhere to this principle.

Miami, December 14, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

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