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, September 01, 2017

In This Game, One Must Keep Learning

American racing's inferiority complex when it comes to European grass horses should have run its course. There's money to be made in recognizing this.

For decades, Euros treated our richest races as ATM machines. They shipped their second and third stringers and scooped up millions in purses (and making some hellacious betting scores, I've been told).

No more, although it is taking a while for U.S. bettors to catch on. I know I've learned the hard (and expensive) way. This is where the advantage is for early adapters.

The latest example is last Saturday's Sword Dancer. Saratoga players sent it in big time on Erupt and Idaho, pounding the latter down to 7-5 favoritism. He beat one horse. Erupt bested two, including Idaho, as American horses--not our best--swept the money positions.

This was not an isolated occurrence. It has become a trend.

A week before Beach Patrol ran off with the Arlington Million. Dacita, a South American import who has been U.S. based for a couple of years, took the female counterpart, the Beverly D. Well bet Euros chased home both winners.

Tepin went over there and beat the best Euros on their own ground. Lady Aurelia, who has won several big Euro stakes, lost a heart-breaker in England last week but she still outran all but one. Wesley Ward has pioneered taking U.S. juveniles overseas to win some of their big stakes. These results never used to happen.

NYRA's big turf races around the Fourth of July, the Belmont Derby and Belmont Oaks, both saw U.S. stars, Oscar Performance and New Money Honey, respectively, outrun Euro shippers. This shouldn't have come as a surprise. The same two Stars-and-Stripers won last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf and its filly counterpart.

That was when I started to rethink the way I approached stakes with international fields. My philosophy had always been to toss home team grass horses, especially juveniles, and spread with the Euros. I got beat a few times but on the whole made some nice hits.

There's a sensible explanation for why the tide has turned. Until recent years, U.S. trainers didn't put horses on the grass until they had established they were no bargain on the main track. It wasn't that many years ago that there were no meaningful turf races until a horse's 3-year-old season.

Now horses with turf pedigrees or hooves suited to the infield start their careers on turf and many stay there. It's a first resort, not a last, just like in Europe.

Meanwhile, European horses race exclusively on turf, so there is a gauge on who has talent and who doesn't. In a turnabout, their horses who don't perform at a high level are banished to synthetics for puny purses or are sent to the U.S. to race on dirt.

All of this is relevant because we are coming up to the big fall grass races, where Euros will be prominent. I'm not suggesting we've seen the last Euro winner of a prestigious U.S. turf stakes. However, there is money to be made in not taking it for granted that they are the horses to beat.

Woodward no test for Gun Runner

Arrogate got beat twice this summer. Songbird went down last Saturday. If Gun Runner doesn't gallop past four rivals into the winner's circle of Saturday's Woodward, it will rank equally on the scale of cataclysmic upsets.

With Arrogate and Collected on the West Coast awaiting the Breeders' Cup and Shaman Ghost on the sidelines, there's no one to give Gun Runner a meaningful test. So he'll probably go into the Breeders' Cup Classic as the big favorite, coming off three straight Grade 1 triumphs and trying to avenge his lone loss this year to Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup.

Why Bob Baffert is persisting in running Arrogate is a mystery. It has to be coming down from the Juddmonte hierarchy, who have said all year the Breeders’ Cup Classic is the primary goal for 2017.

Arrogate is clearly not the same horse who took everyone's breath away in last year's Travers, BC Classic, Pegasus and World Cup. He also seems to despise Del Mar, which is, unfortunately for him. where the Classic will be run. He can only further tarnish his reputation.

The horse not getting his due is Arrogate's conqueror, Collected. The talk after the Pacific Class was how Arrogate didn't win more than Collected did. Perhaps Arrogate just got beat by a better horse.

I was talking to a really sharp handicapper in a Las Vegas race book the other day who expressed surprise when I pointed out Collected has a better record than Arrogate. Collected is now 8-for-11 to Arrogate's 7-for-10. (Gun Runner is 9-for-16)

Collected hasn't won the prestigious stakes Arrogate and Gun Runner have but he hasn't been given the opportunity. He certainly beat a better field in the Pacific Classic than Gun Runner will face Saturday. Keep this in mind at Breeders' Cup time, especially since it's possible neither will race again before Nov. 4.

Del Mar player-unfriendly

Sitting in a race book for a couple of weeks, you notice things, such as how player-unfriendly the Del Mar simulcast is.

Will-pays, crucial information for those involved in multi-race propositions, are displayed in no discernible pattern and never in a timely manner, like immediately after the previous race payoffs, as is done almost every place else. Sometimes it's closer to the next race then the previous one, long after replays, interviews and a carnival of commercials.

Thanks to another Del Mar shortcoming, it's difficult to estimate what might be coming back so that you can strategize whether it's worthwhile to consider saver bets. The on-screen constant, such as it is, is exacta possibilities.

Instead of alternating exactas and daily double potentials, Del Mar runs the exacta payoffs both ways, most of the time, with the daily double possibilities displayed after every other full run through of exacta payoffs.

Has it occurred to anyone that if you run all the exacta possibilities in one column, the reverses will be shown? If you like a 1-4, it will be only two screen clicks to find out what the reverse will pay. If you like a 1-4 double, be patient. It will be awhile before that's posted.

Worse, even the exactas disappear for three or four minutes at a crucial time when the field comes on the track. Then they disappear again for a minute or two when the pool totals are displayed in the final two minutes to post.

NYRA has the most useful wagering information of any track, with the exacta and double payoffs on the screen from the end of one race to the loading of the gate the next and multi-race bet will-pays shown on the side of the screen during the replays.

Thankfully, the Breeders' Cup has its own simulcast with potential payoffs on display constantly. Del Mar officials should pay attention. They might learn something about serving the players--if they care.

Las Vegas, Aug. 31, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, August 24, 2017

Edge to the ‘now’ horses over the ‘then’ horses in the Travers

This year's Midsummer Derby is as wide open as it has ever been. The winners of the Triple Crown races--the first time this has happened since 1982--aren't even the horses to beat, although Belmont winner Tapwrit has been established as the morning line favorite, a dubious categorization. They're being confronted by a herd of horses whose recent form is more compelling, led by Jim Dandy winner Good Samaritan and double minor derby winner Irap. Down the road, the Pegasus appears to be in trouble. An inability to stage a second edition would be a setback for racing,.

What went around could be coming around again.

A little over 20 years ago, Bill Mott trained a colt whose breeding screamed turf, so that's where he raced primarily early in his career. He failed to achieve what was expected so Mott tried him on the dirt. The horse, you've probably deduced by now, was Cigar. As Paul Harvey used to say, "Now you know the rest of the story."

Last month, Mott put his stakes winning turf colt Good Samaritan on the dirt for the first time in the Jim Dandy. The result was extraordinary. Good Samaritan lingered well behind the field, which included Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing, then blew past them with Cigar-type elan.

It's way premature to put Good Samaritan in the class of Cigar but if he prevails again in the Travers on Saturday, the conversations will start.

This is the deepest Travers in memory. In addition to the Derby and Preakness winners, Belmont champion Tapwrit is among the dozen expected to start. What's more, he's the morning line favorite, although I don't expect that to hold at post time. The Belmont wasn't a traditional race as much as it was a war of attrition. Tapwrit handled the mile and a half, the others didn't.

Also in the field is Irap, who showed his Blue Grass wasn't the fluke it appeared to be by winning the Indiana and Ohio Derbies; Girvin, who after being beaten a head-bobbing nose in Ohio rebounded to capture the Haskell; McCraken, who got nailed on the wire in the Haskell; Gunnevera, who was as good as any of them last winter and came back running from a freshening, and, for romantics, Rachel Alexander's kid brother Fayeq, coming off a big allowance win over the track.

The last time three winners of the Triple Crown events met in the Travers was 1982. Gato del Sol, Aloma's Ruler and Conquistador Cielo were upset that afternoon by Runaway Groom. I'm looking for Good Samaritan to produce a similar result Saturday and I'll have a small saver ticker on Irap. My thinking is to favor the "now" horses over "then" horses.

Save the Pegasus

The Pegasus is in trouble and that's too bad. Attracting $1 million subscribers for the second running of the world's richest race has proven more difficult than was anticipated in the aftermath of last January's fabulously successful inaugural edition.

This shouldn't be a surprise for several reasons but the Pegasus might have gotten some assistance Saturday when Arrogate, touted as a super horse the likes of which comes along about every solar eclipse, proved vulnerable for the second straight time. Suddenly the $7 million big prize is a lot more attainable. Maybe this will encourage some deep-pocketed owners to take a shot at assuring themselves a shot at it

Gun Runner, who displaced Arrogate as No. 1 in this week's NTRA poll, is a worthy leader of the pack but he doesn't have the aura of invincibility Arrogate did. However, even Gun Runner's people have said, "No thanks," to the $1 million buy-in.

Assuming Gun Runner is still on top of his game, they intend to run in the Pegasus--if there is one, which is now in question--but they'll go shopping for a less expensive entry point, which were plentiful leading up to the first running. This is the biggest hurdle The Stronach Group has to overcome.

Before I go further, I owe you an explanation. I reported during the spring that all of the 2017 shooters indicated they would be back and there was a waiting list in the event of defections. This obviously was not the case.

However, my source was neither a BS artist nor a liar, in my experience. I believe this individual, who is well connected to the Gulfstream hierarchy, was supplying information believed to be truthful. Moreover, it came in a casual conversation, not a PR exercise to produce a puff piece. It might even have been accurate at the time. People do have second thoughts before going into their pockets for a million bucks.

Reportedly only three or four slots have been taken and these are all by people with close ties to The Stronach Group, including Frank himself. This isn't an encouraging sign.

Perhaps the conditions need to be re-imagined. The Stronach Group announced its intention to pump $4 million into the purse to take it to $16 million for year two. All the extra money was ticketed for lesser awards. First money was still going to be $7 million. This might have been a tipoff that there was some reluctance among would-be subscribers.

The extra $4 million would be a good starting point. Drop the ante to $500K apiece and a dozen players raise another $6 million, a total of $10 million. This would still be the world's richest race outside Middle East oilfields. The shieks have indicated their intention to top anything the Pegasus does in any case. That they haven't yet is an indication they, too, have doubts there will be a Pegasus 2.0.

A $5 million winner's purse, again the biggest payoff outside Dubai, would leave enough for rich rewards for lesser placings, where even fifth could earn a break-even half-a-million. The others could get $100K consolation prizes.

The Pegasus was a great event for racing. Everything that can be done to sustain it should be done..

Future stars

One of the joys of summer at Saratoga and Del Mar is the expectation that every now and then there is a juvenile maiden race that will resonate at least through this year and next.

Saratoga and Del Mar each had one this past weekend. Saturday's fifth at Saratoga featured a couple of highly touted 2-year-olds from Chad Brown, Allured and Variant Perception; a well bred Todd Pletcher entrant, Super Sermon, and Avery Island, a Kiaran McLaughlin colt who became the buzz horse in the paddock.

Overlooked was a Steve Assmussen firster, Pure Shot, who ran them all off their feet from start to finish. The Brown juveniles were second and fourth. Pletcher's colt split them for third. Avery Island didn't fire, winding up seventh but his breeding suggests he'll improve as the distances get longer.

I'll be surprised if this maiden sprint doesn't turn out to be a key race.

Sunday's ninth at Del Mar packed some delicious irony. Three colts were being heavily supported. Jerry Hollendorfer had Jungle Warfare, who had been second and third to well regarded juveniles. But the centers of attention were St. Patrick's Day, a debuting full brother to Triple Crown champion American Pharoah, and Zatter, a firster coming in off a bullet work at the six furlong distance.

Bob Baffert trained both, the latter for Team Pharoah's Zayat Stable. American Pharoah's brother ran in Mrs. John Magnier's colors.

Like his celebrated kin, St. Patrick's Day didn't get the money first time out. He pushed Zatter to the limit but couldn't get past. Jungle Warfare hung with them until mid-stretch and looks as if he has a future, too.

Just as in the Pacific Classic, Baffert ran one-two and you got the feeling that he would have preferred that the order had been reversed.

For the record, this wasn't another example of "the other Baffert" winning. In spite of St. Patrick's Day's lineage, Zatter went off the 8-5 favorite.

A throwback three-bagger

Voodoo Song did something Wednesday you no longer expect. The Linda Rice trainee won her third race at the Saratoga meeting, which still has a week and a half to go.

This used to happen regularly, especially by D. Wayne Lukas youngsters, even when the Spa was only a 24-day session. But since trainers have allowed the sheets to dictate their tactics, it's almost unheard of.

Voodoo Song proved it still can be done. But only if you try.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

What to do with Arrogate a horseplayer’s dilemma

Arrogate was regarded as the best horse in the world less than a month ago and it was all but impossible to find anyone who would argue with that assessment. Then he fired a bummer for the ages at 1-20. He'll be prohibitively short again Saturday in the Pacific Classic. The old Arrogate is worth any price. But will we see the old Arrogate? No one, including Bob Baffert, especially Bob Baffert, has an explanation for what happened in the San Diego Handicap.This adds intrigue to a race that looked until July 22 to be a million dollar public workout.

Can’t play him, can’t play against him, although the latter might be the more prudent course.

This is the dilemma facing horse players regarding Arrogate in Saturday’s $1 million Pacific Classic. Based on his overall body of work, Arrogate should be 1-20, as he was in the San Diego Handicap a month ago. Based on his San Diego dud, beaten more than 15 lengths, he should be 20-1.

Almost every horse throws in a clunker now and then. Arrrogate’s effort on July 22 went far beyond this. It was downright horrendous, so terrible it raises questions about his physical and mental state. Is there some undetectable ailment bothering him? Has he soured on racing?

Bob Baffert dove on his sword, saying he might have sent out a short horse, who was racing for the first time since his had-to-be-seen-to-be-believed triumph in Dubai. This was a trainer, who uncharacteristically doesn’t have a clue what happened, protecting his horse’s reputation. If there is one thing Baffert doesn’t do, it’s send out short horses. Nobody drills his stock harder. Moreover, he said many times before the San Diego that Arrogate was ready to do his thing.

Second verse, same as the first: Baffert said Arrogate is back to his old self after his final Pacific Classic workout on Monday, four furlongs in 47.60. “He just cruised around. We’re set.”

You have to think Baffert believes this. Arrogate, at least before the San Diego, was headed for a career at stud as the horse Baffert said in Dubai is the greatest since Secretariat. This would include his Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

Anything less than one of Arrogate’s stellar efforts on Saturday could send him to the stud barn severely tarnished goods. He’ll still be in demand but it won’t be the same. Moreover, another disappointing race almost surely will be his last. It’s doubtful the sheiks would risk a third strike on his resume.

They shouldn’t. If Arrogate can’t crush the modest bunch he’s scheduled to face, it would make little sense to keep him in training for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, where the opposition, including the constantly improving Gun Runner, will be a lot more daunting.

There is an appealing alternative: “the other Baffert,” Collected.” It’s not like we haven’t seen that show before.

The new stoopers

The advances of technology generally come with a new set of problems. Self automated betting terminals are the greatest innovation since all-denomination, all-pools betting drove $2, $5 and $10 win-place-show windows into extinction.

Unfortunately they have also created a new breed of stoopers, the desperate band of down-and-out losers, who used to pick up discarded mutual tickets then check them against the results in the hope someone threw away a winning ticket.

SAM machines have taken most of the work out of this, a point driven home during my week at Saratoga. I’ve been a habituate of the Top of the Stretch since my first visit many years ago. These days the only way to bet in this area is via a SAM machine.There are no human tellers.

The new stoopers tie up these machines by taking stacks of discarded tickets and running them through the machines one by one, where the legend “ticket not a winner” pops up again and again.

I’ve seen these people doing the same thing at Gulfstream but not in the numbers I experienced at the Spa, where SAM machines are not plentiful near the Top of the Stretch. Worse, these inconsiderate losers don’t care if there are long lines of anxious bettors, who they might shut out.

I don’t know what the solution would be. Perhaps something like some cell phones where you get three tries at your password, then it locks. Maybe after “ticket not a winner” goes up three times in a row, the machine could freeze until an attendant unlocks it. But this might be a solution worse than the problem when it comes to bettors getting shut out.

Another idea might be for a flashing red light to activate until someone puts in a legitimate winning ticket or voucher. Unfortunately, from what I experienced at Saratoga, these new stoopers are shameless.

The floor is open for suggestions.

It had to be said

Stuart Janney closed the annual Jockey Club Round Table with an indictment of racing’s inability to clean its own house.

Hallelujah! What took so long?

Keying off the recent scandals in Pennsylvania, where trainer Murray Rojas was found guilty by a federal jury of 14 charges of drugging horses and related offenses, Janney said, “What happened in Pennsylvania recently is disgraceful and sad…Uncontradicted testimony described widespread, in fact nearly universal cheating, regulators asleep on the job and a corrupted and ineffectual testing system.”

One of Rojas’s colleagues, a several times leading trainer at Penn National, testified under oath that about 98 percent of the trainers at the track cheat.

The dispiriting aspect of this is Janney is the first racing figure of note to take off on this. Cyber racing sites, such as Horse Race Insider, have become the new conscience and watchdog of racing.

Janney said that what happened in Pennsylvania gives all of racing a black eye. “It suggests strongly that similar problems lurk in many other jurisdictions.” You think?

He also blasted the HBPA, whose actions in the Rojas case merit all the scorn that can be mustered. “What about the HBPA’s role in all this? Could we have expected them to marshall their resources to represent all the horsemen who have been wronged by cheaters? We all know that the HBPA’s Legal Defense Fund was used to help fund Murray Rojas’ defense. Their stated reason is a disgrace and will end up producing the exact result that they so wished to prevent, the intervention by the federal government to clean up racing.”

It also leads—my words, not Janney’s—to a perception that horsemen not only condone cheating, they support it.

What someone of Janney’s stature said is long overdue. Alas, I can’t help thinking of the irreverent adage, “When all is said and done, more will be said than done.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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