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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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Twice caught rider faces third battery allegations; How does racing allow this to happen?

Roman Chapa, who has been suspended twice--for 19 months and five years--for using a battery is being investigated again for the same offense for a ride at Sam Houston Park last Saturday night. This is why arguing for tougher cheating rules is a joke. What's the point when someone who has been convicted of one of the most serious offenses can get a second and third chance?

MIAMI, Jan. 20, 2015--Racing can pass all the tough regulations imaginable in an attempt to keep the game honest but without stern enforcement and punishment it’s all an exercise in public relations.

Texas racing officials are investigating jockey Roman Chapa for carrying a battery in urging Quiet Acceleration to victory in Saturday night’s $50,000 Richard King Stakes at Sam Houston Park. He has been "suspended summarily" pending completion of the probe.

The investigation was triggered by a photo taken by the track photographer of Chapa and Quiet Acceleration as they crossed the finish line. The shot appears to show something in the palm of Chapa’s hand.

We all should have learned from one of the most embarrassing episodes in racing history that a photo such as this is not enough to level allegations. In the wake of Funny Cide’s victory in the 2003 Kentucky Derby, The Miami Herald, on the basis of a photo that appeared to show Jose Santos with something in his hand, ran stories raising the possibility that Santos used an electrical device in the Run for the Roses.

The photo turned out to be an optical illusion and Santos was completely exonerated. He sued the newspaper and a confidential settlement was reached. Meanwhile the damage to racing was done.

There also was the outrageous, baseless allegations by Eric Guillot that Luis Saez used an electrical device in the 2013 Travers. Like Santos, Saez was totally exonerated and Guillot eventually walked back his assertions.

As always, Santos and Saez being cleared was buried, if reported at all, by media outlets that sensationalized the allegations.

However, there are significant differences between those incidents and Chapa. Santos and Saez had sterling reputations. Chapa has already been suspended twice for lengthy periods for use of a “machine.” He was sidelined for 19 months in 1993 by Texas for being caught using a battery. Apparently he didn’t learn a lesson. New Mexico nailed him for five years in 2007 for the same offense.

There is also ample circumstantial evidence. Chapa and Quiet Acceleration won last year’s King Stakes. Since then the horse has been ridden by five different riders without finding his way to the winner’s circle. He went off at 10-1 Saturday.

The first two days of the Sam Houston meeting, Chapa won with five of eight mounts with a second and a third. Any jockey can get hot over a short period but given Chapa’s history, it’s tough to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The bigger point is why was Chapa licensed at all after the second offense? You know the old expression, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” What do you say about someone who makes a fool of you a third time? More to the point, what do you say about people who put themselves in a position to be fooled a third time?

Zapping horses also raises humane and safety issues. Nothing will get a horse to overextend himself like a jolt of electricity. It also could cause a sudden veer to the left or right, which would endanger every other horse and rider in the field.

This is such a blatant, conscious, arrogant offense, it should carry a lifetime suspension, period. No fourth chances. Those who might argue anyone can make one mistake lose their moral standing when a rider gets caught a second time.

It is inexcusable and unacceptable that any racing commission licensed Chapa again after the Texas and New Mexico suspensions.

It’s pointless to suggest new regulations to clean up the game when cheaters can operate secure in the knowledge that if they get caught, the penalties will rarely outweigh the potential gains.

A season to savor coming up

Put a bunch of opinionated horse players (is there any other kind?) in a room and almost anything said can turn into a lively discussion/debate. The other night at the Eclipse Awards, someone opined that despite California Chrome and Bayern vying for Horse of the Year, 2014’s sophomore class was a weak bunch.

A couple of others, myself included, immediately jumped in with dissenting opinions. I thought last season’s top 3-year-olds were one of the strongest groups in recent memory. A 3-year-old male hadn’t won Horse of the Year since Curlin in 2007. It was another six years back to Point Given.

Curlin had no serious competition among males of his generation. He garnered 249 of 266 votes cast. His closest competition was the filly who beat him in the Belmont, Rags to Riches. Five-year-old Invasor, 2006 Horse of the Year, was next.

Some—well at least me—feel that Shared Belief, whose only loss came when he was mugged in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, is better than either California Chrome or Bayern.

The riches among foals of 2011 goes deeper than that. The first six finishers in the Breeders’ Cup Classic were 3-year-olds—Bayern, Toast of New York, California Chrome, Shared Belief, Tonalist and Candy Boy.

Shared Belief and Toast of New York had already run away from older horses in the Pacific Classic. Shared Belief did it again in the Awesome Again. Tonalist, the Belmont winner, bested a field of the East’s best older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Hoppertunity, who didn’t run in the BC Classic, led a 1-2-3 sweep by 3-year-olds in the Grade 1 Clark, the fall’s most prestigious handicap in the Midwest. Protonico and Florida Derby champion Constitution ran second and third, respectively.

Let’s not forget the 3-year-old filly Untapable vanquished her elders in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

I rest my case. The best part of this is all of these now 4-year-olds are coming back in 2015.

Hoppertunity has already launched his 2015 campaign with a romp in the Grade 2 San Pasqual.

Wicked Strong, the Wood Memorial and Jim Dandy winner, also is gearing up for another season.

The first date to circle on the calendar is Feb. 7. If all goes according to plan, California Chrome, Bayern and Shared Belief will renew their rivalry in the San Antonio. The same afternoon, a few of the East’s top 4-year-olds could show up in the Donn. TV has taken notice. These races will be the centerpieces of the new season of major stakes on Fox Sports.

Injuries and attrition will surely take their toll as the season proceeds. Candy Boy and Toast of New York have already headed overseas. Bayern has had a minor setback, which could keep him out of the San Antonio.

Nevertheless, have thoroughbred fans ever had as much to look forward to at this point of the season?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

More nails in winter racing’s coffin

Eleven horses have died since this year's winter racing began at Aqueduct. Four of the first eight racing days in January were lost to brutal weather. Two races were run last Friday before the card had to be scrapped. Two horses broke down in those races. One was put down immediately, the other's fate is uncertain. Yet NYRA and some horsemen continue to defend the indefensible. Winter racing needs to go.

MIAMI, Jan. 13, 2015--It was the epitome of denial. NYRA executives and prominent New York horsemen held a meeting last Saturday to discuss steps to be taken to make winter racing safer for thoroughbreds and jockeys. Less than a month into the bad weather season, there have been 11 thoroughbred fatalities. This is ahead of the pace of 2011-12 when 21 fatalities threw the state and animal rights groups into a frenzy.

How ironic that this meeting was called in the midst of a weather-caused four-day break (two races were run Friday before the rest of the card was canceled). This is Mother Nature’s reminder that winter racing is not a good idea. It’s a matter of conjecture how many more days will be lost before the spring thaw.

Everyone at the meeting knows the solution but no one wanted to say it. Winter racing, at least during January and February, should end.

More horses suffer fatal injuries at Aqueduct than at Belmont and Saratoga combined. Do you think the fact that lower caliber horses--almost by definition those with problems—dominate the Aqueduct programs has anything to do with this?

The rest of the industry knows. There are only three graded stakes during January and February.Two of them, the Withers and Jerome, made their grade when they were run during the spring and summer and the do-nothing graded stakes committee hasn't adjusted.

What’s never discussed is that not only are racing dates lost, horses can’t be trained properly or at all during the worst of winter. Rick Violette, a fierce advocate for his constituents as president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, takes his better horses to Gulfstream during the winter.

So trainers and owners, especially lesser outfits trying to eke out a living when they have a shot at purse money, sometimes wind up running questionably fit horses. Surely this contributes to the injury and fatality numbers.

Martin Panza, senior VP of racing operations, fell back on the state mandate to race 120 days total at Aqueduct but acknowledged that it might take only a meeting with legislators to lower this number. With the fatality crisis reaching critical mass, no legislator wants to be attached to voting against a rule intended to preserve horses’ lives, not to mention serious injury to jockeys, or worse.

All sorts of band aid remedies are being offered. Jockeys are being urged to tell vets if they feel anything is amiss with their mounts. Trainers are being asked to be more conscientious about entering horses with questionable fitness and health issues.

Twenty horses were said to have been ruled off because they are not competitive. Considering some of the horses that still find their way into the entries, it would be interesting to hear what the standards for banishment are. But at least NYRA has standards to start with.

Winter racing is going to end in the next few years anyway. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been ogling Aqueduct since he got into office. Winter racing stands in his way.

Belmont is not winterized and it would cost a fortune to renovate it for racing in the cold. A March-December schedule at Belmont is doable. There would be some unbearable days at the beginning and end of the season but not so many as to scuttle the idea.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel had a pet philosophy when he was President Obama’s Chief of Staff: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

The fatality rate this winter has created a crisis atmosphere. It should not be allowed to go to waste.

On second thought…

There are no mulligans in Eclipse Award balloting. If there were I would have to give a lot of thought to changing my vote in the Juvenile Male category.

I put Texas Red in the first position, the only one that matters. Place and show ballots are only to dress up the nomination announcements.

I was influenced by two factors. Texas Red won the big one at the end of the season, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Moreover, he did it with an electrifying move not seen in this race since Arazi.

My other consideration was American Pharoah, who I put second. Texas Red’s main competition ran the final race of his three-race season in September before he went to the sidelines with an injury.

In my Horse of the Year ballot, I gave the nod to California Chrome on the basis of his four Grade 1 wins, equaled only by Main Sequence and Untapable, neither of whom won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Thus it would seem contradictory that I would pass over American Pharoah, who won two Grade 1 stakes, twice as many as Texas Red. But Grade 1 status isn’t as indicative of quality in 2-year-old events as it is in other divisions. Sometimes half the field is eligible for entry level allowances and there’s almost always a maiden or three.

This is why I have argued in vain for years that there should be no Grade 1 races for 2-year-olds other than the Breeders’ Cup events, whose fields are dominated by stakes winners.

Indeed, American Pharoah was a maiden when he won the Del Mar Futurity. The horse who ran second as well as in American Pharoah’s Grade 1 Front Runner was Calculator, also a maiden. Beating a maiden twice is not Eclipse worthy in my estimation.

But it is Calculator who has me second-guessing my Eclipse vote. His dominant win in the Sham on Saturday underlines the quality of American Pharoah. If American Pharoah is open lengths better than Calculator and Calculator is open lengths better than those who lined up against him in Southern California’s first Derby steppingstone, maybe American Pharoah is something special, which I really don’t believe Texas Red is.

I appreciate that a race in 2015 doesn’t count in 2014 Eclipse balloting but it did open my eyes to the thought that I might have underestimated American Pharoah, who buried Texas Red by almost five lengths in the Front Runner, in which my Eclipse choice also finished behind Calculator.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (39)


Tuesday, January 06, 2015

NYRA seems to be trying to kill the Arlington Million

For no good reason, other than it can, NYRA has raised the purse of the Sword Dancer at Saratoga to $1 million. This will give it purse equity with the Arlington Million, a reason for horsemen in the East and Europe to skip the event that was racing's first million dollar race and a magnet for international competition. This underlines how hope of inter-track cooperation in any meaningful ways is a fantasy.

MIAMI, Jan. 6, 2015--The 2015 Saratoga stakes schedule released last week is Exhibit A in why there will never be meaningful cooperation between racing jurisdictions.

Continuing to spend casino money like an NFL star in a Las Vegas stripper bar NYRA Senior Vice President of Racing Operations Martin Panza has kicked up purses to astronomical levels for a number of stakes. The one that jumps off the page is $1 million for the Sword Dancer, which will become part of an even more super than usual (or need be) Travers Day on Aug. 29.

This is wrong on several levels. The Travers is such a special day that you could run ten 5 ½ furlong turf races for New York bred maidens to support it and the Spa would still be packed. OK, ten is an exaggeration. However, only a few years ago, quantity overtook quality as the NYRA priority and the Travers card began to feature to an alarming degree low level beaten claimers and NY-breds sprinting on the turf.

Panza at least has reversed this practice. However, he has gone way overboard. The Travers card not only doesn’t need another million dollar race, the fact that there is one detracts from the Midsummer Derby.

As long as we are on the topic, could NYRA please return the Met Mile to Memorial Day, its long-time traditional date. I know tradition means little these days but the Met Mile isn't needed on Belmont Day, where one of the most important stakes of the year gets lost in the festival of added-money events.

Million connotes something special in racing or at least It used to. The Sword Dancer is not such a fixture of the American turf that it deserves such status. If NYRA wanted to pump up another stakes, it should have been the Alabama, the history laden filly counterpart to the Travers. If the Alabama had been a million dollar race last summer, it might not have lost Untapable to the Haskell.

Even with Panza making it rain cash, the Alabama will offer only $600,000 this coming August--and it will anchor a Saturday program. If it were on the Travers card, it would be only the fifth most lucrative race, behind the $1.25 Travers, the Sword Dancer, the $750,000 Personal Ensign and $700,000 Forego. Proportionality is going by the wayside.

There’s a more sinister angle to making the Sword Dancer a millionaire. The stated purpose is to attract international participation. This brings me back to my original point. There’s another big grass event in mid- to late-August, which was created for exactly the same reason and became a worldwide player. The Arlington Million was a seven-figure race, the nation’s first, three years before the Breeders’ Cup broke from the gate.

Why is NYRA seemingly intent on killing a race that has done so much to promote the sport? Last summer, the Sword Dancer was run a day after the Million. This summer, they will probably be a week apart. Competing million dollar turf stakes served the purpose only of diluting the fields in both.

The Sword Dancer now has purse equality with the Million. A wise guy in the media box asked out loud, “Why doesn’t NYRA be honest about what it is up to and rename the Sword Dancer “The Saratoga Million”?

It doesn’t have to be this way. The first Saturday of the Saratoga meeting, July 25 in 2015, is headed by the Diana, a prestigious turf event for fillies and mares with a $500,000 purse, lower than three supporting stakes on Travers Day. The new million-dollar Sword Dancer would be a stronger way to get the meeting off to a rousing start. What would be wrong with the best turf females and the best turf males each seeing action for a million apiece on the first Saturday of the season?

This would give horsemen three to four weeks to come back in the Arlington Million and Beverly D. That’s what would happen if there was any kind of cooperation between tracks for the good of the sport.

Dream on.

$250K baby races in June? Really?

As long as we’re critiquing the NYRA stakes agenda, two other races, ridiculously endowed proportionate to their importance, also jump off the page.

In a bid to make Belmont week a true festival, rich stakes will be run every afternoon starting Wednesday. Great idea.

But once again, NYRA has gone too far overboard. The Astoria for 2-year-old fillies and the Tremont open to all juveniles, will be run on Thursday and Friday of Belmont week, respectively,each with a $250,000 purse.

This will make them the richest “non-winners of two” events in racing. Horsemen are starting their young horses later, so expect a representation of first-time starters and other maidens in both. The Tremont wasn't even contested between 2008 and 2014. When it returned last season, it attracted four starters--Bessie's Boy, Chocolate Wildcat, King Rontos and Shrewd Mover, who finished in that order. Heard much of them lately?

The Astoria attracted six. Fashion Alert, who turned into a nice filly, won but not much has been heard from Liatris and Lindy, who ran second and third, respectively.

Is this any reason to more than double the purse?

To put this into perspective, the Schuylerville and Sanford on opening weekend at the Spa, almost two months later, will offer only $150,000 apiece. The Adirondack and Saratoga Special on Aug. 15, when hundreds more juveniles will have begun their careers, go for $200,000 each. It isn’t until the $350K Spinaway and Hopeful on closing weekend at the Spa, three months later, that 2-year-olds will shoot for bigger purses than will be offered in the Astoria and Tremont.

“We are building our 2-year-old program out in a different direction, Panza said in a statement released with the schedule. “With the increase in purses, these are the two strongest juvenile races in the country in this time frame.”

There used to be, and still might be, minor tracks that offer the first 2-year-old races of the year on New Year’s Day. They could make the same boast. And it would make just as much sense.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (29)


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