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, November 09, 2017

Del Mar would be ideal for a Thanksgiving weekend BC

Since its expansion to two days, the Breeders' Cup has had to deal with Day One being a work day for most of America. The magnificent renewal at Del Mar offers an ideal opportunity, which I have been championing. Push the BC back to Thanksgiving weekend with Day One on Black Friday when so many Americans do not have to report to work. There are numerous upsides and not one downside I can think of. Also, the handle results at Del Mar settle once and for all that fractional wagering is the present and future of racing. Finally, how about a win-and-you're-in the Kentucky Derby for the BC Juvenile champion.

The smashing success of the first Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar ensures the BC will meet the turf and the surf again within the next three years. (Churchill Downs has the event next year.)

So I’ll renew my plea that the BC think outside the box and experiment with a Thanksgiving weekend schedule. Day one on Black Friday, when many Americans have the day off, would surely demolish the betting records for work day Fridays, which has been the norm since the BC went to two days.

Tucked in the middle of a four-day weekend, it would be a bonanza for tourism in the San Diego area. Moreover, every track and off-track betting venue in the nation would benefit. TV ratings would undoubtedly improve, too.

Del Mar is the perfect venue to give it a try. The weather can be counted on to be glorious. Even with the absence of daylight savings time, darkness wouldn’t be much of an issue because of the three-hour time difference with the East Coast, where most of the nation lives and bets.

Another benefit would be the late November date might entice more horsemen to participate in what used to be classic fall stakes at Belmont, Keeneland and Santa Anita, since there would be gaps of six weeks or more. It also would put more air between the Arc and English Champions days.

It’s only fair to consider the downside. I can’t think of even one.

Long layoffs backfire

Speaking of the trend to put lengthy gaps between races for star horses, there might be a lesson to be learned from this Breeders’ Cup.

The biggest busts were Lady Aurelia, Lady Eli, Drefong, Stellar Wind and Arrogate, none of whom even hit the board.

There were many explanations--or excuses, if you will--troubled trips, questionable rides and/or alleged track bias. But consider this. Stellar Wind hadn’t been out since July 30. Arrogate had been kept in bubble wrap since Aug. 19. Lady Aurelia hadn’t raced since Aug. 25. Lady Eli and Drefong’s most recent races were Aug. 26, Travers Day.

I’ll concede all these horses had won in the past off similar layoffs but just because something works once doesn’t mean it will work every time. I remember the good old days when recency was valued.

Eight of the nine winners on Saturday and three of the four on Friday had their most recent starts in September or October, the majority in prestigious fall stakes the connections of the big names opted to skip.

Less produces more

If there is any debate that fractional wagering is the future and present, it was put to rest last weekend.

Rolling daily doubles were offered on both days but Del Mar insisted on maintaining its $2 minimum wager. California is the only major jurisdiction in the nation that has kept this minimum.

Meanwhile, Del Mar capitulated to the Breeders’ Cup and reduced the price of rolling pick threes to 50 cents from the usual $1 minimum. In every single instance, the 50-cent pick three out-handled the corresponding $2 daily double, in some cases by a two- or three-to-one margin.

There was one exception to the $2 daily double. The two-day Distaff-to-Classic double had a $1 minimum. The $628,940 handle was by far higher than any $2 daily double during the two days.

If California doesn’t see the message fans are sending, it’s no wonder racing on the West Coast keeps falling further behind the rest of the nation.

What inferiority?

I mentioned in a recent column that there is no longer any justification for the inferiority complex our turf racers and bettors have when it comes to facing off against European counterparts. This was borne out last weekend. Six BC turf races were carded. American based horses got a draw, winning three.

Significantly, our success wasn’t limited to the top slots. American-based turfers ran 1-2-4 in the Juvenile Fillies Turf; 2-3-4 in the Juvenile Turf; 1-2-3-4-5 in the Turf Sprint; 3-4 in the Filly and Mare Turf; 1-3-4 in the Mile and 2-4 in the Turf.

Toss all favorites

I’m not going to crow over having three of my four big-name vulnerable favorites finishing off the board. The first step toward success this year was to throw out all the favorites. I wasn’t shocked that Arrogate, not Gun Runner, went off the public choice in the Classic but, even though I liked her, I was shocked that Elate went off a shorter price than Stellar Wind in the Distaff.

Stellar Wind’s pathetic showing, last of eight, continued John Sadler’s inexplicable run at the Breeders’ Cup. One of the top trainers in California, he is now 0-41 in Breeders’ cup races. What makes his duck worse is that so many of the recent Breeders’ Cups have been on his home court in Southern California.

Females work harder

Could anyone explain why the BC Sprint is 6 furlongs and the Filly & Mare Sprint is 7 furlongs? In championship tennis, women play best-of-three sets, men play best-of-five. Golf has men’s tees and shorter women’s tees. The WNBA uses a smaller basketball than the NBA and games are eight minutes shorter.

Not only that, the females run for $1 million while the males go for 50 percent more, $1.5 million. Good thing Hillary isn't President.

Having played feminist, let me go to the other side. There is a justification for the purse disparity. The Sprint is open to all. The F&M Sprint is limited to half the equine population.

Moreover, I don’t think there should be a Filly & Mare Sprint or Turf or a Distaff. Females race and beat males in championship events all over the globe, including the Breeders’ Cup (Lady Aurelia, Tepin, Goldikova, Miesque to name just a few) . There’s no reason the not-so-weaker sex shouldn’t be asked to do it in the U.S. in what are billed as “championship” races.

Win and in Kentucky Derby

With the Breeders’ Cup returning to Churchill Downs next year, it would be the perfect time to make the BC Juvenile a “win-and-you’re in” for the Kentucky Derby, which it should have been a long time ago.

Barring injury, it’s unlikely that with its 20-point head start, a BC Juvenile winner wouldn’t qualify on the points system. However, the ability to make it automatic would add another level of cachet to the Juvenile.

TV would love it, since it would have another promotional selling point. NBC also has the rights to the Triple Crown, so it might even get the Juvenile on the mothership NBC network rather than the lesser NBC Sports cable network.

Miami, Nov. 9, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (35)


Thursday, November 02, 2017

Beating favorites key to a successful Breeders’ Cup

The key to prosperity on any racing day is being able to beat short-priced favorites. This is especially true on Breeders’ Cup weekend when reputation horses tend to get seriously over bet.
I think there are at least four such opportunities in Breeders’ Cup heats, two each on Friday and Saturday, including the climactic races on both afternoons.

I see some big names going down Friday and Saturday at Del Mar. I want to stress that I am not knocking these horses. They have earned their rankings at the top of the sport. But circumstances make them vulnerable.

One caveat: I am a win, daily double, Pick 3 and Pick 4 player, so I am looking at only the top slot. It would be folly to think these extraordinary runners won't find their way into the vertical exotics.

Classic--Gun Runner (9-5): He has earned his status as the top rated main track horse in America but he faces hurdles here he hasn’t had to deal with during his three-race, post-Dubai winning streak.

He has never won at a mile and a quarter. He has never run over what Bob Baffert calls “the tricky” Del Mar surface. All you have to know is how it brought Horse of the World Arrogate back to the pack. Gun Runner could wind up loving it. But you shouldn’t have to take 9-5 to find out.

Most important, Gun Runner has never beaten Arrogate. If it wasn’t for Arrogate’s seeming dislike for Del Mar, there would be no reason to believe Gun Runner ever would beat him, considering the trouncing he got in the Travers and Arrogate coming from dead last to run him down in Dubai.

Finally, Gun Runner has never beaten a top notch field. As a 3-year-old he was third in the Kentucky Derby, fifth in the Pennsylvania Derby, third in the Travers and second in last year’s BC Dirt Mile. He didn’t start dominating until many of the best of his generation fell by the wayside.

In his four wins this season, the place and show horses behind him have been Hawaakom, Domain’s Rap, Rally Cry, Keen Ice, Honorable Duty, Neolithic and Breaking Lucky twice. With the exception of Keen Ice and Neolithic, who would have been in the 20-1 to 30-1 range, any of the others would be in the 50-1 or more zip code if they were even allowed to break into the race.

To put it another way, none would be shorter odds than the longest of Baffert’s quartet, Mubtaahij. All Baffert’s entrants will be on my horizontal exotics but I’ll be leaning hard on Arrogate and West Coast, after Collected drew the extreme outside gate.

Distaff—Stellar Wind (5-2): She has had an exceedingly easy route to a 2017 three-race winning streak. She faced only five rivals in the Apple Blossom, four in the Clement Hirsch and two in the Beholder, one of whom, Vale Dore, ran second to her in both California stakes.

The last time she had to deal with a field as large as eight, not to mention a field of this quality, she was fourth in last year’s BC Distaff. It’s no disgrace getting beat by certain Hall of Famers Beholder and Songbird. However, the third-place finisher in that race, Forever Unbridled, also is back.

It’s a commentary on the state of American racing at the highest level that Forever Unbridled also beat only three in her win in the Personal Ensign but she did come out on top in a field of eight in her other 2017 start, the Fleur de Lis. An ankle injury, from which she has shown she is fully recovered, limited her to only those two starts.

In the Personal Ensign she did something Stellar Wind couldn’t do, running down Songbird, who had it all her own way in soft fractions.

Stellar Wind also will have to contend with a quartet of talented sophomores--Kentucky Oaks winner Abel Tasman; streaking Elate, coming off a huge Beldame win; last year’s BC Juvenile Fillies champion Champagne Room and speedball Paradise Woods, who will play catch me if you can and gets really brave if left alone.

Other significant stats: Stellar Wind has not won beyond 1 1/16th miles. She’s 0-for-3 at nine furlongs. Trainer John Sadler is 0-for-39 in Breeders’ Cup races. Sadler is too skilled a trainer to stay on the duck forever. However, it’s not prudent wagering strategy to take a short price that this is the race in which he will finally break his Breeders’ Cup maiden.

The keys to my Distaff-Classic two-day daily double and Friday’s final Pick 3 will be Forever Unbridled and Elate.

Filly & Mare Sprint—Unique Bella (9-5): On the West Coast, she’s being talked about in the same sentence as Songbird. So she could break at appreciably less than her morning line odds.

Why not? Since a poor start second in her maiden effort, she’s won five in a row by more than 32 lengths.

But there are red flags. Only her most recent start, the L.A. Woman, was against older. She has yet to face Grade 1 competition. She has not won at six furlongs. (To be fair, she hasn’t been asked to run less than 6 ½ furlongs after her 5 ½ furlong debut.) Typical of Southern California, only one of her races had as many as eight starters.

If you want to stretch the comparison, Songbird failed in her only Grade 1 against older rivals, albeit the memorable 2016 Distaff against Beholder.

Unique Bella will be confronted by some crack elders, including Grade 1 winners Finest City, the defending champion; Paulassilverlining; By the Moon; Constellation and Carina Mia.

Also not to be discounted, even though they lack a Grade 1 win, are Ami’s Mesa, on a four-race winning streak; Finley’s Lucky Charm, a winner of 9-of-12 with two photo-finish seconds; Highway Star, coming off a win in the Grade 2 Gallant Bloom and Skye Diamonds, five of six this season, including a score in the Rancho Bernardo over the Del Mar strip.

This looks like a spread race, not one in which to key a possible odds-on favorite, who has gotten off to a poor start in two of her six races.

Dirt Mile—Mor Spirit (3-1): When pre-entries were disclosed, I planned to include Practical Joke as a fourth short-priced bet-against. The fact that he drew the extreme outside No. 10 with a short run to the first turn undoubtedly was a factor in him being 6-1 on the morning line, double what I had penciled in for him.

I didn’t like him to win because he has never gotten up around two turns. To think he can do it with an atrocious draw seems to be wishful thinking.

This still might be a race to buck the chalk. Mor Spirit is 3-1 on the morning line but usually cocky Bob Baffert cold-watered him in a conference call last week. He labeled Mor Spirit’s Met Mile “pretty incredible.” If he runs back to that race, he’ll be tough to beat, Baffert said.

Then he warned that Mor Spirit, who hasn’t run since, might not be up to another effort like that. “After he ran that big race, it sort of took a lot out of him. It’s taken him a long time to come around. I would have loved to put a prep race into him but I didn’t get a chance.”

This isn’t the only negative Baffert ticked off. “He’s never run at Del Mar…He struggled with that track earlier but now he’s doing much better. But he’s coming off a layoff that long, so he’s got his work cut out for him.”

This could be a case where “the other Baffert” is the one to key. Cupid was the beaten favorite in the Awesome Again (behind “other Baffert” Mubaahtij) but he won his two previous 2017 starts, including the Gold Cup at Santa Anita and the Harry F. Brubaker over the same Del Mar mile as this race.

One Baffert favorite I am not going to try to beat is Drefong, the defending champion in the Sprint. I’m also going all in on globe-trotting Lady Aurelia in the Turf Sprint.

I’m seeing Saturday as “Lady’s Day” with Lady Eli, in the Filly & Mare Turf. I won’t single her but I’ll be rooting as hard for racing’s greatest story as any horse over Breeders’ Cup weekend.

Miami, Nov. 2, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (16)


Thursday, October 26, 2017

Which ‘other Baffert’ do you key in the Classic

Bob Baffert goes into the Breeders' Cup Classic more loaded than usual. He has pre-entered five, including his big three of Arrogate, Collected and West Coast. He also dropped Mubtaahij and Cupid into the box. With so many possibilities, it will be a challenge to pinpoint which is "the other Baffert." Baffert's East Coast counterpart, Chad Brown, is also loaded with sentimental favorite Lady Eli in the Filly & Mare Turf and solid contenders in the the Turf and Sprint, as well as a colt he feels could be a sleeper at a big price in the Juvenile.
“The other Baffert” is a way of life for horse players. Betting the longer-priced stable mate is a must when Baffert has more than one horse in a race. It’s uncanny how often they get home. It’s enough to ignite a “bring back coupled entries” movement.

The Breeders’ Cup Classic presents a conundrum. There will be almost as many “other Bafferts” as there are horses in a typical California stakes. Baffert has pre-entered five, including his big three—Arrogate, Collected and West Coast. He also expects to start at least one other, Mubtaahij, who won the Awesome Again as “the other Baffert,” or Cupid, the shorter-priced Baffert in Santa Anita’s major BC Classic prep.

Either of the latter two would qualify as “the other Baffert” but how do you separate the other three?

Arrogate, dubbed Horse of the World until he fired blanks in the San Diego Handicap and Pacific Classic, is likely to be the most heavily bet on reputation. But Baffert has been saying for weeks he isn’t sure Arrogate will be favored. He has hung that target on Gun Runner’s back. He might be right but Arrogate won’t be far behind on the tote board.

What about Collected? His 8-for-11 record is slightly better than Arrogate’s 7-for-10. Moreover, Collected beat Arrogate on the square in the Pacific Classic over the Del Mar strip that is hosting the Classic. Can’t leave him out

The closest Baffert came during a Breeders’ Cup conference call to offering a hint at a possible upsetter was his comment that West Coast, a 3-year-old who has six wins and two seconds, should be 8-for-8. Baffert has won the last three Classics with 3-year-olds.

They all have to beat Gun Runner, the No. 1 horse in the NTRA poll. But there are chinks in Gun Runner’s armor. The big one is he has never won at a mile and a quarter. He also has not beaten a field with the top-to-bottom quality of the Classic. Finally, Arrogate has beaten him twice, including the Dubai World Cup when Arrogate couldn’t have had a worse trip and Gun Runner couldn’t have had a better one.

The Classic is getting the most attention, as it usually does, but the best sentimental story of Breeders’ Cup weekend is Lady Eli’s attempt to go out on a glorious note in the Filly & Mare Turf.

Chad Brown presents himself as an all-business type of guy. However, even he admits that the gallant filly, who battled back from life-threatening laminitis—the affliction that took Irap’s life this week—to regain her status as one of the world’s best distaffers has a special place in his heart.

“She’s a great story on so many fronts, an example of what horses can overcome. She has such a will to win. I’ve never seen a horse with so much heart and determination.”

Brown is confident he has her set for her best effort. “She’s training super, better than ever and she runs well fresh.”

The 2016 Eclipse trainer hates to see Lady Eli go on to her career as a broodmare but he intends to say so long, not goodbye. “I plan to visit her quite a bit, no matter where she is.”

Brown is in position to sweep the major turf races next weekend with Beach Patrol, who he calls “an over-achiever,” in the Turf.

Brown has another big shot in the Dirt Mile with Practical Joke, who is betwixt and between at Del Mar. At some tracks the mile is a one-turn race. Practical Joke has never been beaten around one turn. Alas, at Del Mar, it’s a two-turn race. Practical Joke has never won around two turns.

The six-furlong Sprint was a consideration, Brown said, but he felt it was too short for his colt, who prefers to stalk then strike. “I’d rather he have more track to work with.” Still, he says, he could call an audible by Monday when the fields will be set.

Brown thinks he has a puncher’s chance with a colt who will be boxcars in the Juvenile. “Good Magic is improving and has the pedigree to improve.”

He’s a two-race maiden but most recently demonstrated quality with a second in the Champagne. “We’ve always felt he has exceptional ability,” Brown said. “We feel he’s going to run better in his third start than he did in his second. If that happens, according to the numbers, he could be right there.”

Brown concedes that Bolt d’Or, likely to be the shortest price favorite in any of the 13 Breeders’ Cup races, will take a lot of beating but “the reward is better than the risk.” If he’s right, the same could be true of those who take this information to the windows. There are exactas, tri’s and super’s.

Race order set
Breeders’ Cup has announced the order of the races. The Juvenile Fillies Turf is the leadoff event on Friday at 5:25 Eastern time. It will be followed in order by the Dirt Mile, the Juvenile Turf and the Distaff.

Saturday’s card begins at 3 p.m. Eastern with the Juvenile Fillies, followed by the Turf Sprint, the Filly & Mare Sprint, the Filly & Mare Turf, the Sprint, the Mile, the Juvenile, the Turf and the Classic.

A $1 two-day daily double will be offered on the Distaff into the Classic. Otherwise, in keeping with California’s misguided tradition, rolling daily doubles will be $2 plays.

Unlike the California norm, pick 3’s will be 50 cents, as will trifectas, pick 4’s and pick 5’s and rolling Hi 5’s. Ten-cent superfectas also will be offered.

Maybe if the fractional exotics get hammered, Del Mar and Santa Anita will get the message.

Miami, Oct. 26, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (15)


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