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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Friday, March 01, 2013

Common sense is one-for-two

(UPDATE: The Breeders Cup announced its new policies hours after this column was published. Updates within.) The Breeders' Cup appears on the verge of backing off its edict that Lasix will not be allowed in any race during the 2013 renewal. This is a sensible example of discretion being the better part of valor. Prohibiting Lasix in the juvenile races last fall resulted in more than a 20 percent drop in entries for those races. A similar decline throughout the card would jeopardize Breeders' Cup. Unfortunately, common sense is an also ran in South Florida, where Gulfstream and Calder remain on a collision course that will have the two tracks racing head-to-head on weekends year round.
March 1, 2013

Common sense apparently is going to rule at the Breeders’ Cup.

Alas, the same is not the case in South Florida.

The Breeders’ Cup, at a meeting on Feb. 22, gave indications that it is considering backing away from its edict that Lasix will be banned throughout the card at this year’s renewal. The catalyst was what happened last year when the anti-bleeding medication was not allowed in the 2-year-old races. Entries were down more than 20 percent from the previous year and handle dropped correspondingly. (Update: the ban in 2YO races remains in effect. Older horses can continue to race with Lasix. Try explaining the logic of that in 50 words or less.)

Similar declines in the non-juvenile races this coming November would be catastrophic to the bottom line, already hurting from diminished stallion and nomination fees. Lesser fields also would detract—or detract further--from the event’s status as a season-ending championship. When that goes, television’s interest in covering the event will go into a freefall, too.

The Breeders’ Cup intentions were noble, a pushback toward a return to the days of thoroughbreds racing on hay, oats and water, as they do in most of the racing world—at least theoretically. The thinking, or hope, was that If horses had to race “clean” in the championship events, this policy would filter down to the rest of the season.

With few exceptions, this hasn’t happened. Juveniles raced up to the Breeders’ Cup on medication, got off it for the one race, then immediately got on it again. Or they just skipped the Breeders’ Cup.

This figures to also be the case if the Breeders’ Cup stands firm and enforces the Lasix ban on all races. (Update: Which is why they haven't.) Horsemen’s organizations across the nation have argued vehemently against the Breeders’ Cup decree. Owners and trainers could make a solidarity statement by skipping this year’s Breeders’ Cup. So what’s the point of endangering one of the best things to happen in racing during the past century in pursuit of an unattainable goal?

This isn’t even an example of protecting the public. Lasix use is noted on the program and in past performance publications. Bettors learned to deal with it years ago. There were inexplicable form reversals when the medication first came into vogue but now that its use is commonplace, bordering on universal, it’s a minor handicapping factor.

In fact, having horses who have been racing with Lasix their entire career come off it for one race is actually a diservice to fans. Besides, as every player knows, it isn’t the medications on the program that produce form reversals.

Whether or not the Lasix ban is lifted there is likely going to be undeserving casualty, the Juvenile Sprint. (This has happened.) If so, it will be an over-reaction made in haste. The Breeders’ Cup is dismayed that the inaugural running last November produced only five starters. As a result, it generated the least handle of the 15 races. (Duh!)

To argue that this was a product of lack of interest on the part of horsemen is disingenuous. It can be traced almost entirely to the Lasix ban.

There is widespread consensus that there are too many “Breeders’ Cup” races, and that this cheapens the ones that matter. However, a sprint for 2-year-olds makes far more sense than the Marathon. For every race in America at extended distances (anything beyond 10 furlongs on dirt), there are hundreds, if not thousands, of sprints for young horses. The Juvenile Sprint deserves at least one more chance to establish itself without the ban.

LUNACY IN SOUTH FLORIDA: Getting back to South Florida, the deadline for amending dates requests for the year that starts July 1 came and went on Feb. 28 without Calder or Gulfstream blinking. As of now, this means the tracks will engage in a suicidal head-to-head confrontation on weekends starting in July.

Gulfstream initiated this conflict, its primary motivation being an attempt to save a dying mall on the racetrack grounds, which is a ghost town outside the racing season. This is a classic case of sending good money after bad. The mall is unsalvagable and South Florida racing has been put into jeopardy. There simply aren’t enough horses or fans to support two tracks racing simultaneously.

Phil Combest, president of the Florida HBPA, was quoted in the Blood Horse saying, “The idea of racing head to head is crazy and nobody will benefit…The future of Florida racing is at stake.”

Although the tracks are now legally committed to racing the dates they requested, there is still hope that sanity can be restored. Loopholes in the law allow Calder and Gulfstream to re-petition the state if an agreement is reached in the coming months. The drawback is Gulfstream owner Frank Stronach, who is behind the dates grab. People who tell him things he doesn’t want to hear have a tendency to get fired.

However, the Florida legislature meets in the spring and can come up with any remedy it so chooses to save the sport. To borrow a line from another business crisis, thoroughbred racing in Florida, a multi-billion dollar industry that employs tens of thousands, is too big to fail.

The idea that the state will allow it to fall into peril to save a doomed shopping mall is unthinkable.

An obvious solution is to have the state resume setting racing dates as it used to do until the 1980s. When the new way doesn’t work, it’s time to return to the old way.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, February 22, 2013

The Derby Winner: Aura and Majesty Forevermore

HRI BULLETIN: Gulfstream's Rainbow Pick 6 was hit Friday. The Pot o' Gold was worth $3,591,245.44.

There is still something magic about the winner of a Kentucky Derby.This was reiterated when the biggest non-Florida Derby Day crowd since Gulfstream was rebuilt came out to see Animal Kingdom on Donn Handicap Day. What a wonderful world it would be if more owners recognized what a Derby winner means to the sport and kept their horses in training through their 4-year-old seasons. OK, I'm a dreamer.

February 22, 2013

Allow me a John Lennon moment. Allow me to Imagine a world where Kentucky Derby winners aren’t retired before their 3-year-old season is out.

The magic of a Derby winner was never more apparent than Donn Handicap Day at Gulfstream. The Donn might be the centerpiece race of the season for older horses but it became just an afterthought because Animal Kingdom was making his first start as a 5-year-old (and alas, last in the U.S.) in the Gulfstream Park Turf Cup.

What felt like the biggest non-Florida Derby Day crowd ever at the new facility (accurate attendance figures are impossible in the racino era) made it clear why they were there. It was to see a Kentucky Derby winner.

They were 10 deep around the spacious walking ring, lining up early to be sure to get a look at Animal Kingdom. They cheered as he circled the walking ring.

Gulfstream was savvy enough to have the field go around three times. There was a cacophony of cameras and camera phones clicking.

It was like the good old days when thoroughbred racing challenged the major team sports for attention. Believe it or not, there was a time when racing was bigger than the NFL.

Those who didn’t get a spot near the walking ring packed the apron and cheered when Animal Kingdom took the track. In the opening flash, he was a ridiculous 1-9, although that moderated to 4-5 by post time. It didn’t matter that Point of Entry, who wound up winning, had far stronger credentials.

Wouldn’t it be great if more sportsmen owners recognized what a Derby winner means to the game and kept their horse in training, making a circuit of major races around the U.S. as a 4-year-old?

You may say I'm a dreamer but I’m not the only one.

As long as I’m dreaming…

The Kentucky Derby it needs to join the Breeders’ Cup Classic as a prime-time TV attraction ASAP.

NBC would do it in a heartbeat. The Derby, which out-rates many prime-time shows and everything on Saturday night, falls during TV’s May sweeps ratings period.

The Run for the Roses springs from the gate at about 6:40 now. What’s another two hours? Most of the undercard would still be run in daylight and the first race wouldn’t have to be run in the a.m. There is no better way to showcase racing than to present its biggest attraction before the largest possible audience, which is prime-time.

A remedy for running Day One of the Breeders’ Cup on Friday, a workday for most, is to move the event to Thanksgiving weekend. Millions have the day off. Fans could cut a deal with their spouses. Shop your brains out. I’m going to the track.

There are only one or two significant football games to compete with on both Friday and Saturday, as opposed to countless big games the first Saturday in November.
As for the weather, Churchill Downs has run a big closing weekend for years over the Thanksgiving weekend without problems. If the NFL can stage what is destined to be dubbed the Stupid Bowl at the Meadowlands in February, racing in late fall shouldn’t be an issue. Moreover, it’s not an issue in warm weather sites, where most future Breeders’ Cups are likely to land.

A final benefit would be that NYRA, Keeneland and Santa Anita wouldn’t have to shoe horn dozens of big money stakes into the first and second weekends of their fall meetings. If there’s a downside, I can’t see it.

Saratoga, the former “August place to be” should truly become “the summer place to be” by running from July 4 to Labor Day.

As part of the package, the schedule could be trimmed-- as it should be anyway given the shortage of horses--to five days a week. Going a taxing six days a week, Saratoga runs 40 days now. A more vacation-like five-day agenda, from July 4 to Labor Day, would add only five dates.

North country hotels and restaurants, which would bitch to their representatives in nearby Albany about a reduction in the racing week, would probably drop their objections if they were compensated with a longer season.

South Florida racetracks need to get together to have the legislature abolish the antiquated 7 p.m. curfew for thoroughbred racing.

It was created decades ago at the behest of greyhound tracks and jai alai frontons to protect their monopoly on evening gambling. Today, the dogs and jai alai have become just an excuse to operate slots and card rooms. Indeed, the night time operations are trying to get the obligation to maintain pari-mutuels eliminated. Thanks to simulcasting, horse races provide more handle than the pups and cesta guys. They would undoubtedly welcome an opportunity to take action on quality horse racing.

Frank Stronach says he wants to put up lights at Gulfstream but has hesitated because of the curfew. Night racing could be a way to mitigate the potential conflict with Calder if Gulfstream goes ahead with its plan for summer racing.

Another Stronach idea, the original concept for the Sunshine Millions, didn’t turn out as well as hoped because California-breds are no match for Florida-breds. The Sunshine State won all nine showdowns before the inter-state format was abandoned and transformed into each state running its own state-bred set of rich races.

How about a new competition between Florida-breds and New York-breds late in the year when there isn’t much going on? Gamblers at both venues are familiar with the horses at the other and with slots money boosting purses for New York-breds, it’s only a matter of time before the Big Apple herd can compete with any state’s horses.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, February 15, 2013

Points would have KO’ed 4 recent Derby winners

Animal Kingdom gives his assessment of the new Derby Point System
Photo by Toni Pricci
Animal Kingdom assessing the new Derby Point System
As the start of phase 2 of Kentucky Derby points qualifying looms, Churchill Downs says it's pleased with the way things are going. Perhaps it shouldn't be. Under 2013 points standards, it is likely that at least four of the 14 most recent Derby winners--Mine That Bird, Giacomo, War Emblem and Charismatic--would not have made the cut. During this period the only serious Derby contender to come to mind who was bumped by the earnings rule was Drosselmeyer.

MIAMI, February 14, 2013--Churchill Downs is “very comfortable” with its new Kentucky Derby points system, Senior Director of Communications Darren Rogers told The Blood-Horse recently. With the second phase of the points system looming next week, the 2013 debut of Animal Kingdom at Gulfstream on Feb. 9 was a reminder of why Churchill should be at least a little bit uncomfortable.

It’s entirely possible Animal Kingdom would not have made the cut for the 2011 Derby if the qualifying criteria had been what it is in 2013.

Guesstimates are it will take 40 to 50 points to earn a spot in the 2013 starting gate. This seems reasonable. Eight preps between Feb. 23 and March 24 award the winner 50 points. The big seven final preps are worth 100 points to the winner and 40 apiece to the runnersup. That’s a potential 22 horses with at least 40 points, probably more, as 13 Triple Crown candidates had at least 10 points through the first stage of the qualifying process. (Goldencents and Shanghai Bobby lead with 24.)

There almost certainly will be at least a few horses earning big points in both rounds and injuries always take their toll late in the run-up to the first Saturday in May, so some horses might squeak in with fewer points. But a horse with 50 points wouldn’t necessarily have it knocked.

By 2013 standards, Animal Kingdom had 50 points entering the Derby. All were earned in the Spiral Stakes, a race that has changed its name more often than Diddy. Perhaps Animal Kingdom’s pre-Derby campaign would have been managed differently under a points system. Then again, Animal Kingdom went into the Spiral still eligible for an entry level allowance.

Allowing that Animal Kingdom would have been more likely than not to make the Derby field, this was definitely not the case with 2010 Derby champion Mine That Bird. He had only 13 points by 2013 methodology.

Giacomo, hero of the 2005 Derby, would have been an unlikely qualifier with 36 points.

There is no uncertainty with a couple of horses who went into the Belmont Stakes with a shot at the Triple Crown, War Emblem in 2002 and Charismatic in 1999. War Emblem would have had zero points because his triumph in the Illinois Derby would have counted for nothing, thanks to the outrageously political decision by Churchill Downs to snub the race. Charismatic would have had only 10 points from his fourth-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby.

That’s four Derby winners, two of whom also won the Preakness, in the past 14 years who wouldn’t have cracked the field and another who would have been on the bubble. The only significant horse I can recall who didn’t make the starting 20 under the earnings criteria was Drosselmeyer in 2010.

Just Saying: Dustin Hoffman is just saying something that needs to be heard. The two-time Academy Award winning actor told The New York Post that he was “beyond disappointed” and “shocked” that the horse racing drama “Luck” was abruptly canceled by HBO in March 2012.

The reason offered by HBO was the death of a third horse during the making of the drama set in the colorful milieu of horse racing. Trust me, this was an excuse looking for a way to happen.

In my previous life, I was a TV critic for 30 years. I know how the business works and how disingenuous the people in it can be. A crack by Ted Harbert to TV writers during my time on the beat is illustrative. Harbert, a highly regarded executive, programmed the ABC network and later ran NBC studios, among several big jobs he has held.

He was asked the difference between being the public face of ABC, who had to explain and defend his network programming decisions to critics, and the less visible position at NBC behind the scenes supervising production of shows. “I don’t have to lie to you guys as much,” Harbert quipped shamelessly.

“Luck” wasn’t drawing a crowd. Its well publicized premiere in January 2012 attracted only about a million viewers, a paltry number for HBO, which was spoiled by audiences 10 times as large during “The Sopranos” heyday. Nobody expected “Luck,” or any series, to be another “Sopranos.” However, HBO was hoping for an audience closer to the more recent “Game of Thrones,” which is generally north of 4 million.

Worse for “Luck,” the trend line was discouraging. The subsequent weekly audiences were in the ballpark of about a half-million. With Hoffman heading the cast, which also included established stars Nick Nolte, Jill Hennessy, Dennis Farina, Richard Kind and Jason Gedrick (as well as Gary Stevens and Chantal Sutherland), “Luck” was an expensive show to make. The ambitious racing footage also blew up the bottom line.

HBO, which had ordered a second season based on the quality of the series, needed an escape hatch. You don’t embarrass a Dustin Hoffman by pulling the plug on him, especially when you’re a network that prides itself in saying it is above ratings.

Protests by the nutbags at PETA, an organization generally ignored and ridiculed, provided HBO the opportunity to seem high minded and compassionate toward animals when all it really cared about was a face-saving way to get out of a commitment it had made.

Written by Tom Jicha

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