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, May 24, 2018

Uninformed experts will help price on Justify

The potential for a second Triple Crown winner in three years will bring out the usual array of instant racing experts, who ignore the sport under normal circumstances. They'll point out how Justify almost got run down in the Preakness and the Belmont is longer. They'll ignore Mike Smith saying Justify had more in the tank if he had needed it. All of this will enhance the price on a horse who will gallop on June 9.

The wicked weather notwithstanding, the Preakness could not have played out better.

Justify won. This set up the most exciting, fan-involving scenario in horse racing, a Triple Crown possibility in the Belmont Stakes. TV ratings were up and are sure to skyrocket even more on June 9. In spite of horrendous weather, a treacherous track and a relatively short field of eight, betting on the second jewel of the Triple Crown also was up.

Better yet, Justify didn't run off and gave the appearance of being in jeopardy late. This will encourage speculation among casual sports fans and the media that he might be vulnerable at a mile and a half. Paradoxically, most fans root for a Triple Crown but want it to happen in a competitive race.

For the next couple of weeks, sports writers and talk hosts, who routinely ignore racing except when they are putting it down as a dying sport, will become instant experts. They'll talk about Justify getting tired at a mile and three sixteenths and how the Belmont is 550 yards further. They'll point out that this will be his sixth race in 3 1/2 months. They'll resurrect the famous Woody Stephens quote they picked up from Google: "When you cross the Hudson, the buildings get taller."

There might even be some pot-stirring over whether Justify's Triple Crown will be diminished because one of his most formidable foes, Florida Derby champion Audible, a fast closing third in the Kentucky Derby, might not challenge Justify because they share common ownership. To this I ask, if Justify were your horse, would you run Audible?

The more nonsense disseminated the better. It will make the price on Justify about twice what it should be in what will be the easiest of his Triple Crown races. Just like American Pharoah, he will gallop the field to death.

Who's going to prevent this? One dimensional Promises Fulfilled tried it in the Derby and paid the price, collapsing to 15th. Eclipse champion Good Magic, still probably the second best 3-year-old in America, took his shot at Pimlico. He finished off the board for the first time in his career.

So why would any trainer allow his horse to serve as a sacrificial lamb to set things up for some closer? If no one does, we could see Secretariat 2.0.

NBA not missed

TV ratings jumped 12% from a year ago. The NBC telecast was not only the most viewed program Saturday afternoon, it had the largest audience of the entire weekend, including prime-time attractions such as the Billboard Music Awards, part one of the American Idol finale and a recap of the royal wedding.
When American Pharoah ran for the Triple Crown, more than 22 million watched. Last year's World Series averaged just over 18 million.The tune-in could be as great or higher for the Belmont.

Not bad for a dying sport.

It would be nice to think this was because America wanted to see the newest thoroughbred superstar. This might occur on Belmont Day but the reality is, other factors were in play last Saturday. The entire East Coast and large parts of the rest of the nation were socked by a couple of days of drenching rain, keeping folks indoors in front of their TV's.

Probably more significant, the Preakness didn't face competition from an NBA playoff game, which contributed to depressing Kentucky Derby ratings to almost the exact extent the Preakness was up.

Whatever the reason, racing will take it.

Preakness viewing wasn't passive at Pimlico, simulcast sites or in living rooms. Despite an overwhelming favorite, betting set records. Total handle was $61.97 million, an improvement of more than $600,000 over 2017 when 10 horses competed on a dry track.

Pimlico days numbered

I'm as much a traditionalist as anyone, more so than most. I hate the designated hitter, abhor instant replay and will argue until I run out of breath in favor of keeping the current spacing of the Triple Crown races.

But it's time to move the Preakness away from crumbling, antiquated Pimlico to Laurel, where The Stronach Group has spent a fortune to bring the track centrally located between Baltimore and Washington up to world class status.

Other than Baltimore's civic pride--a bad joke considering the city's distressing murder rate--there are no sound arguments to keep the Preakness at Pimlico.

Tim Ritvo has warned the hierarchy in Baltimore and the state of Maryland that Pimlico cannot be refurbished. It needs to be torn down and rebuilt. Such a project is projected to cost between $300 million to $400 million. This means there is no shot it can be done for less than a half-billion dollars. And it will still be in an area where most folks would rather not go.

It's not as if there is not ample precedent for such a move. A Preakness at Laurel would still be in the state of Maryland, unlike the New York Jets and New York Giants playing in New Jersey. The Washington Redskins play in Maryland. More to the point, the Belmont Stakes was run at Aqueduct when Belmont was being rebuilt and might be again depending on how intrusive the construction of the new Islanders arena is on the Belmont property.

There is one unfortunate downside to the potential shift. Six figure crowds for the Preakness will be a thing of the past. Ritvo says the new Laurel might be able to accommodate 70,000-80,000 but that would be it. The biggest reason would be the Laurel infield would not be opened to the raucous throngs, who contribute to the festive ambiance of Preakness Day.

However, maintaining Porta-Potty jumping is not sufficient reason to avoid taking a step forward that is overdue.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Racing might not benefit from sports betting

The legalization of sports betting this week is being looked upon as a big plus for horse racing. But there are many reasons why the anticipated benefits might not materialize. Meanwhile, the unanticipated entry of Eclipse champion Good Magic has made the Preakness more than a walk in the park for Justify.

Once again the future of racing isn't racing.

The latest savior--remember Sunday racing and slots machines--is sports betting. A Supreme Court decision this week allows individual states to make their own decision about legalization. It is expected New Jersey, which brought the case to the Supremes, could be in business within the next week.

By the end of the year, a half-dozen or more states could be part of the party. Within two or three years, there could be more states with sports betting than not.

The conventional blueprint has wagering on games being limited to casinos, existing pari-mutuels and OTB venues. The latter two are what has given rise to the belief/hope that racing will be a beneficiary. However, there are many reasons why this might be overly optimistic.

The most threatening would be phone and internet wagering. They might not come immediately but they will come. This would eliminate the necessity to visit a track or OTB. So much for attracting new fans.

Also, sports betting and racing might be close cousins, unlike slots and racing, so luring a sports player to make a bet on races while awaiting the outcome of a three-hour game is a reasonable hope. However, this relies on the assumption that there is an infinite amount of disposable income for gambling. So far, this seems more true than not but there has to be a breaking point. If and when this is reached, racing figures to lose more than sports because of their relative popularity.

More to the moment, sports betting is cash intensive. Outside Nevada, an abundance of wagering on games is done via bookmakers on credit. Sure, the bills come due but players are cockeyed optimists. They always figure the next bet will get them out. Cash laid out on a ball game is cash that is not going to be bet on a race.

Estimates vary wildly about how much is bet on sports annually. A generally accepted figure is approximately $150 billion, but this is a product of guesswork tied to efforts to legalize sports betting.

The website Market Watch says about half that amount is probably more realistic. It based its projections on comparisons to Great Britain, where sports betting has been around almost as long as the monarchy. Market Watch took the handle and population of Great Britain and multiplied by five to reflect the different population sizes.

Even this assessment could be on the high side, since wagering on races and games is legal nationwide in Great Britain. Horse racing is legal in only 38 states in the U.S. It is unlikely sports betting will be welcomed where racing isn't.

Moreover, there would be a learning curve in America. Sports betting can be as simple as taking one team to beat another by the spread. But this doesn't generate the entirety of the huge figures being bandied about. Some games have a dozen different ways to bet. Lines are set on each quarter and half as well as on total points for each team and the entire game; which team will score first and last and, in baseball, the combined number of runs, hits and errors.

In Great Britain, punters can also get down on exotics such as election outcomes and the gender of the next royal baby. This isn't allowed in Nevada and won't be elsewhere.

Most importantly, there has been little serious conversation about how much of a taste racing will get from sports betting at tracks and OTB's. Sports betting isn't close to the money tree slots are. According to figures from Nevada, the rake on sports betting is a bit over 5 percent. Slots produce almost double that and never take sick days or vacation. They need only IT people to keep them operating.

Sports wagering demands savvy individuals to create and manage betting lines. Monmouth is already in bed with British firm William Hill and Churchill Downs has announced an agreement to manage the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. These are more fingers in the pie.

States will demand their cut and are unlikely to be as initially generous toward racing as they were when slots were introduced. Indeed, the trend is in the opposite direction. It is not inconceivable that some states will balk at directing any sports revenue toward horses.

The major sports leagues have indicated they want a cut, too, even though the Nevada precedent doesn't allow for this. They'll benefit enough from increased interest in their sports at the gate and on TV, where ratings should zoom, increasing rights fees. Unappealing match-ups suddenly will have greatly enhanced interest. An NFL game between Cleveland and Arizona will be just as involving to someone with action as the Patriots against the Eagles.

None of this should be interpreted as a screed against sports betting. I can't wait for it to happen. We just have to be clear-eyed as to how much. if at all, racing will benefit.

Chad does Preakness a solid

I'm rooting for Justify to win the Preakness then go on to capture the Triple Crown in three weeks. But if Justify doesn't get the job done Saturday, I hope Good Magic does.

Chad Brown, America's newest great trainer, isn't one to bring back a horse, let alone a champion, in two weeks. He's doing it in the Preakness.

If Good Magic and Brown were to pull off the upset, he and less prominent trainers might begin to re-examine the overly conservative tactics that I feel is helping to kill the game. Granted, this might be wishful thinking but racing is all about living with hope.

Like I said, I'm all in on Justify. Given his prohibitively short price--he's 1-2 on the morning line and could go lower-- I might just root without betting.

For those who must have action, the key is to get Good Magic out of the exotics. A Justify-Good Magic exacta could pay not much more than even-money. If I were taking a shot, I'd throw in Bravazo, because D. Wayne has a way with the Preakness. The Coach also has Sporting Chance but his last win was at seven furlongs, which I think is close to his best distance.

I also give Marylander Diamond King a shot at hitting the board, since he'll have a home town advantage in a field not overly loaded with talent. Javier in the irons won't hurt.

Here's the question of the day. Would a second Triple Crown in three years diminish the accomplishments of American Pharoah and Justify?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Curse of Apollo is dead but other streaks endure

Justify put to rest the theory that a horse who did not race as a 2-year-old could win the Kentucky Derby. Other streaks endure, most notably that the winner of the Derby is likely to be a horse who goes into the race undefeated as a 3-year-old. Justify was the seventh straight Derby winner to fit this condition, which helps to explain why favorites have won six straight Derbies. On the downside, something to keep in mind next week is the the last two Derby winners have not won again.

One of many post-Derby reports and commentary I have read went me one better in a challenge to Bob Baffert, who brought Justify to the Run for the Roses off only three career starts. I mentioned in a pre-Derby column that but for the points system, the day would come when a precocious colt would be jumped from a maiden score into the Derby.

I can't recall where I read it--I apologize for that--but a wiseguy quipped, "If Baffert is so great, let's see him win the Derby with a first-time starter."

The points system mitigates against this but it wouldn't be a shock if some horse soon wins the Derby in his third start, after a maiden race and a stakes to accumulate the required points. Good Magic, for example, went from his maiden victory to a second in the Grade 1 Champagne. The Champagne is only a 10-point race because it occurs during the juvenile campaign but I hope you get my point. Is there any doubt Justify could have won an important 3-year stakes coming out of his maiden win?

Winning the Derby with a contemporary horse making only his fourth start isn't unprecedented. Big Brown did it for Richard Dutrow only 10 years ago.
In addition to Justify, Hofburg was making his fourth start. Magnum Moon, the other threat to the Curse of Apollo, and Noble Indy each had only four prior starts.

Not all streaks died

While the Curse of Apollo has been put to rest, a number of other streaks endure. It has been well noted that the Derby has been won six straight times by the favorite. However, few have pointed out the streak I have been pushing, which helps explain why the public has been so uncanny in identifying the correct chalk.

Justify is the seventh straight Derby winner to go into and come out of the race undefeated as a 3-year-old. The number would be eight if you dismiss a second in a turf race by Animal Kingdom. This is no longer a small sample and, as I have said post-Derby in recent years, it is something to keep in mind next spring.

There's also a negative streak that will be challenged by Justify next Saturday. If he wins the Preakness and considering the potential field he will face, I'd like to hear a compelling case that he won't, it will be the first post-Derby victory by the winner since American Pharoah. Nyquist was 0-3 after the first Saturday in May and Always Dreaming's no-show in the Alysheba on Oaks Day was his fifth straight post-Derby loss.

Orb extended a winning streak to five in the 2013 Derby but failed to win again in four subsequent starts. This is an indication of how debilitating the Derby can be. So if you want to make a case against Justify, this might be the only place to start. Of course, it entails ignoring American Pharoah and California Chrome.

UAE Derby is dead to me

Fool me once, shame on you. Shame on me for being taken in again by a big performance in the UAE Derby, this time Mendelssohn's. Last year it was Thunder Snow.

Here's another negative Derby streak. If the winner of next year's UAE Derby manages to beat even one horse, it will be the first time in three years.

Moreover, no winner of the UAE Derby has ever hit the board in Louisville. It will be a disgrace if Churchill Downs maintains this race on the same points pedestal as the major final Derby preps in the U.S.

Too much Jack

I share my foolish feeling about backing Mendelssohn with those who knocked My Boy Jack down to second choice. This isn't red-boarding. I posted a comment early Saturday afternoon saying the deflated odds on him were insane.

I at least had justification for Mendelssohn. His UAE Derby was eye-catching and he was a Breeders' Cup champion, albeit on grass. My Boy Jack's credentials were ordinary, to say the least. He had to bust his gut to beat a glorified allowance field in the Lexington, his last chance to get the necessary points, which proved to be unnecessary, and he hung for an eighth of a mile while running third in the Louisiana Derby.

The only explanation I can come up with for making him the second choice is Kentucky is bourbon country. A lot of folks refer to its most popular brand simply as "Jack" and there is an orgy of boozing on Derby weekend, not all of it at Churchill Downs.

Blue Grass helped, Wood hurt

The Blue Grass Stakes probably was helped this spring in its campaign to regain Grade 1 status. The presence of Juvenile champion Good Magic gave the race a boost. His victory moved up the race even more and his solid second behind Justify last Saturday did more good than harm.

Meanwhile, the Wood Memorial had another dismal Derby and might be years from regaining elite status. By any objective evaluation, the Wood was the weakest of the April preps and the horses who emerged from it were dismal in Louisville. Vino Rosso checked in ninth, Firenze Fire was 11th and Enticed finished 14th.

The Wood hasn't produced a Derby winner since Funny Cide in 2003.

Ironically, the Wood's woes might work against the Blue Grass, which probably won't be re-elevated after one good year, in any case. If the Keeneland stakes is restored as a Grade 1, it would leave New York's signature Derby prep as the only one in the final round not to be a Grade 1. This would perpetuate the problem.

The Graded Stakes Committee wouldn't do that to the circuit still regarded by many to be the capital of American racing, would it?

Written by Tom Jicha

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