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 02, 2019

I liked Roadster before; now I love him

Months of Kentucky Derby analysis were blown up Wednesday when the connections of Omaha Beach, the likely favorite, revealed he would have to be scratched. This put the horse I've liked all along, Roadster, in an even stronger position. It also gives Bob Baffert three of the top four or five betting favorites and increases the chances of Bill Mott, one of the great trainers and people in the sport, to win America's biggest race with Tacitus.

I feel the pain of Omaha Beach's connections. Not nearly to the extent they do. Not even remotely close. Let's be serious.

However the shocking need to scratch the Kentucky Derby favorite has caused me a bit of grief. I'm not looking for sympathy. I'm just trying to explain why this column isn't the well constructed l piece I originally wrote.

I had already turned in a column focused around Mike Smith picking Omaha Beach over Roadster and how it was being over-analyzed. My headline was "Derby is a Rider's Race but it's the horse who Wins It." I stand by that but it doesn't have the relevance it would have.

So a lot of what I tried to turn into florid prose now is on the cutting room floor.

Like most handicappers, I’ve considered many variables in coming up with my Derby selection. Smith’s decision was not one of them. I settled on Roadster after his awesome Santa Anita Derby. Only an exceptional horse can spot a champion like Game Winner—my third choice—a half-dozen lengths then run him down.

The withdrawal of Omaha Beach makes me feel even stronger. I’ve mentioned before that the Derby is a win-only race for me, with extensions to Pick 3’s and Pick 4’s. I’ll be keying Roadster with a saver on Game Winner on my main tickets and if I go through the earlier races successfully—Bricks and Mortar is a key single for me—I’ll also have Tacitus and Vekoma on some smaller tickets. But if I’m not alive in any horizontal pools, I’m all in on Roadster in the Derby.

Since I know many of you will be plunging deep into vertical gimmicks, here’s the way I see the race, 1 through 20.

Roadster—This is the colt Baffert called potentially his next Justify. A breathing problem got Roadster beat in the Del Mar Derby but since it was corrected, he’s been dynamite. The scratch also moves him in a gate and renders meaningless the coincidental fact that post 17 has never produced a Derby winner. Multiple winners have started from posts 15, 16, 18, 19 or 20, including seven since the year 2000.

Game Winner—The juvenile champion is less than a length away from being 6-for-6. Both second-place finishes this season can be chalked up to wide trips in which he lost more ground than he was beaten. He was four wide around the first turn in the Santa Anita Derby in a six-horse field. Where does he go from this post in a 20-horse field? If he works out a trip, look out.

Tacitus—Adversity often strikes in the Derby’s huge field. Bill Mott’s main hope to win his first Derby demonstrated in the Wood Memorial that he can handle trouble, gather himself and run big. This is a nice trait to have on the first Saturday in May. He’s also undefeated as a 3YO just as the last seven winners have been.

Vekoma-- Crazy 20-1 morning line. He’s 3-for-4 lifetime and had reasonable excuses in his lone loss. He beat Win Win Win by more than 3 in the Blue Grass and WWW is 15-1. Explanation, please.

Improbable—A couple of close defeats in Arkansas have knocked the wheels off his bandwagon, which was rolling in high gear going into this season. His City Zip blood might be catching up to him.

Code of Honor—Hate to rate a Shug McGaughey contender this low but the stark facts are this colt has won only one of four starts since breaking his maiden at the Spa. His Mucho Macho Man was a bomb against ordinary rivals and he never threatened in the Florida Derby. Not sure even his best will be good enough.

Win Win Win—The race that put him on the map was a seven-furlong track record at Tampa Bay Downs. He did rally over a speed favoring track in the Blue Grass but he never really got close to the winner.

War of Will—Big workouts had his stock rising again after a debacle in the Louisiana Derby. Then he drew the rail. This shouldn’t happen to a legitimate contender. The No. 1 slot is such an impossible death shot, it should automatically go to the horse with fewest qualifying points.

Maximum Security—Undefeated in four starts—the first in a $16K claimer—winning by about 40 lengths.Is it the horse or Jason Servis magic? He won’t have the rocking horse trip on the lead he had in the Florida Derby.

Tax—The two hole is only slightly better than the 1 but at least you’re not looking at the inside rail coming out. Former claimer gave Tacitus a battle in the Wood and will be about three or four times the price.

By My Standards—Louisiana Derby winner is this year’s buzz horse. Quick history lesson: My Boy Jack filled this role last year. Incredibly he went off the second choice at 6-1 off a 20-1 morning line and wound up fifth.

Haikal—Everyone’s talking about how great it will be if Mandella or Mott get their first Derby. The feelings will be just as strong if Kiaran McLaughlin breaks his Derby maiden. Alas, deep, deep closers don’t often win the Derby.

Long Range Toddy—Caught a not fully cranked Improbable in the Rebel then got buried in the Arkansas Derby. If everything breaks right…nah, not even then.

Country House—The other Mott is a stone cold closer so the 20 post isn’t that disadvantageous. He could fill out a tri or super but can’t see him running past everybody.

Spinoff—The better of the Pletchers, which, in this instance isn’t saying a lot. Got caught late in the Louisiana Derby, which fell apart when War of Will misfired. From this far outside, he’ll have to gun early and there’s too much speed inside him for that to work.

Cutting Humor—Earned his spot via Sunland Derby, America’s version of the UAE Derby. He might go off the highest price of any horse Todd Pletcher has brought to Churchill Downs.

Plus Que Parfait—A Dubai backdoor qualifier. Doesn’t belong by any handicapping standards.

Gray Magician—One-for-eight colt doesn’t deserve a berth in the starting gate, which he got by way of Dubai.

Master Fencer—This is a crass attempt to get into the mammoth Japanese betting market. He couldn’t win his last two qualifiers in Japan against very modest company. The best that can be said of him is he has run 10 furlongs twice (albeit on grass).

Bodexpress--A maiden scratches in. Disgraceful. Hopefully this will be the catalyst for a "winners preferred" stipulation going forward.

Galloping out

I would take Bellafina over at least half the Derby field, and I wouldn’t toss her to win. If Churchill Downs can set aside a slot for a Japanese horse and a Euro, there should be one for a filly. Distaffers are effectively shut out by the points system. It would be great to ramp up interest among casual fans if the top filly took on the boys in the Derby—maybe the filly with the most Oaks points or a selection of a blue ribbon committee of horsemen and media.

Speaking of fillies, I would love to hear the justification for limiting the Oaks field to 14, a half-dozen fewer than the Run for the Roses. Isn’t this a tacit admission that 20 is too many? Pray we don’t learn this lesson the hard way, especially this year.

Also necessary is a downgrading of the UAE Derby. At best, it should be cut in half to a 50-20-10-5 race. The winner would still get into the Derby but finishing second wouldn’t guarantee a spot. It’s bad enough no-shot Plus Que Parfait snuck in through the Dubai back door. It’s an unacceptable travesty that Gray Magician also earned a spot by running second.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, April 25, 2019

Frank Stronach talks a great game but that’s likely to be all it is

Frank Stronach rented a hotel conference room Tuesday night to lay out a proposal to turn over Santa Anita and the other Stronach Group race tracks to the people in the game--owners, trainers, etc. But as someone who no longer has a voice in how the company he founded is run, it's all talk. Maybe this isn't such a bad thing. With horsemen calling the shots, there would be no hope of meaningful medication reforms and a higher likelihood of an increase in takeout than a reduction.

Frank Stronach is great copy. A man of grandiose visions he has a knack for making news. He talks the biggest game in racing. Sometimes he delivers.

He said he would tear down and rebuild Gulfstream Park around a shopping mall and he did. Whether he should have is a debate for a different day.

A hotel in the south parking lot didn’t get as far as a ground breaking but this didn’t deter Frank from promoting it in the daily racing program almost up to when it was supposed to have its grand opening.

Many in racing scoffed at Frank’s idea for the Pegasus World Cup. But with some revisions, it is now a compelling element of the racing calendar.

On the other hand, the less said the better about the garish statue of Pegasus in the north parking lot.

All of this is preamble to examination of Frank’s grandiose proposal at a California hotel Tuesday night that The Stronach Group’s racing properties be turned over to the stakeholders in racing: owners, trainers, etc.

The proposal is in keeping with Frank’s passion for racing. His goal, he said, is to guarantee that TSG properties remain race tracks, although only he says they are in danger of becoming anything else.

One big problem. Frank has the title of honorary chairman of The Stronach Group but he currently has no say in the operation of Santa Anita, Gulfstream, Laurel/Pimlico and Golden Gate. His daughter Belinda runs the show pending the outcome of a family feud lawsuit.

Frank says he is hopeful of prevailing but the way the courts and lawyers, who get paid by the hour, work, the 86-year-old might have to crack triple digits to see the suit to its resolution.

This could be the case even if he wins in court. Transfers of racing licenses with the obligatory investigations, which would be necessary in Florida, Maryland and California, could be a long process. Even the leasing option Frank suggested would entail lengthy scrutiny.

Let’s say all of this is cleared. Would it really be in racing’s interest to have owners and trainers running the show? Forget any meaningful changes in medication rules. The majority of horsemen nationwide have made it clear they are all in on the retention of race day Lasix.

The Stronach tracks are such powerful forces in racing that it would be pointless to attempt to change medication rules without their support.

As usual, the one crucial component of racing, the fans, have been left out of Frank’s plan. With organizations like the Thoroughbred Owners of California calling the shots, the hope for any meaningful reduction in takeout is a fantasy. The opposite development is more likely.

Frank put on a great show Tuesday night but it’s a show that is unlikely to have a final act.

NY fans deserve better

Speaking of fans getting screwed, it has been quite a while since I visited Belmont Park. It’s a long drive from Florida. But I was taken aback when I noticed in a press release setting up Belmont’s spring-summer meeting that general admission will be $5.

This is as objectionable in principle as raises in takeout. NYRA is swimming in casino money. The proper general admission should be zero, as it is at Gulfstream and other tracks with racinos. Technically there is no racino at Belmont but NYRA is NYRA. The casino dollars from Aqueduct keep flowing when racing is at Belmont.

I’ll even cut some slack and support admission fees for Friday and Saturday of Belmont Stakes Week and Belmont Invitational/Oaks Day.

In an ideal world, this would also apply to Saratoga, but I am trying to keep this is in the real world.

I acknowledge that a lot of the casino dole is dedicated by law to purses. This has elevated them to absurd levels.

Laws can be amended. NYRA should approach the horsemen and ask them to participate in a golden public relations ploy by allowing a small portion of the casino money be allotted to eliminating admission charges. There could be a daily announcement, “Today’s admission free racing is brought to you by New York horsemen as a sign of appreciation for your support.”
Gestures matter, especially to a group that is used to being ignored when they are not being exploited.

It wouldn’t have to be painful for horsemen. Allowing for a very generous average daily general admission attendance of 5,000 over the 45 non-special days, it would cost less than $1.2 to eradicate a tariff at the gate.

There are four stakes with bloated purses of $700,000 apiece—the Man O War, the Acorn, the Just a Game and Suburban—which would draw exactly the same fields for $500,000 each. There’s $800,000. The $1.2 million for the Met Mile is also wildly inflated. Is there anyone who would argue that a mere $1 million purse would cost the race even one horse? This is such a coveted title it would draw the best of the best for even less. This puts the savings at $1 million.

Drop the Peter Pan from $300,000 to $250,000—it’s basically a prep for the Belmont—and the $400,000 of the two-mile Belmont Gold Cup to $250,000—still a windfall for the plodders it attracts—and you have all you need to banish general admission.

Only six races would be impacted and they are of the caliber won by the richest of owners. The horsemen scraping out a living day by day wouldn’t be hurt one bit.

The goodwill toward fans, who have been overlooked as NYRA bathes in casino money, would be priceless.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, April 18, 2019

Capitalizing on this crisis is not so easy

The crisis at Santa Anita has provided an opening for major tracks--NYRA's, Churchill Downs and Keeneland--to work toward the ban on race-day Lasix they have been yearning for. But there are significant problems with their proposal. Just as at Santa Anita, only 2-year-old races would be effected in 2020 and then stakes in 2021. So the vast majority of races would be business as usual until three years from now. This throws the sincerity of the ruling bodies' intentions into doubt.

If racing is looking for a czar, it might check out Rahm Emanuel, who fortuitously is recently out of work. The former mayor of Chicago is famous for the phrase, “Never let a crisis go to waste.”

This is exactly the strategy being employed by some major racing circuits in the aftermath of the deaths of 23 horses at Santa Anita. Not even anti-racing crusaders have attempted to link the deaths directly to Lasix. Nevertheless, NYRA, Churchill Downs and Keeneland are leading the way in using the crisis to achieve a long held goal, the elimination of race day medications, primarily Lasix. They were joined Thursday by a coalition of tracks representing 86% of North America.

The proposal includes a ban on Lasix in 2-year-old races in 2020 followed by the same conditions for stakes races the following year. This is in the wake of The Stronach Group promising to enforce such a rule on 2-year-olds at its California tracks next year. TSG on Thursday expanded this to all its tracks, which include Laurel/Pimlico and Gulfstream.

Ridding racing of Lasix would be great if they can make it happen. However, there are holes in this game plan.

In the proposal's original form, the 2021 stakes would have included the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes but not the Preakness. When TSG announced it would enforce the new rules company wide this potential issue became moot.

Logic dictated TSG would fall in line with the Preakness but logic also would seem to dictate that when Belinda Stronach announced an immediate ban on Lasix (later pushed back at least a year), she also would have put the same policies into effect in Maryland and at Gulfstream. It shouldn't have taken this long.

The expansion was crucial. How can racing ever hope to have uniform rules on anything when TSG doesn’t have uniform rules at its own tracks?

Also, why just 2-year-old and stakes races? Given how many feel about Lasix, there is a subtle message that cheating will be tolerated in everyday races but not in major events.

The counter is it is stakes that service the breeding farms and the goal is to discontinue breeding bleeders or horses with other infirmities, which render them unable to compete without pharmaceutical assistance.

On the other hand, stakes horses come from the MSW, allowance and even claiming races, in which Lasix will be allowed.

Fans, who already have more than enough considerations in handicapping, will be challenged to determine the impact of horses running hot and cold on Lasix. When they go into a stakes, they can’t use it. If they drop back to mundane races, they can.

Then there’s the elephant that’s been stomping around racing’s room for more than 40 years. The Interstate Wire Act gives horsemen’s groups the right to bar simulcasting into or out of a track. The Form reports the militant Kentucky branch of the HBPA is already threatening to go to court if tracks attempt to implement these rules.

No matter what happens in the legal system, the Kentucky HBPA has the authority to inform Churchill Downs that it will not allow the Kentucky Derby to be simulcast.

Forget everything else. This is the deal killer.

California matters

Bob Baffert has a way of putting things into perspective. After Santa Anita-based Omaha Beach held off Baffert’s Improbable in the Arkansas Derby, Baffert, referring to those two and his Game Winner and Roadster, said, “Here’s what I’m proud about. At Santa Anita, we’ve gotten all this bad publicity and these horses have been training on this surface and look at them. They’re going into the Derby as the top four favorites. So I don’t want to hear any more about how bad it is in California.“

He was only slightly over-stating the situation. Omaha Beach and Roadster will be the top two betting choices and Game Winner could be the third choice. It will be either him or Tacitus. Improbable will almost surely be among the top half-dozen on the board.

For all its race track problems, isolated location and off-the-wall ruling authorities, California could produce its fifth Derby winner in six years, following Justify (2018), Nyquist (2016), American Pharoah (2015) and California Chrome (2014). It’s not out of the realm of possibility that a third Triple Crown winner in five years could come out of the Golden West.

The best thing that could happen to Santa Anita would be if NYRA, Churchill Downs and Keeneland could find a way to make the new rules they are discussing stick. Otherwise, it will become difficult for the Great Race Place to attract the young horses, who grow up into Derby contenders, next year. However misguided they might be, owners would be reluctant to bring highly regarded young horses to a circuit on which they can’t run on Lasix.

As long as the prevailing attitude is that Lasix is essential, it might be difficult to attract and hold thoroughbreds of any age. The prospect of three-day race weeks becoming the norm are another incentive for California horsemen to relocate.

A larger than usual contingent of SoCal horses shipped to Keeneland this spring and some trainers are saying with all the chaos out west, they might just make Kentucky their racing home. It would be unfortunate, but not out of character, if other tracks turn aggressive in attempting to attract owners and trainers at the expense of California racing, which is already teetering on the brink.

Racing needs SoCal in the same way the NFL needs Green Bay and baseball needs Yankee Stadium. The sport just would not be the same without them.

Written by Tom Jicha

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