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, March 29, 2018

It might be a good thing if stars on the bubble are shut out of Derby

The Kentucky Derby qualifying points system has come in for criticism since being instituted. Never has it deserved it more than this year. High quality 3-year-olds such as Audible, Catholic Boy, Good Magic and Justify are all on the endangered list. Much of this can be traced to using solely the calendar as the basis for the number of points at stake. It's unacceptable that the Borderland Derby is worth five times as many points as the Holy Bull and Sham. The UAE Derby is worth 10 times as many. But it isn't only the points. Conservative trainers, who plot only two preps for their stars, leaving no room for error or mishap, must share the blame.

Louisville, you have a problem.

The Kentucky Derby points system is designed to get the best 3-year-olds in training into the starting gate. For the most part, it has succeeded. This year might be the exception and this could be a good thing for racing.

Some of the most exciting sophomores find themselves in do-or-die jeopardy heading into their final preps and the reason is trainers’ conservative racing strategy.

Audible, who was made the 9-5 morning line favorite for Saturday’s Florida Derby, traditionally one of the toughest and most productive of the Derby preps, has run one of the most impressive races of the year for a 3-year-old, his 5 ½ length tour-de-force in the Holy Bull.

However, unlike the Borderland Derby, which awards 50 points to its winner, or the UAE Derby, a 100-point bonanza, the Holy Bull is worth only 10. Why? Justify that one, Churchill Downs.

In any case, those 10 points are all Audible has. So the winner of three straight in a four-race career must finish at least second Saturday or he’s probably out of the Derby.

It won’t be easy. Promises Fulfilled, impressive winner of the Fountain of Youth, is the second choice. He’s in because the FoY earned him 50 points. Why the discrepancy between two races, both at a mile and a sixteenth over the same track? Solely because the FoY is run four weeks later than the Holy Bull. That’s it. There is no other reason. Does this make sense?

Promises Fulfilled doesn’t stand in the way of only Audible. Catholic Boy, a graded stakes winner on grass and dirt and whose Remsen score makes him the only starter in the field with a win at a mile and an eighth, is also in jeopardy. He got only 10 points for the Remsen and his second to the ultra-tough Flameaway in the Sam F. Davis was worth only four points—10 times less than whoever finishes second in the UAE Derby will get. So he has to finish at least second, too.

Unless Audible and Catholic Boy run one-two Saturday, one of them probably is not going to make the Derby cut.

Promises Fulfilled is not the only horse these two have to fear. Strike Power was a solid second in the Fountain of Youth, his first try around two turns after a couple of uber-impressive sprint wins. He’s drawn the rail and figures to be on the lead or close to it, according to trainer Mark Hennig. Anyone who even casually follows Gulfstream knows how dangerous speed is.

Audible and Catholic Boy are not alone on the Derby endangered list.

How about Good Magic? I’ll never get off my position that the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile should be a Derby win-and-you’re-in, which, in effect, the Borderland Derby, UAE Derby and some lesser races in Japan and Europe are. Good Magic has 34 points so he would need only a fourth in the Blue Grass to go over the top. But strange things can happen in a horse race.

Perhaps the most attention-grabbing 3-year-old in the nation, Justify, is also in a precarious spot but Churchill can’t be blamed. Bob Baffert’s colt has run faster than anyone in his two starts but has zero points because neither was a stakes. He essentially needs to win the Arkansas Derby to guarantee a slot. All this entails is putting away his rival in breaking the curse of Apollo, undefeated Magnum Moon.

A second would probably do it but there is no guarantee in a year in which 10 colts already have at least 40 points and more than a dozen more are in the 30s and 20s, which puts them within a third-place finish in one of the final round preps of getting to or exceeding 40.

There also are the two slots set aside for Euro and Japanese representatives. A Euro might come, but the Japanese are not expected to send anyone. Still, another two slots could go to the winner and place horse in Saturday’s UAE Derby. This would leave only 17 for the home team.

If there can be set-asides for foreign horses of dubious credentials, Churchill owes it to American horses to offer the same. Maybe one of two slots could be saved for well deserving late developers, such as Justify. A panel of racing secretaries and racing writers—the same people who decide Eclipse Awards--could award the berth with the proviso that in most years they could elect to pass.

Churchill Downs can do its part by making all the preps in the new year at least 20-pointers. It’s absurd that stakes such as the Holy Bull count for only one-fifth what the Borderland Derby does and one-tenth of the UAE Derby, solely because of the calendar.

To get back to my original point, I would hate to see a star horse kept on the Derby sidelines but maybe it would influence trainers to get them out of the barn a little sooner and a little more often. Anyone doubt that if Audible, Catholic Boy, Good Magic and Justify had even one more qualifying points prep, we wouldn’t be having this discussion?

When you schedule only two preps for a legitimate Derby hopeful and something goes amiss, you deserve what you get—or don’t get.

Looking forward

There will be life for racing after the Triple Crown. Not just mundane life, exhilarating life.

Good Samaritan came back to the races Saturday with a performance that harkens memories of Silky Sullivan. He dropped back almost to Bourbon Street before launching a breath-taking surge in the New Orleans Handicap that blew away the field. This is the kind of performance that captures the fancy of the racing public.

West Coast is expected to put on a show Saturday in the Dubai World Cup, which will cement his temporary leadership among older horses.

Kentucky Derby champion—a magic term to fans—Always Dreaming is coming back to the races Saturday on the Florida Derby undercard. Todd Pletcher also has Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit warming up in the bullpen for his return.

Chad Brown is prepping Preakness champion Cloud Computing for a 2018 campaign.

It’s too much to hope that we might see all of these stars in the same starting gate before the Breeders’ Cup but given good health, it should be quite a summer and fall.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Sunday, March 25, 2018

Noble Indy barely cracks HRI status quo DERBY 10

By Tom Jicha

The boss is out of town so there’s a new but familiar voice today. But John Pricci, who collected big on the Louisiana Derby (check Feature Race Analysis), still weighed in on his thoughts on the race.

“Turned out the Risen Star was a live race and the blinkers did the trick for Noble Indy. Already having qualified, Bravazo got some exercise, as did My Boy Jack, who returned on short rest off a peak effort and acquitted himself very well for third.”

I’ll file another view on My Boy Jack.

He looked like he was going to sweep past Noble Indy and Lone Sailor (John’s ticket maker) in the final eighth but he hung like Tom Dooley. He didn’t strike me as a horse who wants 10 furlongs against top completion and unless he finds another race to score some points, he might not even make the field.

None of last week’s Top 10 raced this weekend, so there isn’t a lot of movement in this week’s Horse Race Insider poll.

1. Bolt d’Oro (48)—The stewards thought he was best in the San Felipe but there are plenty of dissenting opinions. None are among our staff. Once again, he’s the unanimous choice as No. 1. He’ll get his opportunity to show we and the judges are right in his April 7 rematch with McKinzie.

2. McKinzie (36)—Can he please have a race where the outcome is decided on the track? He got put up in a questionable call in the Los Alamitos Futurity then got taken down under dubious circumstances in the San Felipe. Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia told Horse Racing Nation that if he had to set the Kentucky Derby morning line right now, McKinzie would be the favorite.

3. Magnum Moon (30)
—If Todd Pletcher sticks to his game plan, a debate as lively as the one between Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie will be settled at least for the time being on April 14 in the Arkansas Derby when he and Justify go mano y mano.

4. Good Magic (26)
—Amazing how the 2-year-old champion has fallen out of the conversation after one disappointing race in which Chad Brown said beforehand that he wasn’t fully cranked. Brown’s target is the first Saturday in May, not the first Saturday in February. Doubting the Chadster is not a high percentage move.

5. Promises Fulfilled (19)
—Dale Romans said the other day that the Fountain of Youth winner is three lengths away from being the undefeated Derby favorite. That was his margin of defeat in the Kentucky Jockey Club, which is turning into one of the key juvenile races of 2017. It’s a bit of an overstatement by Romans considering those at the top but this is not a colt to be taken lately. We’ll see Saturday in the Florida Derby.

6. Enticed (17)--One turn miles at Aqueduct in the winter aren’t reliable gauges for 10 furlongs in May at Churchill Downs but his runaway Gotham was the fifth stakes win for horses coming out of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. He’s the likely favorite in the Wood unless Solomini shows up.

7. Justify (16)--It took only Magnum Moon’s romp in the Rebel to drop him down as the most likely 3-year-old to break the 168-year curse of Apollo. Those who jumped off his bandwagon are overlooking the fact that his two races are considerably faster than Magnum Moon’s. I placed him fourth; my colleagues aren’t as impressed.

8. Solomini (11)
—He didn’t get the best of rides in the Rebel when beaten by Magnum Moon. Supposedly Bob Baffert intends to ship him to New York for the Wood. If he does, it will provide the best gauge yet on how the West Coast horses shape up against the East.

9. Audible (10)
—The jury is out until this coming Saturday on whether his front-running score in the Holy Bull was track-aided by the typical speed-favoring Gulfstream strip. But it isn’t like he opened up and held on. He put away a big challenge by Grade 1 winner Free Drop Billy at the top on the lane and was opening up late. He gets another chance to prove himself in the Florida Derby.

10. Noble Indy (8)-
-He barely cracks the Top 10, a reflection of the caliber of the competition at the Fair Grounds. He might be only Todd Pletcher’s third best hope for back-to-back roses. I’ll let the boss sum it up. “In the overall, the reputation of the acknowledged divisional leaders went unscathed as a result of this race."

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, March 22, 2018

There could be something magic about the number 136

Maryland-Baltimore County made March Madness history last week when it upset Virginia, the first 16th seed to beat a No. 1 in 136 tries. Coincidentally, two extraordinarily talented and undefeated colts, Magnum Moon and Justify, seem poised to conquer the Curse of Apollo, which has endured for 136 years. More immediately, Saturday's first final phase Kentucky Derby qualifier, the Louisiana Derby, is more likely to produce a couple of Derby starters than the winner.

There could be something magic about the number 136 this year. Maryland-Baltimore County was the 136th No. 16 seed to attempt to take down a No. 1 seed last week. In crushing Virginia, M-BC not only knee-capped the No. 1 seed in its bracket but the top rated team in the nation.

Coincidentally, it has been 136 years since Apollo became the last horse to win the Kentucky Derby without racing as a 2-year-old. This year there are two 3-year-olds sitting on busting that jinx. All eyes this winter have been on Bob Baffert’s brilliant Justify, two-for-two and heading for the Arkansas Derby on April 14. Todd Pletcher’s Magnum Moon one-upped Justify Saturday, rolling to a decisive score in the Rebel Stakes to run his record to 3-for-3.

In his immediate wake was Solomini, second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to Good Magic, ahead of Bolt d’Oro, and first under the wire in the Los Alamitos Futurity. So Magnum Moon’s first stakes win was genuine.

The 50 Kentucky Derby points from the Rebel guarantees Magnum Moon a berth in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. It will be interesting to see if the ultra conservative Pletcher sends him back to Hot Springs for a potentially gut-busting showdown against Justify in the Arkansas Derby on April 14, just three weeks in advance of the big one at Churchill Downs.

The quick turnaround to Louisville is not Pletcher’s M.O. but Derby fever forces many trainers out of their comfort zone. Pletcher is not a stranger to the centerpiece of the Racing Festival of the South. He won it back-to-back in 2013-14 and ran second in 2010 with Super Saver, before he became Pletcher’s first Kentucky Derby winner.

If Pletcher feels he doesn’t want to go seven weeks from the Rebel to the Derby, there is another less challenging option, the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on the same day as the Arkansas Derby. It’s only 20 points to the winner but this is no longer a concern for Magnum Moon and eliminates a plane trip. Keeneland is a short van ride from Churchill Downs.

Maybe the question should be whether Baffert will stick to his guns and send Justify to Arkansas when he has to finish no worse than second to clinch his Derby berth. Moreover, there is no guarantee the 40 points for the place will be enough, especially if horses from Europe, Japan and Dubai claim the spots set aside for them. This would reduce the American allotment to 17.

Right now there are seven horses with 40 or more points, three more with at least 30 and another three in the 20s. Even a third in the final round of six major Derby preps, which award 100-40-20-10 to the first four finishers would put them over the 40-point bar, generally considered to be the point of separation.

Odds are some of those atop the leader board will take down the bulk of the points in the final major preps. Also, there is bound to be the usual attrition in the final month. But, as they say, there are no sure things in racing.

Intentions could matter

Saturday’s Louisiana Derby, the first of the final round ofpreps is more likely to generate two, maybe three Derby starters, than it is to produce the winner of the Run for the Roses.

None of the 10 entrants are among HRI’s weekly Top 10 of 3-year-olds and only Bravazo cracked the NTRA’s weekly 3-year-old poll, squeaking in at No. 10. However, as many as three others—Snapper Sinclair (22 points), My Boy Jack (12) and Noble Indy (10)--could crash the 40 point party with a big effort.

So intentions have to included in handicapping considerations. The million-dollar purse is enticing but you have to wonder if D. Wayne Lukas wants Gary Stevens to empty Bravazo’s tank if that becomes necessary to win. This is especially true when you consider Bravazo could be a short price. Then again, Lukas craves the spotlight in big races and Stevens is a fierce competitor. Use your own judgment.

The track line-maker has made My Boy Jack the lukewarm 5-2 favorite, a price both he and Bravazo could be under. This is based almost solely on My Boy Jack’s more than four-length win in the Southwest at Oaklawn. But he got a golden rail trip on a day when that was the place to be. The fact that My Boy Jack was a non-competitive seven lengths in arrears of McKinzie in the Sham bolsters the feeling that the Louisiana Derby isn’t going to produce any sleepless nights for the connections of the more highly regarded Derby winners.

If you like Bravazo, you have to like Snapper Sinclair, who lost a bob of their heads in the Risen Star. But Snapper Sinclair didn’t appear to be a horse who wants more than a mile and a sixteenth and this is a mile and an eighth.

Of the others, the only one worth more than a dreamer’s chance is Noble Indy, primarily because of the Pletcher factor. Even though Bravazo and Snapper Sinclair were ripping off each other’s faces down the long Fair Grounds stretch, Noble Indy made no impact on them while running third. Pletcher is adding blinkers an effort to close the gap.

NYRA innovates

The bane of racing is the increasingly fewer starts made by horses. This is directly related to the decreasing foal crops. There is nothing more discouraging for an owner than paying the bills for a horse that runs every five or six weeks. Fewer owners leads to fewer horses being bred.

NYRA has devised a couple of innovative programs to deal with this. Starting April 2, horses can start working toward bonus awards based on the number of starts made at a NYRA track within a calendar year. Horses, who make at least five or six starts, will get an extra 5% added to their earnings. Seven to nine starts kicks up earnings by 7 ½%. Ten or 11 starts is worth an extra 12 1/2% and 12 or more starts—as if-- boosts earnings by 15%.

Maiden races count as starts but do not earn purse bonuses. Race credits travel with horses who are sold, claimed or otherwise change hands. Among other things, this could lead to more horses being left in New York for winter racing.

This is unlikely to influence Pletcher or Brown to start horses more often but it is an incentive for lesser barns, which scuffle to make ends meet. They are the ones who make the everyday cards go.

Lesser barns are also the intended beneficiaries of the “Under 20s Claiming Challenge” during the Belmont spring/summer meet. NYRA has put up $80,000 to be distributed to trainers with 20 or fewer horses based on the performances of their horses in claiming races for winners.

Points for dirt races will be distributed on a 6-5-4-3-2 basis. Turf races are worth one fewer point for each corresponding finish.

To avoid the abuse of horses or even the appearance of it, a horse can earn points only twice within a 30-day period.

The trainer at the top of the standings when the horses leave for Saratoga will win $18,000 with lesser prizes down to $3,000 for eighth place.

Anything that gets horses out of the barn and into the starting gate has my whole-hearted endorsement.

Written by Tom Jicha

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