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, March 09, 2017

ADW ban in Florida an idle threat

Senate Bill 8, which has passed a very early hurdle in the Florida legislature, would outlaw ADW in the state. Obviously there is no chance this is going to happen but it got everyone talking. Apparently the real purpose of the bill is to give tracks and horsemen the opportunity to squeeze more money out of off-track bet handlers. Meanwhile, major 3-year-old stakes Saturday at Santa Anita and Tampa Bay Downs might somewhat clarify an increasingly muddled Kentucky Derby picture.

Mark Twain is widely credited with coining the phrase, “No man’s life, liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session.” However, a Wikipedia post reports a New York politician of the same 19th century era, Gideon J. Tucker, is the source. Whoever the originator, the message, which endures to the present day, is there is no limit to the mischief lawmakers can cause.

A piece of legislation that would outlaw Advance Deposit Wagering (ADW) in Florida, Senate Bill 8, passed an early hurdle last week. It got the tales in a tangle of everyone in the horse industry even though common sense dictates it has no more chance of becoming law in its current form than a bill to declare suntan lotion a controlled substance. Moreover, a companion bill in the State House, contains no such ADW language.

“That bill is dead,” Gulfstream’s Tim Ritvo said emphatically last Saturday.

“None of us in the thoroughbred industry believe that language in that form is going to be approved,” Lonny Powell, chief executive officer of the FTBOA, was quoted in the BloodHorse.

This raises the question of where did such a draconian solution to a non-problem come from? Lawmakers generally don't get involved in pari-mutuel issues unless they are doing someone's bidding. My thinking is, if you scanned the bill, there is a good chance you would find the fingerprints of many of those who claim to be aghast at it.

Senate Bill 8 seems to be serving as a stalking horse for what the industry really wants, more money from ADW’s.The best way to get it is to put the fear of God into them with a threat that they could be put out of business in the Sunshine State.

Nobody wants that. There’s a big downside. The state, tracks and horsemen all would forfeit big bucks. If there’s an upside, it escapes me. This is why SB8 cannot and should not be taken seriously.

Marc Dunbar, who represents The Stronach Group, estimated licensing and taxing ADWs could generate an additional $1.5 million for racing interests. An intriguing sidelight is The Stronach Group owns Gulfstream and ADW company So TSG appears to be lobbying for one of its subsidiaries against another.

“Give us what we want and the horse industry’s support for the anti-ADW provision disappears” seems to be the message. Don Corleone would smile.

Derby trail needs a leader

I can’t remember a week like the last one when the Kentucky Derby picture became so muddied. Classic Empire, already a question mark, put further doubt on his Derby status when he refused to work in the first attempt since his foot abscess. McCraken went on the disabled list with an ankle sprain, forcing him to skip the Tampa Bay Derby, although he has resumed training. Holy Bull winner Irish War Cry fired a blank in the Fountain of Youth. Jerome and Withers winner El Areeb did the same in the Gotham.

Perhaps Saturday’s San Felipe will restore some order to the top of the rankings. Gormley, who outfinished Bob Baffert’s American Anthem in the Sham, takes on the Baffert barn’s big 3-year-old, undefeated Mastery. There’s a wild card with an intriguing angle in San Vicente winner Iliad. He’s one of the horses Kaleem Shad took away from Baffert. Now he looks to upset Baffert’s leading Derby hopeful.

The Big ‘Cap might be the nominal feature but when it comes to generating conversation, this is the race of the day out West. This time of year my money is always on Baffert.

Back in the East, there’s no over-estimating the Tampa Bay Derby, which has produced a pair of Kentucky Derby winners in the past decade. I’m all in on Tapwrit, who didn’t get the best of trips while chasing McCraken home in the Sam F. Davis. Jose Ortiz got him trapped down on the rail behind horses as McCraken zipped by on the outside with all the momentum at the top of the lane. Once clear, Tapwrit was running as well, if not better, than the winner.

Ortiz, the uncrowned best rider in America, won’t make the same mistake twice. If Tapwrit does what I expect, he’ll become my new Derby horse. I anticipate a lot of company.

Elsewhere on the traditionally terrific Tampa Derby card, I like La Coronel in the Tampa Oaks a lot, too.


Sometimes I just want to scream. Graham Motion is an outstanding trainer. If I owned a horse, I’d be thrilled if Motion agreed to train him. But Saturday after Irish War Cry came up empty in the Fountain of Youth, Motion said his first instinct was the Holy Bull winner ran back too quickly.

The Holy Bull was four weeks previous. Fountain winner Gunnevera came out of the same race. So did Talk Logistic, fourth in the Holy Bull and the Fountain. Three Rules, a game third after doing all the dirty work, ran on the Holy Bull undercard.

Gulfstream continues to amaze. Not only did it handle a record of more than $26 million on Fountain Day, Gunnevera, now one of the favorites for the Derby, and Three Rules, who is being pointed for the Preakness, are products of the supposedly second tier summer meeting.

Poor Wood Memorial. NY winter wonder El Areeb gets thrashed and Dale Romans, trainer of Gotham winner J Boys Echo, says the Blue Grass almost certainly will be his final Derby prep. The injuries to Eclipse champion Classic Empire and McCraken have their connections also pointing for April 8 at Keeneland. So the Blue Grass could get its Grade 1 back quickly. Meanwhile, the Wood is left with...?

Go figure. (You’ll have to on Saturday.) Getting back to Santa Anita and the Big ‘Cap card, one of the top dirt horses in California, Dortmund, is skipping the main track feature to run on turf in the Kilroe Mile and one of the top grass horses, Midnight Storm, is passing on the Kilroe to run in the Big ‘Cap.

The greatest racetrack robbery this side of The Grifters took place Sunday at Santa Anita. If you missed it, the last race was taken off wet turf. Since the decision was announced after betting had opened, it made the race an “all” in the Pick 6 and Pick 4.

According to the single ticket jackpot rules of the Pick 6, the “all” dictated there could be no jackpot winner. Nevertheless, Santa Anita carried over the 15 percent set aside for days when there isn’t a single winner. So bettors couldn’t win but they could lose. Do that in other gambling games and someone calls the cops.

West Coast activist Andy Asaro is calling for a two-week boycott of Santa Anita to protest. Big Cap Saturday isn’t an optimum day to include but the point could be made by skipping all the other days the next two weeks. It's the only thing racetracks understand.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (40)


Thursday, March 02, 2017

Fountain overflowing with talented Derby hopefuls

March is the month when college basketball and Kentucky Derby fever get serious. The injury related absences of Classic Empire and McCraken have made this spring's Derby run-up more wide open than usual. But the new leader of the pack is likely to emerge from Saturday's Fountain of Youth, where Irish War Cry will bid to remain undefeated and Chad Brown will bring back dual Grade 1 winner Practical Joke. Locally based multiple stakes winners Gunnevera and Three Rules are not without upset chances.

Racing has its own variation of March Madness. Starting Saturday with Gulfstream’s Fountain of Youth, the 2017 crop of 3-year-olds will jockey to earn the opportunity to become champion of racing’s biggest dance, the Kentucky Derby.

Circumstances have made this year crazier than most. Classic Empire, the Eclipse juvenile champion, is temporarily sidelined with an abscess suffered in the vicinity of the Holy Bull. McCraken, who succeeded him atop the polls, also went into a holding pattern this week with an ankle sprain.

Neither ailment is supposed to be serious enough to knock the colts off the Derby trail but you know how these things go. How many times have you heard a trainer say there can be no hiccups on the road to Louisville?

The Fountain of Youth is loaded as always with undefeated Holy Bull winner Irish War Cry the horse to beat. More on this race in a bit.

Also Saturday, El Areeb, the only sophomore with a pair of graded stakes wins this year, bids for his third in a row in the Gotham. It will be impossible to get an accurate gauge on him until he faces better than the inner track bunch he has been dominating.

Next Saturday, Santa Anita’s San Felipe offers a showdown of Grade 1 winners, Bob Baffert’s undefeated Mastery in his 2017 debut against Sham winner Gormley.

The same afternoon, the Tampa Bay Derby figures to have a huge field thanks to the absence of McCraken, who dominated the prep, the Sam F. Davis on Feb. 11. If runnerup Tapwrit comes back, he’s my choice, no matter who else shows up. If you’re looking for a Derby sleeper, you could do worse.

Getting back to the Fountain of Youth, Irish War Cry impressed in running his record to three-for-three in the Holy Bull. However, the race could not have broken more in his favor, especially with the likelihood Classic Empire wasn’t on top of his game.

Irish War Cry was able to lope along on the lead in non-taxing, almost even 24 second quarters—24.14, 47.92, 1:11.87. This left him with plenty in the tank to fend off the closers by almost four lengths. Graham Motion, who trained 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom, doesn’t expect his son of Curlin to have it so easy this time. “There’s a target on us now.”

While Irish War Cry had things all his own way in the Holy Bull, Gunnevera, who closed resolutely for second, was forced to steady going to the far turn and lost valuable momentum. With different trips, the outcome could be turned upside down in the FoY.

Chad Brown has a dangerous new shooter in Practical Joke. His only miss in four starts came when he ran a troubled trip third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Practical Joke has proven he’s a fighter, a valuable asset. He won the Hopeful by a neck and the Champagne by a nose. Brown isn’t known to lean on horses in the morning, ala Baffert, but Practical Joke has been firing bullet after bullet at Palm Meadows this winter.

Gulfstream specialist Three Rules is not without a chance. His Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, his only loss in six starts in 2016, came in a tough trip on the track after a grueling trip getting from South Florida to Santa Anita. His 3-year-old debut in the seven furlong Swale was an ideal set-up for Saturday. He was close to the pace, swung wide to take the lead in early stretch then hung in to be beaten less than a length by Favorable Outcome, who Brown thinks might become one of the nation’s top sprinters.

Not to be overlooked is the fact that Three Rules beat Gunnevera twice at Gulfstream last summer before the latter skipped town to win the Saratoga Special and Delta Jackpot.

I like Practical Joke to get the money but I’ll have Three Rules on at least one horizontal ticket.

Guarantees are a drag

At this point it’s as futile to request Gulfstream observe post times as it would be to ask Miley Cyrus to keep her clothes on. You don’t change what is working.

Gulfstream’s post drag reached its nadir last Saturday. When the clock clicked to zero for the 10th race, there were four minutes to post for Fair Grounds’ Mineshaft Handicap. As we often do in the press box to amuse ourselves, we wondered aloud which race would go off first.

It wasn’t close. The Mineshaft not only went off first, the two-turn race was completed before the gate was sprung at Gulfstream. To make matters worse, Fair Grounds also dragged its post two or three minutes because the Mineshaft started an all-stakes Pick 4.

Gulfstream's post drag, barring a mishap, is not usually seven or eight minutes. Post-time plus four minutes is the new normal.

The reason the post was delayed so long became apparent when the pool totals were posted. The $350,000 guarantee for the late Pick 4 was barely reached with $366,621 wagered. Obviously the 10th race wasn’t going to go until the guarantee had been met.

This raises the oft-asked question, what is the point of guarantees at top tier tracks? This isn't the Rainbow 6 jackpot. No regular player is fooled into thinking that the six- (or seven-) figure guarantee is what the payoff will be. In fact, “the $350,000 guaranteed” Pick 4 on Saturday paid $249.80, less than one-tenth of one percent of the guarantee.

At best, the big money guarantee is misleading to casual fans and tourists, big parts of Gulfstream’s winter clientele. Is this a desirable business plan?

Guarantees might be useful at smaller tracks with lesser handles. They assure bettors that if they are lucky enough to come up with two or three price horses they will be commensurately rewarded and not collect substantially less than what a parlay would have paid, because there was only a few thousand dollars in the pool.

Given the typical pools at major tracks, this is never the case. So guarantees are pointless. The only thing they accomplish is to fool novices and occasionally hold up races longer than usual, making a further joke of post times.

Miami, March 2, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, February 23, 2017

To tackle Arrogate or not to tackle Arrogate; that is the question

After his smashing Razorback triumph, it's fair to say Gun Runner might be the best older horse in America not named Arrogate. This creates a dilemma for his connections. Do they go to Dubai and likely have to take on Arrogate or stay home and possibly dominate the handicap division. On the 3-year-old front, Todd Pletcher has another strong Derby contender, One Liner, who ran his record to 3-for-3 in the Southwest Stakes and partially answered questions about his distance limitations.

Discretion or valor? These are the options confronting the connections of Gun Runner after his 5 ¾ length victory in Monday’s Razorback Handicap.

Do they go on to Dubai, as they indicated was their intention, where they likely will be confronted by Horse of the World Arrogate? Or do they pull an adaptation of baseball Hall of Famer Wee Willie Keeler’s batting credo, “Hit ‘em where they ain’t,” by staying home and running where Arrogate ain’t.

When Gun Runner was being pointed toward the Middle East, it didn’t appear Arrogate was better than 50-50 to also make the trip. Now it’s more like 80-20 in favor of Arrogate getting on the plane.

After a characteristically sharp work by Arrogate on Tuesday—five furlongs in 59 seconds—Garrett O’Rourke, manager of Juddmonte Farms, was quoted in the BloodHorse as saying, “The horse is sound. He is in super form and Bob (Baffert) said there is difficulty keeping him on the ground when he gets too high. The easiest way to keep him on the ground is let him work and let him run.”

O’Rourke said the final call will be made by Prince Khalid, the colt’s owner, but he is leaning toward going to Dubai.

Gun Runner’s people intended to take on Arrogate in the Pegasus but couldn’t make the race because of the quarantine at the Fair Grounds, their winter base. So they still might take up the challenge. Second money in Dubai is $2 million, more than any stakes in America will offer its winner until the Breeders’ Cup.

On the other hand, there is a bevy of rich stakes on the home front from which to choose in the next few months—the $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap on April 15 over the track Gun Runner relished in the Razorback; the $1.25 million Charles Town Classic on April 22 and the $1.25 Met Mile on June 10—where the only conceivable threat would be Connect, who has not been heard from since winning the Cigar Mile.

Gun Runner’s co-owner, Ron Winchell, might have given a hint as to which way the barn is leaning when he said after the Razorback, “We’ll see who else is getting on that airplane.”

You don’t have to be Jeopardy Tournament of Champions material to figure out to whom he was referring.

One Liner jumps on Derby trail

The nature of racing in late winter and spring is such that Gun Runner’s Razorback was almost completely overshadowed by One Liner’s eye-catching score in the Southwest Stakes for Derby age horses.

One Liner established his quality with a first-out score at Saratoga last summer then an equally impressive entry-level allowance win at Gulfstream six months later. Those races were at 5 ½ and 6 furlongs, respectively, so there was a question about his two-turn ability.

His breeding doesn’t scream stamina. His sire, Into Mischief, won at a mile and a sixteenth but he was at his best around one turn. His dam, Cayela, is by sprint champion Cherokee Road.

One Liner dispelled some of the distance concerns despite breaking from post 11 with a 122-pound high weight impost. His time, 1:41.85, compares well to the 1:40.97 the older Grade 1 winner Gun Runner took an hour earlier.

However, a mile and a sixteenth is within the scope of most milers and sprinters. A mile and a quarter is still a bridge pretty far for a horse with One Liner's breeding.

One Liner will extend to a full nine furlongs in his final Derby prep, which will come either April 1 or April 8, according to Todd Pletcher. This puts the Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby on April Fools Day into play as well as the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial a week later.

Of those, only the downgraded $750,000 Wood Memorial, now a Grade 2, has less than a $1 million purse. This isn’t going to help NYRA to attract the caliber of horses necessary to get the Wood back to the top of the grading ladder. If the $1.25 Met Mile surrendered $250,000 to the Wood to get it back on par with the other elite final Derby preps, do you think the Met Mile would be any lesser of a race?

A non-rare rarity

The commentators on TVG must feel that if there is a moment of dead air, the network will go dark forever. They kept saying that One Liner’s ship to Oaklawn was a rarity for Pletcher.

Not so. Pletcher might not have competed in many Southwest Stakes but he is hardly a stranger to the Hot Springs track. He has had an entrant, in some cases more than one, in the Arkansas Derby every year since 2010.

Pletcher’s Overanalyze and Danza won Oaklawn’s signature race in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and Super Saver used it as his final prep before winning Pletcher’s only Kentucky Derby in 2010.

Pletcher also has had representatives in two of the four most recent Rebel Stakes and the last four Oaklawn Handicaps for older horses, which he won with Race Day in 2015.

What’s inexcusable is TVG covered these races.

It’s all about Vic

The first time I heard Vic Stauffer in an announcer’s booth was at Hialeah many years ago. I thought Tom Durkin had slipped in unnoticed. In his early days, Stauffer tried hard to emulate Durkin. He can’t be faulted for trying to model himself after the best.

Stauffer’s future seemed boundless. He had a great announcer’s voice and delivery and tried to paint a picture of a race rather than the mundane, “first by a half, second by two…sixth by a head.” Indeed he has had a noteworthy run, calling races at top venues, including Gulfstream, Hollywood Park and now Oaklawn.

But he has not enjoyed the success for which he once seemed destined because over time, he did something Durkin never did. He tried to overwhelm races, making them more about his call than the race itself. If it was a stakes on TV or likely to be replayed on TV, he really hammed it up.

Back in the booth at Oaklawn, you would think he might have learned something and moderated his calls. It hasn’t happened. It’s still all about Vic and his pet phrases.

TVG replayed the Smarty Jones prior to the Southwest. In the stretch, Stauffer called runaway winner Uncontested “straight and strong.” The colt might have been strong but he wasn’t straight. He could be seen wandering all over the track. Who to believe, Vic or your lying eyes?

Earlier, in calling the final strides of Gun Runner’s easy score in the Razorback, Stauffer interjected the stakes record and biggest winning margin and exclaimed, “Gun Runner might get both.” He got neither.

Stauffer could have withheld these tidbits until Gun Runner crossed the wire. But then it would have been about the horse, not Vic Stauffer.

MIami, February 23, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (25)


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