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, December 03, 2015

Gulfstream opens its winter season with a player’s delight

Gulfstream kicks off its championship winter season Saturday with the Claiming Crown, an event that fulfills bettors fondness for full fields with plenty of price opportunities. The nine races have drawn 121 entries with the smallest field being 10. A couple of new rainbow-chasing bets, a rolling Hi 5 and a second Pick 5 on the opening five races of each card, have been added to the betting menu.

MIAMI, Dec. 3, 2015—“There’s no beginning, there’ll be no end…” is not only a verse from the old pop ballad Love Is All Around, it’s a description of America’s national racing scene.

Year-round racing has eradicated any sense of a roundly recognized opening and closing day of the season. The Eclipse Awards might be the only entity that recognizes a Jan. 1-Dec. 31 season. Every locale has its own parameters.

Few are bigger than opening day of Gulfstream’s championship season Saturday. Thanks to the positioning of the Claiming Crown as the inaugural event, it might be one of the best betting days of the year. The series dedicated to the blue collar heroes of racing has grown to nine races worth more than a million dollars cumulatively in purses.

Bettors love full fields and few days deliver better than the Claiming Crown. The shortest field is 10 for the Iron Horse. Fourteen or more passed through the entry box for five of the nine stakes, each worth in excess of $100,000.

The name is somewhat deceptive. To qualify, a horse must have run for a designated claiming price during the previous two seasons. But the fields are littered with shrewd claims, who advanced upward to the stakes ranks.

“The Rapid Transit is good enough to be a Grade 3,” said P.J. Campo, director of racing for The Stronach Group and Gulfstream general manager. Indeed, defending champion Grande Shores is likely to be no better than third choice behind multiple New York stakes-winner Stallwalkin’ Dude, who was third in the Grade 1 Vosburgh, and Trouble Kid, who knocked out a loaded field in the Gallant Bob on the Pennsylvania Derby undercard then finished first in the DeFrancis Dash, only to be disqualified.

Campo, a former racing secretary at NYRA, is loving life since coming to Gulfstream. “I’ve learned more in the last two years here than I did in my 15 years in New York.” Where he formerly concerned himself with filling races, he now has to oversee the racing program, a casino and The Village, the mall built around the racetrack. A water park is soon to come.

A couple of Claiming Crown defending champions also are back: Loverbil, winner of the 2014 Express, and St. Borealis, who got the money a year ago in the Tiara.

Gulfstream has resuscitated the Claiming Crown, an admirable concept, which was in its death throes as it drifted around the country. The key was scheduling it as the focal point of opening day. In spite of almost year-round racing, the start of Gulfstream's winter meeting endures as an anticipated event.

This is the final year of the Claiming Crown’s four-year contract with Gulfstream but Campo is confident a new deal will be worked out. “The timing (in late December when tracks up north are shutting down for the winter) is good and everyone loves to come to Florida.”

Another key factor is Gulfstream has streamlined the nominating process so that owners and trainers don’t have to put up fees until a few weeks before the event. At one point, nominations had to be made during the summer. The connections of claimers don’t even know if a horse will still be in their barn that far down the road.

The Claiming Crown epitomizes Gulfstream’s refusal to rest on its laurels. There was no shortage of potential life-changing jackpot pools when Tim Ritvo came up with the Rainbow Six, a unique concept in which the full pool was distributed only when there was a single winner. Some jackpots have exceeded a million dollars and drawn the attention of bettors nationwide. Detractors, including some of the most prominent names in the gambling world, scoffed but the Rainbow Six not only is an indisputable success, it has been widely emulated.

A couple of new wagers with the potential for breath-taking payoffs have been added to the menu: a rolling Hi 5, starting with the first race, and a second Pick 5 on races 1-5. Both had test rollouts at the Gulfstream West meeting. A third experiment at GPW, a $5 quiniela on the final race of each day’s card, will not be continued.

Gulfstream has reached out to its sister tracks in Maryland and NYRA to bring in a couple of the industry’s most respected closed-circuit analysts, Gabby Gaudet and Andy Serling. While closely identified with New York racing, Serling knows the Gulfstream terrain. Before his NYRA duties kept him in the frozen north, he used to be a Gulfstream winter regular as a bettor. Those who got to know him offered a player’s ultimate accolade: “He’s got a really good opinion.”

A not insignificant side benefit of NYRA granting Serling a leave of absence during January and February is an agreement between the tracks to make every effort to stagger post times so that the most popular winter signals in the East don’t wind up having races break from the gate in frustratingly close proximity. Players, including this one, have been pleading for this accommodation for years.

Campo said he’ll also make an effort to bring Stronach owned Santa Anita into this pattern. Given California’s notorious, “We are the center of the universe” attitude, this might be easier said than done.

The Claiming Crown is only the start for Gulfstream. Multiple stakes, many of them graded, are scheduled for most Saturdays.

There also is the traditional rollout of Classic hopefuls. Orb came to Gulfstream a one-for-four maiden winner in 2013. He won all three Gulfstream starts, including the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, en route to capturing the Kentucky Derby. Big Brown had won only one race, on the grass at Saratoga, before he took the Florida Derby path to the Churchill Downs winner’s circle in 2008.

For the first time in memory, Todd Pletcher, 12-time Gulfstream training champion, is coming south for the winter without one of the big-time prospects for the spring classics. “Don’t worry,” Campo said. “He’ll come up with some.”

History backs this. Materiality and Constitution each came to Florida as an unraced maiden and left Gulfstream as Florida Derby winners. Coincidentally, both won their debuts on Jan. 11.

Until last weekend, it appeared the strength of the Derby generation was going to be based on the West Coast. Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Nyquist, Swipe, the colt who has chased him home four straight times, and Exaggerator, winner of the Delta Jackpot, are all stabled at Santa Anita.

However, the undefeated Mohaymen ran his record to three-for-three with an eye-catching score in the Remsen on Saturday. The same day, Airoforce, whose only blemish in his first three starts, all on grass, was a second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, came from off the pace to win his main track debut in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes.

Both will be at Gulfstream this winter with the April 2 Florida Derby circled on their calendar.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, November 26, 2015

The (Derby) future is now; avoid Spa winners

The first round of Kentucky Derby futures is this weekend with another ridiculous pool added--the sire of the Derby winner. Nyquist is a deserving early favorite for the Run for the Roses but he'll have to prove a son of Uncle Mo can get 10 furlongs. Exaggerator also looked promising in winning the Delta Jackpot last weekend. However, he is bucking a trend that indicates Saratoga might be the launch pad for future champions but not Kentucky Derby winners.

MIAMI, Nov. 26, 2015--Nyquist is a deserving de facto favorite for next spring’s Kentucky Derby. At the comparable stage of their careers, his juvenile accomplishments are similar to American Pharoah in some areas, superior in others.

Both won the Del Mar Futurity and the Front Runner Stakes. But Nyquist broke his maiden at first asking while American Pharoah ran fifth in his debut. Nyquist prepped for the Futurity with a win in the Best Pal. Racing’s newest Triple Crown winner went straight from his first start into the Futurity. Nyquist followed up on the Front Runner by capturing the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the most important race for 2-year-olds. American Pharoah was sidelined with an injury after the Front Runner.

Nevertheless I won’t be investing in Nyquist in this weekend’s first round of Kentucky Derby future wagering. I won’t be investing in anything six months out. But if I was, it wouldn’t be on Nyquist. I’ll have to be shown that an offspring of Uncle Mo can get 10 furlongs.

(To digress slightly, is there a dumber bet than the new future wager on the sire of the Kentucky Derby winner? Next, there’ll be a future on the winning post position, which, come to think of it would be preferable to the current ones because there wouldn’t be an “all others” at odds-on.)

For those who can’t resist futures, another logical contender at this point, Exaggerator, is up against the tide of history. After Exaggerator captured last Saturday’s Delta Jackpot, it was noted he had won this past summer’s Saratoga Special. This led me to what I think is an astonishing factoid.

One of the joys of each Saratoga season is the rollout of highly regarded 2-year-olds. The potential is there for a future champion to emerge on any given day. Many have. What hasn’t come out of Saratoga’s big three stakes—the Special, the Stanford and the Hopeful—very often are Derby winners.

It will be 32 years next spring since Swale wore the roses after winning one of the Spa’s juvenile stakes. The 1984 Derby and Belmont winner grabbed the trophy for the Saratoga Special the previous summer.

American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought between Triple Crown champions. The last one to do it was Affirmed in 1978. Amazingly, Affirmed also is the last horse to win the Kentucky Derby after winning the Hopeful, the most prestigious of Saratoga’s stakes for 2-year-olds. He took the Sanford and Hopeful in 1977.

This doesn’t mean a future Derby winner can’t come out of Saratoga. Just don’t look in the Spa's winner’s circle. I’ll Have Another ran sixth in the 2011 Hopeful. Orb was third in an MSW in 2012 and Super Saver was second in an MSW in 2009.

The most recent Derby winner to take a race at Saratoga as a juvenile is almost a trick question. It was Big Brown in 2007…but his MSW victory was on the turf. I went bleary-eyed trying to find the last Derby winner who had won on the dirt as a 2-year-old at Saratoga. Suffice it to say, it hasn’t happened in this millennium.

RIP Calder

This weekend marks the end of the casino-preserving meeting at Calder dubbed Gulfstream West. Let’s hope there never is another one. This could come to reality if the Florida legislature approves decoupling pari-mutuels and slots and poker operations this coming spring.

In any case, this season will be the last with the Calder grandstand in place. Demolition, which has already begun on the interior, will begin in earnest after the final race on Saturday.

Meanwhile, racing fans have been subjected to some of the most abusive conditions imaginable. Like most players, I’ve used the mother Gulfstream facility (as has the boss) for my action the past two months. This despite each of us living closer and with easier access to the live racing at Calder. It’s that bad.

Last Saturday, duty forced me to go for the first and only time this season to cover the pair of graded stakes. It was the worst day I ever spent at a racetrack. (No sour grapes. I made a very small it-beats-losing profit on the four races I endured.)

To be clear, none of this is Gulfstream’s fault. It is doing the best it can under extreme circumstances, which Churchill Downs Inc., owner of Calder, has made as impossible as it can.

The building has been totally shut off to the public. Last year, the first floor was open for shelter from the heat and rain. This season, there are a couple of tents on the track apron for the public, with SAM machines and a few tellers. Another under-sized tent, without betting facilities, was constructed near the paddock for owners and trainers. A single over-burdened clerk with a hand-held device is the only avenue to bet for the people who put on the show.

When it’s not raining as it was Saturday, the only relief from the blazing heat are a few under-sized fans. “You should be here when it’s 90 degrees,” someone offered, rolling his eyes.

Meanwhile, the tents for the public became so over-crowded with people trying to stay dry in monsoon conditions it was almost impossible to push through to the betting machines.

Churchill also shut off the infield toteboard/video screen. “They wanted to charge a small fortune for us to use it,” an insider revealed. Gulfstream rolled in a couple of big screen video monitors on the apron to complement the TV sets in the tents.

Churchill is an equal-opportunity abuser. The media is treated as shabbily as the fans. Another ramification of the building being shut off is I had to write my story in what is now the bare bones racing office. The wi-fi is so spotty and undependable I finally threw up my hands and raced home, 30 miles, to file my story. The upside was it got me out of the joint earlier than usual.

The outrageous aspect of this is Churchill is the one benefitting the most from this sham meeting. Gulfstream would spare itself a world of inconvenience and expenses if it didn’t have to move everything across town for two months. This is the price it had to pay to get Calder to stop racing head-to-head.

Without the Gulfstream West meeting, Churchill couldn’t keep its slot license under current law. That this has been allowed to happen is a disgrace.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Jockey appeals make a mockery of rules

Suspensions are a primary tool to control over-aggressive or outright reckless race-riding. But jockeys are allowed to make a mockery of the system by lodging appeals, then withdrawing them and serving the time when it is convenient. This can't be allowed to continue. Speaking of rulings, the NY Gambling Commission is scheduled to finally release its report on the investigation of Steve Asmussen, which was settled in Kentucky almost a year ago.

MIAMI, Nov. 19, 2015--The debate over disqualifications is never ending. A comment by a reader on the disqualification of Trouble Kid in last Saturday’s DeFrancis Dash ignited a series of passionate responses. Among those weighing in was Richard Migliore, who has adeptly made the transition from rider to racing commentator.

I won’t re-litigate the DeFrancis here. The points and counter-points are still posted for anyone who wants to reference them.

My position, as I have often written, is that unless a foul is flagrant and indisputably affects the outcome of the race, as opposed to say a surging horse crossing over too soon in front of a fading leader, the result should stand for betting purposes with the rider being assessed an appropriate fine or suspension.

Events of the past few days undermine the second half of my position. Jose Ortiz committed a foul in the Sanford Stakes on July 25, veering out than lugging in. His mount, Magna Light was dropped from first to third and Ortiz was given five days. (The fact that Uncle Vinny, who was not involved in the incident and was not going to win, was moved up to first, is another flaw in the system.)

Ortiz didn’t serve the days during the lucrative and prestigious Saratoga meet. He appealed-- reaffirming justice delayed is justice denied—and has chosen to drop his appeal and serve the days this week when racing is in pretty much a lull period. This makes a mockery of the system.

On the West Coast, Santiago Gonzalez and Felipe Valdez each got three days for infractions in recent races. They, too, are appealing and likely will pursue their appeals until it is convenient to drop them and serve the days.

This can’t be allowed to continue. Various remedies have been attempted. One was to make riders serve their time during the period a foul was committed the following year. In other words, Ortiz would serve his five days during next season’s Saratoga meeting. This is impractical at most venues, which don't have boutique meetings.

Another attempt at fine-tuning the system is to double the customary number of days, then waive half of them if there is no appeal. I would take this a step further. If the normal suspension is five days, make it 20 (essentially a month instead of a week) and waive 15 if there is no appeal. Appeals of convenience would be curtailed.

This might run contrary to the American justice system but we are not dealing with a court of law. This is sports. The decision of the judges, umpires, referees, etc., should be final.

As long as riders know they can take a shot at shutting off a rival and if they are caught, they will get a penalty that can easily be manipulated to their advantage, there is no real deterrent to reckless riding.

The optimum solution is for appeals to be heard quickly, preferably by the next racing day. Riders, who commit fouls, are routinely summoned to the stewards’ stand to review the film. If they want to appeal, they should be compelled to make their case then and get an immediate ruling.

At last, Asmussen ruling due

Speaking of justice delayed, the New York State Gambling Commission is scheduled to release on Monday its long delayed report on allegations made by the activist fringe group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) against Steve Asmussen.

Allegations that Asmussen and his top assistant Scott Blasi abused horses under his care were made in March 2014 in a nine-minute video edited from seven hours of tape, compiled over three months in 2013, in part at Saratoga.

The nine minutes were damning, catching Asmussen’s long-time assistant Scott Blasi making comments about mistreating horses, using illegal aliens in the barn and joking about electrical devices being used on horses. Asmussen fired Blasi but rehired him four months later.

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission held its own investigation. Almost a year ago, it exonerated Asmussen and Blasi, saying they broke no rules and horses in the barn were well cared for.

The New York probe has inexcusably dragged on. Its findings twice were put on the commission agenda only to be withdrawn. As a result, Assmussen, the second winningest trainer in history, was deleted from last year’s Hall of Fame ballot. The Hall has said it will not allow a vote on Asmussen’s candidacy until allegations against him are settled.

Logic would suggest New York also will largely or totally exonerate Asmussen, who has a history of violations but not in recent years as the stock under his care has improved dramatically.To rule otherwise would be an insult to its counterparts in Kentucky and raise the question why procrastination allowed a trainer guilty of serious allegations of mistreatment of horses was allowed to continue to race in New York while they dithered.

Toteboard chicanery

A recurring topic at the political debates has been how to deal with alleged currency manipulation by the Chinese. I have no idea how this works in the world of high finance.

However, I suspect it is akin to something that happened at Del Mar last Saturday. Early in the day, a player made five $1,000 punches on Tale of a Champion in the first race. The horse opened 3-5, undoubtedly inducing thousands in additional wagers from fans, who respected that much money showing up for a horse, who on form should have been an outsider.

Two minutes to post, the big bettor canceled the $5K win bets. Tale of a Champion shot up to 10-1 and ran like it, finishing last.

This should not be allowed to happen. The ability to cancel a bet has been a welcome innovation in recent years. This was obviously an abuse of the privilege. Whether it was part of some kind of betting coup might never be known.

This should be a learning experience for tracks, ADW’s and simulcast venues. A limit to when a ticket can be canceled is a necessity. Within five minutes of its purchase might work. Under no circumstances should it be allowed within two minutes to post.

A lot of fans probably felt, with some justification, they were screwed by what happened. One more layer of cynicism is the last thing racing needs.

Written by Tom Jicha

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