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 Sentinels horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Your first tip of the Saratoga season

Handicapping books and tout sheets abound at Saratoga. The one that stands out for me is the 'Saratoga Handicapper.' It doesn't attempt to pick winners but gives a player useful information about trainers' historical trends at the Spa, which can be used to come up with not-so-obvious winners and help eliminate heavily played horses who don't fall into a winning pattern. In another matter, it would be great if Songbird's connections give her the opportunity to do the one thing she hasn't done, which other great fillies have, take on the boys and beat them.

It’s horse players’ Christmas Eve. The day before the opening of Saratoga is one of the most joyful, anticipatory occasions of every year, superseded only by opening day itself. Forget sugar plums. Visions of great scores to come dance in players’ heads.

Some of the biggest hits I’ve had at the Spa have come as a result of a Christmas-in-July present I get for myself every year, "The Saratoga Handicapper." The magazine-sized publication put out by Jim Mazur isn’t a tout sheet. It’s an encyclopedia of information, the most useful tool to attack the Saratoga meeting I’ve ever encountered.

The front of the book contains three-year summaries of every trainer who has started a horse at the Spa, not just their overall record but how they fare in various categories: 2-year-olds, maidens, turf, etc.

Personally, I find the negative information to be as useful as the positive. It’s a great handicapping aid to know certain trainers haven’t won a race in three years or are one-for-a-hundred with first time starters. Many times this has helped me to toss horses getting solidly bet.

For example, Mark Henning, a fine trainer, seems to be cursed in upstate New York. Over the past six years, he’s a 6% trainer, 10-for-179, according to the book.

Even more revealing is Tom Albertrani’s past performances with 2-year-old maiden first-time starters. He’s a 9% trainer overall, a number that would jump well into double digits if he wasn’t zero-for-65 with debuting juveniles. Some of these have been well bet because of the classy stock Albertrani gets.

For those who prefer more than cold stats, subsequent pages include full profiles of the top trainers with angles that have been successful for them over the years. Some of the lower profile trainers, who have clicked with price horses at the Spa, have abbreviated bios.

Roy Lerman is a fine example. Lerman, who lives in the upstate area, points for the Spa. He doesn’t hit often. He’s four-for-58 in recent years, but when one of his horses does get home, it makes up for the draughts. His average win payoff is $43, so if you threw a deuce on every horse he sends out, you would have a handsome profit.

Linda Rice has established herself as the queen of the turf sprints. Because of this her horses in this category regularly get over bet. However, her reputation was established a few years when turf sprints were introduced and other barns weren’t as prepared for it as she was. She’s only 5-for-46 the past three years.

Rice is actually more effective in turf routes, where she is 10-for-59.

Mazur, who left a career in real estate to begin publishing handicapping aids, has built his company to more than a dozen covering various tracks and big events such as the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup. He has been putting out the "Saratoga Handicapper" for more than two decades.

The inspiration, he says, was the "Saratoga Scorecard," a publication he first noticed about 30 years ago when he was just a player. “I thought it was so helpful in handicapping that I decided to try to do something similar at Gulfstream in the winter.”

He didn’t want to rip off its creator, John Angelo, so he asked him if there would be any problem with a Gulfstream edition. “He told me, ‘knock yourself out,’” Mazur said with a laugh. The two became friends and remain so. When Angelo decided he wanted to cut back, Mazur convinced him to become a contributor to his publications. Angelo still contributes to the trainer profiles, Mazur said.

The books are especially useful for relatively contained meets, such as Gulfstream and Saratoga, because trainers from several venues show up each year and many seem to have the same methodology. Mazur points out in the profiles how some like to crack right out of the box at the start of the meeting while others prefer to give their horses a race over the track.

A tip he offers for the first few days of the Spa season is to be wary of horses coming off big efforts at Belmont. New York players get overly enthused about New York form, Mazur said. A more profitable angle would be to watch out for horses with decent credentials shipping in from lesser circuits.

But not every circuit, Mazur said. Not surprisingly, Finger Lakes shippers have a dreadful record at Saratoga. Horses coming up from Delaware used to fare poorly against the stronger Saratoga competition but with top trainers such as Graham Motion using the Fair Hills training center as their base, horses often have one in Wilmington, then come to Saratoga to get the money.

Over the years, Canadian shippers also have produced positive results, according to Mazur. The beauty of this, he said, is out-of-town horses often carry Beyers that don’t seem to measure up to the New Yorkers.

I’m not in the endorsement business and Mazur isn’t an advertiser on Horse Race Insider. This is merely one horse player telling others about a publication that has helped him find Saratoga winners over the years. I spend a week or two every summer in Las Vegas for an orgy of betting horses. I've come to know several regulars and the first question they ask when they see me is, "Did you bring the book?" There's no better testimonial than that.

Songbird's final challenge

Super filly Songbird hasn’t been as dazzling in her first two starts this season as she was as a juvenile and 3-year-old. Perhaps, as John Pricci speculated, her gut-wrenching Breeders’ Cup Distaff effort against Beholder emptied her tank.

Her next start reportedly will be in the Clement Hirsch at Del Mar or Personal Ensign at Saratoga. Both are no-win scenarios. Songbird has done all anyone can ask against her own gender. If she wins, she’s supposed to. If not, her luster is tarnished. Besides, she has the Breeders’ Cup Distaff to ratify her gender superiority.

If Songbird is to be considered among the great distaffers of recent years, she must do the one thing she hasn’t attempted: take on the boys and beat them. Rachel Alexandra did it three times, including in the Preakness as a 3-year-old. Zenyatta did it. Havre de Grace did it. Personal Ensign did it. Lady’s Secret did it. Until Songbird does it, she cannot be in a conversation with those greats.

The Woodward Stakes on Sept. 2 is a prime opportunity. Gun Runner is targeting next weekend’s Whitney and might not run back that quickly with the Breeders’ Cup his ultimate goal. Beyond him there isn’t much. Connect is gone. Shaman Ghost showed his vulnerability when he couldn’t hold off Keen Ice.

The Woodward might be Songbird’s last best chance to show she is better than merely the standout of her gender. Her connections owe her the opportunity.

Miami, July 20, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

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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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