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, July 06, 2017

Monmouth must be saved and help could be on the way

Monmouth Park, a gem of a racetrack, is fighting for survival and got some encouraging news recently. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear its arguments that the ban on sports betting, which Monmouth is hoping to introduce as a new revenue source, is unconstitutional. It might be overly optimistic that sports betting will be a life saver but it surely beats the alternative.

Monmouth Park is hanging on by a hoof nail So being in the vicinity on my trip north I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to visit the New Jersey track for the first time in years and hopefully not the last time.

I’m supposed to be the wordsmith but my brother-in-law said all that needs to be said: “You forget how nice this place is.” Something has to be done to keep this gem of a racetrack alive.

Saratoga is Saratoga. There never has and never will be anything like it. However, Monmouth is as close as anyone can hope.

The Jersey shore track could not be more family friendly. The top of the stretch area is more expansive than Saratoga’s. Even on a Saturday, late arrivals have no trouble finding a table with an umbrella to settle for the day. (In fairness, the backyard, while sizable, doesn’t approach the acreage of the Spa.)

As soon as you pass through the entrance gate, signs direct you to the “BYOB area.” Tough to get more friendly than that. There’s plenty to do for family members not totally consumed by racing. The day I was there, a chocolate and cheese festival was well attended. Someone told me that food truck days pack the place.

If you don’t want to tote a cooler, concession prices are exceptionally reasonable: $4 for a 16-once beer; $3 for a hot dog, $2 for a coffee or soda. I proved a point to myself that I have made here. Charge me $4 for a beer I’ll buy three or four. Charge me $7 or $8, I’ll buy none.

The ambiance is magnificent. The backyard paddock is well shaded and spacious enough that comfortable positions by the fence are easy to find, even if there are three or four in your party. Tables at the outdoor Lady’s Secret Bar, which overlooks the paddock, also were plentiful.

This seaside gem must not be allowed to follow Hollywood Park, Calder, Bay Meadows, Rockingham Park and other tracks into history.

Fortunately, a few days after my visit, it was announced that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments on whether the quarter-century old Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act—a title as misleading as the Affordable Care Act--is unconstitutional. Monmouth has been fighting to overturn the ban on sports gambling as a new source of fans and revenue but has been thwarted in lower courts for almost a decade.

A sports bar with a zillion TV monitors and almost as many stools has been created just in case.

A verdict could be as much as a year away and it still could go the wrong way but at least there is hope. Opposition from the professional sports leagues is not as strident as it has been. The NFL and NHL are putting teams in Las Vegas without demanding that their games be taken off the betting boards.

The infamously hypocritical NCAA, which fancies itself the guardian of “student athletes,” is still adamant in its opposition even though it has no problem with a half-dozen holiday and post-season conference basketball tournaments in Sin City as well as a full slate of UNLV football and basketball-- all on the boards.

Sports betting should have been legalized long ago. Billions are going offshore and to illegal bookmaking operations because it hasn’t been legalized. Anyone who wants to get down can, yet not a penny is going to legitimate concerns.

However, for myriad reasons, sports gambling is not a magic bullet for Monmouth or other race tracks anxious to get into the game.

Sports betting is cash intensive. I suppose $5 and $10 bets will be accepted but $50, $100 or more is likely to be the norm.

Sports players are more likely to be horse players than those who sit in front on a slot machine, but it is churn killing, the lifeline of horse racing. Money bet sits dormant for more than three hours.

Also, it is not a reliable source of revenue. The house can lose. Over the long haul, it doesn’t happen often but if games on a given day or week go the wrong way, a huge deficit can occur.

A veteran sports book operator once told me that every race book’s nightmare is a Thanksgiving Day when all the favorites and overs hit, since this is the way the majority of the action falls. Super Bowl Sundays can and have also gone the wrong way big time for the house.

Speaking of Thanksgiving Day, another issue for Monmouth is the heaviest sports gambling occurs during times of the year when the track isn’t open for live racing—football in the fall and early winter and March Madness. So it’s questionable how many new horse players will be created. However this would not be the case at other jurisdictions sure to jump right into the sports betting pool if Monmouth's arguments prevail at the Supreme Court.

All credit to Monmouth for fighting for sports betting the right way, as in the legal way. But if the verdict comes down against it, Monmouth should just ignore it and go ahead. On July 1, Nevada became the eighth state to legalize recreational marijuana, which is still fully against federal law. To add insult, pot is sold openly in D.C., within smelling distance of the Capital. Another dozen or so states appear on the verge of following suit. The government has done nothing to stop it. There is nothing to suggest the response would be any different if New Jersey and other states started taking bets on sports.

Racing a ratings killer?

Phil Mushnick of the New York Post is the platinum standard for media commentary. An item in his column at the end of last week should be cause for concern throughout the racing industry.

Mushnick reported that Mike Francesa, the Big Kahuna of New York sports talk, got into a screaming match with his boss at WFAN, Mark Chernoff, over a disappointing ratings book.

The issue, Mushnick reported, was Chernoff blaming the ratings dropoff on Francesa spending too much time discussing the Triple Crown. Even if this is not the cause, that the head of the industry leader in the nation’s largest market thinks so is chilling because of the message it sends to the rest of the market and the ripple effect it could have nationwide.

Among racing’s many problems, abandonment of coverage by the media is one of the most troubling and harmful. As best I know, there is not a single newspaper outside Kentucky that still has regular racing coverage. New York, which used to have tabloid wars over which had more thorough racing coverage, has totally cut it out of the daily sheets.

It’s hard to draw new fans to a game about which little information and excitement is generated. Devising ways to restore at least some coverage ought to be high on the agenda at the annual convention in Arizona and the Jockey Club Round Table in Saratoga, as well as in the media department of every race track.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Summit went to the top of racing quickly and has stayed there

Summer used to be truly the racing doldrums in South Florida. The conventional thinking was it was too hot to risk really outstanding horses. Calder's pre-Churchill Downs management team refused to accept this and created the Summit of Speed to lure top sprinters south in July. The series of rich races, which will be renewed at Gulfstream on Saturday, took off immediately and is now an established high spot in the lull month between the end of the Triple Crown and the openings of Saratoga and Del Mar.

Gulfstream has done such a splendid job elevating the status of South Florida summer racing it is easy to forget the foundation was laid by Calder's pre-Churchill Downs management team.

One of the cornerstones was the Summit of Speed, which will be renewed Saturday in a stakes laden Gulfstream card highlighted by a couple of Grade 2's and a Grade 3.

Prior to the inaugural Summit in 2000, the notion of a graded stakes during the blistering South Florida heat was a pipe dream. This gnawed at then promotion and marketing director Mike Cronin, a rare race track executive, who passionately loves racing more as a sport than a business.

Creation of the Summit was his of way of reminding horsemen, "Hey, guys, we're still here."

Cronin relied on a cardinal rule of business, find a void and fill it. “I knew sprints were an under-utilized category and there was a soft spot on the calendar for major events between the end of the Triple Crown and the openings of Saratoga and Del Mar.”

He asked his forward thinking boss, Calder president Ken Dunn, to approve $1 million in purses for the centerpiece events, the Smile Sprint and Princess Rooney, each endowed with $500,000 purses. Confident in Cronin, Dunn told him to go for it.

"We both felt we had to put on a big show to get noticed,” Cronin said.

Half-million dollar purses were unheard of windfalls for sprints anywhere during the summer. In fact, the Smile and Princess Rooney will each go for half the original amounts this weekend, although Gulfstream will disperse $1 million including the undercard stakes.

They were lucky to have the late Bobby Umphrey Jr. as racing secretary. "Bobby had worked on the West Coast for many years," Cronin said. "He still had a lot of connections out there, so every year he and I went out there recruiting. West Coast guys are used to shipping East for big races, so they were susceptible. By the second or third year, when they saw us coming around the barns, they would go, 'Here come the Summit guys.'"

It didn't hurt that Dunn also signed off on underwriting the cost of a plane to bring the Westerners back East and treated them royally when they arrived.

Getting a series as ambitious as the Summit off the ground can be daunting and time consuming. In this case, it was a success from the get-go, Cronin said. "It hit pretty quickly, We were over the hump after the first year."

The racing world noticed when Caller One took the initial Carry Back then went on to win the Golden Shaheen in Dubai twice. So much for the fear that Florida’s summer heat would debilitate a horse. In 2002 and 2003, Orientate and Cajun Beat competed in the Summit prior to winning Breeders’ Cup Sprint races. Crack sprinters have been coming south ever since.

In 2005, Lost in the Fog, one of the finest sprinters of the millennium, shipped in from the West Coast to capture the Carry Back.

The Breeders’ Cup eventually recognized what was happening. The Smile and Princess Rooney are now “win-and-you’re-in” events. There was a one-year break in continuity in 2014 at the height of the Calder-Gulfstream dates battle but once that was settled, Gulfstream picked up the baton and kept the series going.

The only discordant note during the early stages of the Summit, Cronin said, was local horsemen got their noses out of joint that out-of-towners were coming to town and scooping up big money they felt should be going to them.

This problem was solved the right way. Racing is a meritocracy. The Calder guys were urged to point their own best stock at the Summit. By 2010-11, this problem went away when locals won seven of the eight biggest stakes. They’ve been holding their own ever since.

This trend could continue Saturday. Dearest will take a ton of beating in the Princess Rooney. She won the Azalea on last year’s Summit card then encored in the Sugar Swirl during the winter meet. The latter was sandwiched by close defeats in the Prioress at Saratoga and Inside Information this past winter.

Distinta, who won the Inside Information, is also in the field but the race shape works in Dearest’s favor. She can consistently fire sub-45 second first quarters, something none of the others have demonstrated an ability to match. She should be long gone.

Three Rules, hero of last summer’s Sire Stakes, looks like a good bet to get back in the win column in the Carry Back. He won his first five career starts at Gulfstream but hasn’t won in his last five, all in top grade company. His only out-of-the-money finishes during this stretch were in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Kentucky Derby and he wasn’t disgraced in either.

His connections nominated him for the Carry Back for 3-year-olds as well as the open Smile and opted to stay against his own age to get him back on the winning track.

Awesome Banner, another Gulfstream development, is likely to be heavily supported in the Smile but he doesn’t appear to be the horse he used to be. He had five wins and three seconds in 11 starts last year but has only a pair of thirds in four 2017 starts.

An intriguing alternative is Mid-Atlantic shipper Imperial Hint, who has three consecutive triple-digit Beyers, which is three more than his rivals combined.

Cronin, whose heart was broken by the demise of Calder, now works for the HBPA in Minnesota but still follows the Summit. He can be proud of what he started.

Another mockery

Flavien Pratt is the latest jockey to make a mockery of riding rules. Pratt, in a tight race for the Santa Anita riding title, was hit with a three-day suspension for careless riding in the Summertime Oaks on June 16.

He should have served the days this weekend but to keep his hopes alive to win the championship, he appealed to the California Horse Racing Board. The CHRB turned his plea aside, so he went to court and got a stay. This is just what society needs, jockeys tying up the courts.

Don’t be surprised if he drops the appeal after this weekend so he is all set to ride at Del Mar, which opens July 19. This is standard operating procedure for jockeys.

The only way to stop these sham appeals is to come down hard on riders after the process plays out. If you get a traffic ticket and take it to court, the fine can be tripled or quadrupled. This should also be the case for frivolous rider appeals.

When Pratt drops his appeal, the CHRB should raise the suspension to 10 to 15 days. It’s the only way this nonsense will be stopped.

Miami, June 29, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

They’re back! Cries for longer Triple Crown gaps arise again

The conventional thinking was that American Pharoah's Triple Crown would silence those who argue for longer gaps between the three races. Not so. Some respected voices in the sport are already resuscitating their contentions that three races in five weeks is not reflective of contemporary racing. All it would take is an approval from NYRA, which moved the Met Mile off Memorial Day, to set the change into motion.

Well, that didn't take long. Only two years after American Pharoah swept the Triple Crown, cries are going out that the three races in five weeks (American Pharoah won four in eight weeks) is too taxing and should be extended over a longer period of time.

Randy Moss, a thoughtful observer of racing, has suggested the Kentucky Derby retain its traditional spot on the first Saturday in May with the Preakness three weeks later on Memorial Day weekend and the Belmont more than a month down the road on the Fourth of July,

Ray Paulick and Scott Jagow jumped into the fray on their "Friday Show" on the The Paulick Report. With respected voices such as this chiming in, the debate is back in play.

Paulick came down on Moss' side, making the point that horses don't run back in two weeks anymore. Jagow took the contra, saying a change would make enablers of trainers and others who have created this situation, with permissive medication a major contributing factor. Every horse in the Belmont, ostensibly the finest of their generation, was treated with Lasix, whose side effects include dehydration, necessitating longer gaps between races.

"Not every horse is a bleeder," Jagow said.

However, every horsemen is looking for an edge or at least not giving one to competitors, which undermines the disingenuous claim that Lasix is not a performance enhancer.

It's interesting that the debate is being revived so quickly post-American Pharoah. Thankfully, nothing is likely to change in the foreseeable future. Todd Pletcher, a student of racing history, conceded as much during an NTRA conference call preceding the second jewel of the Triple Crown.

"Had American Pharoah not won the Triple Crown, I think there's probably a movement that could have potentially led to maybe a little bit of the changing of the spacing but I think that since that happened, it's likely to stay the way it is."

Pletcher, whose MO is to run back in two weeks in the Preakness only when he has the Derby winner, said he is fine with the status quo. "In addition to American Pharoah winning (the Triple Crown), there have been quite a few horses that have come awfully close in the past 15 years or so. So I think it's proven that it's doable. Part of what makes it so special is it is so hard to do."


The timetable suggested by Moss is nothing new. It was often the model for a new configuration pre-American Pharoah and is as good as any if there is to be a change--which there should not be. It's as short-sighted as making tests easier so that more currently failing kids can pass.

Once you start tinkering with the Triple Crown, there could be no end. D. Wayne Lukas has long advocated that the distances be revised to a nine-furlong Kentucky Derby, leaving the Preakness as is at a mile and three-sixteenths and a mile and a quarter Belmont Stakes. God forbid, but a reasonable argument for it could be mounted once the series is opened to change.

Altering the sequence could be done a lot easier than many people think, which is why there should be at least some cause for concern. It's actually almost totally in the hands of NYRA.

There is no such thing as a Triple Crown organization. The Derby, Preakness and Belmont have a shared nomination process but that's about it.

Christmas will be moved off Dec. 25 before Churchill gets off the first Saturday in May but Pimlico woould leap at the opportunity to schedule the Preakness more than two weeks later. In addition to getting more Derby horses, a bigger break would enable Pimlico to attract a greater number of stars from the Derby undercard stakes.

However, the Preakness is locked in to its current placement as long as the Belmont remains five weeks after the Derby.

All it would take is for NYRA to agree to run the Belmont three or four weeks or more after a rescheduled Preakness and the deed would be done. So while a change in the near future is unlikely, it is not outside the realm of possibility especially if the drumbeats for it continue to grow.

There was a time when it was unthinkable that the Met Mile would be shifted away from Memorial Day but the same people who could alter the Triple Crown landscape did that and are congratulating themselves that it was a splendid idea.

Monmouth warns horsemen

Monmouth and its horsemen are again embroiled in a controversy that sprung up last year.

The New Jersey track, which is suffering from a severe shortage of horses to fill even three-day-a-week cards, told its horsemen that any horses shipped to Suffolk Downs for its six days of racing this summer will not be allowed back into the Monmouth stable area.

Suffolk will offer almost double Monmouth's average daily purse distribution of $280,000 when it conducts racing on July 8-9, Aug. 5-6 and Sept. 2-3, all days when Monmouth also will be racing.
When this conflict arose a year ago, about 65 Monmouth horses shipped to a race at Suffolk. Horsemen were hit with a $1,000 per horse fee to return to Monmouth, which wound up being paid by an anonymous donor, with the stipulation it go to a retired horses fund.

This year, Monmouth says such horses will not be allowed back period.

It's a draconian stance but one with which Monmouth, which is fighting for survival, feels justified. I can't disagree.

Change is good

Another development that slipped through the media cracks without much comment during Triple Crown season was the announcement that the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint will revert to five furlongs this fall.

It isn’t so much that the race will be a true sprint on a flat surface. It’s that it will not be run on Santa Anita’s one-of-a-kind downhill course. This is one of my favorite races but it is terribly unfair as a championship event to those not familiar with the layout; i.e., non-California based horses.

The Turf Sprint has been run six times at Santa Anita and it has gone to SoCal horses five times. This November, horses from all over will at least have a level (no pun intended) playing field.

Written by Tom Jicha

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