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, April 13, 2017

Pletcher on verge of a first-time Derby experience

Todd Pletcher's uncharacteristic 1-for-45 record in the Kentucky Derby has been well reported. Too well reported, the seven-time Eclipse winning trainer must feel. Amazingly, when you consider the great horses he has developed, not one of the 45 was the post-time favorite. That could change this year with Always Dreaming. However, Mark Casse, who will get Juvenile Champion Classic Empire back to the races in the Arkansas Derby, feels a big effort Saturday will make his colt the favorite on the first Saturday in May.

An astonishing statistic emerged from a National Thoroughbred Racing Association conference call the other day. Todd Pletcher has been oft criticized for his less than stellar record in the Kentucky Derby. He has sent out 45 starters in America’s most famous horse race and has won with only Super Saver.

The surprising factoid is not one of the 45 has been the post-time favorite. Think of all the 3-year-olds with gilded credentials, some undefeated going into the first Saturday in May, Pletcher has brought to Churchill Downs. But the public has always found a non-Pletcher contender they liked more.

That could change this year. If the Derby were being run this Saturday rather than May 6, it’s likely Florida Derby champion Always Dreaming would break from the starting gate as the people’s choice. “It would be sort of uncharted waters for us,” Pletcher said.

It would represent a triumph of sorts even before the race is run. “There would be a sense of accomplishment to get a horse there that would be considered the favorite.”

Pletcher feels Always Dreaming is deserving of the honor and has the ability to justify it. “We’re very pleased with the way Always Dreaming has progressed all winter and spring. We were very excited to run him in the Florida Derby and we were even more excited after the race and with the way he has come out of it and trained since.”

Last Saturday's Wood Memorial, Blue Grass Stakes and Santa Anita Derby did nothing to knock Always Dreaming off the top perch. If anything, they solidified his status.

Maybe second choice, too

There’s a chance Pletcher could have the favorite and second choice if Malagacy runs big in the Arkansas Derby. Among other things, the son of Shackleford represents this year’s threat to the curse of Apollo, since he didn’t make his debut until Jan. 4 at Gulfstream.

But if the Cubs can break a 108-year spell, it might be time for a thoroughbred to snap the 135-year streak of a horse who didn’t start as a 2-year-old winning the Kentucky Derby.

Ironically, Malagacy was ticketed to run as a juvenile—in a claiming race. He showed no signs in his early training of being exceptionally talented so Pletcher entered him with a $75,000 tag late last year.

In a stroke of bad fortune/good fortune, the day Pletcher dropped Malagacy’s name into the box, the colt came down with a temperature and had to be scratched.

“Part of the reason we considered running him for maiden claiming first time out was he hadn’t shown us much but his lazy side in the morning. It was a blessing that he got the temperature and we had to scratch him. It was interesting that after that, he’s shown to be far better.”

He’s perfect, in fact, three-for-three as his distances extended from 5 ½ furlongs to 6 ½ then a mile and a sixteenth in the Rebel.

“One of Malagacy’s strengths is he’s got a high cruising speed. He proved in the Rebel that he’s capable of carrying it around two turns. What’s impressed me the most about him is as fast as he is, he’s also very tractable and ratable, willing to sit behind horses when necessary," Pletcher said.

"Javier (Castellano) has commented that he’s kind of a rare horse in that you can ask him to leave the gate and show you some speed, then you can quickly turn him off after you do that. That’s one of the reasons why we’re optimistic that he’ll handle a little more ground.”

Casse touts Classic Empire

Mark Casse, who will saddle Eclipse juvenile champion Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby, would like to file a dissenting opinion on who the Derby favorite will be. “I may be a little biased but I have to think if our horse runs really well and wins, he’s going to be the favorite for the Kentucky Derby.”

There are a couple of big if’s there, especially given Classic Empire’s eventful winter.

It started with a non-menacing third in the Holy Bull, prior to which he became unglued in the walking ring and going to the post. A foot abscess--which might have contributed to his antics at Gulfstream--back issues and, when all seemed well, a refusal to work at the Palm Meadows training center. Thus, the Holy Bull was his only start in 2017.

Casse knows Classic Empire will have to show the talent that earned the Eclipse Award as 2016’s outstanding juvenile, starting with the Arkansas Derby, to go to Louisville as the public’s choice. He feels his son of Pioneer of the Nile is up to it, although like most trainers would, he said a good strong race is more important than winning his final Derby prep.

“It’s been a tough road but luckily the last month has gone very well. Do I wish we had another start? Of course, I do. But I put three really strong works into him. The good news is he’s not a big, robust horse. He’s an athlete. So, it’s not like he carries a lot of excess weight. He has a tremendous amount of ability, which will help him out.”

Classic Empire has had a fancy workmate in recent weeks, Airoforce, a graded stakes winner on dirt and turf. “He’s a good horse in his own right,” Casse said. “Julien (Leparoux) worked (Classic Empire) and he worked extremely well. The following week, Julien worked him again and he worked even better.

"He disposed of Airoforce much easier then galloped out really strong. That’s the Classic Empire we know. More importantly, he’s a happy horse. We know he has the ability. We just have to keep him happy.”

He clearly wasn’t happy at Gulfstream or Palm Meadows. Casse has no explanation for that. The day of the Holy Bull, it could have been the abscess, which was just beginning to bother Classic Empire, or he resented racing off the one-hour van ride from Palm Meadows to Gulfstream, the explanation initially offered.

Classic Empire’s subsequent refusal to work is inexplicable. “They can’t speak to us, so I don’t have a good answer. I’m not in any shape or form knocking Palm Meadows because we love it. It’s been good to us. But it’s crazy.

"Over this winter, we’ve had five or six or seven horses refuse to train. Tepin is one of them. I don’t know what they see or what it is. The good news is, [Classic Empire] is not doing it anymore.”

Casse offered some advice to those who have given up on Classic Empire. “I feel that ability wise he is the most talented horse out there.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, April 06, 2017

Timing, other factors outweigh grading for Derby preps

The loss of Grade 1 status for the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial has had no impact on the decisions of trainers' choices for final Derby preps, according to a couple of conditioners who will send out leading contenders on Saturday. On the West Coast, Doug O'Neill and Bob Baffert will have seven starters between them in the Santa Anita Derby. O'Neill is confident he only needs one. Off the track, Frank Stronach has launched a preemptive strike against the Dubai World Cup, raising the total purse for the 2018 Pegasus to $16 million.

The downgrading of the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes, two of the most tradition laden events on the American racing calendar, turns out to be no big deal. Getting to the Kentucky Derby the right way is the only thing that matters, according to the trainers of a couple of leading Derby contenders.

Ian Wilkes, trainer of McCraken, the leader in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association 3-year-old poll, said the fact that the Blue Grass has been lowered from a Grade 1 to a Grade 2 was not a consideration in his decision to make the Keeneland fixture his undefeated colt’s final prep. “I don’t think either of those races should have been downgraded because of their history,” Wilkes said. “But the important thing is I wanted to get a race that could get me to the next race in the best possible way.”

Graham Motion, who will send out Holy Bull winner Irish War Cry as one of the horses to beat in the Wood, conveyed the same feelings on an NTRA conference call. He made his decision based on the calendar and other circumstances. “I didn’t feel comfortable running back in four weeks (in the Florida Derby). I wanted an extra week and to get him back home.” Home is the Fair Hills training center in Maryland, a bucolic facility Motion prefers as his base because it gets his horses away from the hubbub of the racetrack.

On cold hard facts, it’s difficult to argue with the decision to knock the Wood down a grade. The Wood winner hasn’t doubled in the Derby since Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000. However, Funny Cide, who ran second to Empire Maker in the 2003 Wood, reversed that order in the Derby. That was the last time horses who hit the board in New York also finished in the money in Louisville.

Motion called this a matter of happenstance. “It’s only a matter of time until the right horses comes along.” He’s hoping, of course, that Irish War Cry is that horse. But he has no explanation for his colt’s lackluster Fountain of Youth.

NYRA apparently doesn’t care about the downgrade. With more stakes money than it knows how to prudently spend, it has cut back the purse by a quarter-million dollars to $750,000. This makes it the only 100-point Derby prep with a purse under $1 million.

It’s difficult to imagine this season’s Wood triggering the process to restore the tradition rich race to Grade 1. There is a stunning lack of star power. Batallion Runner, the likely favorite has won a maiden and entry level allowance at Gulfstream.

Todd Pletcher has won four of the last seven Wood Memorials with horses bringing gaudy resumes north from South Florida. Batallion Runner could be the fifth, especially considering his modest competition Saturday. But not one of Pletcher’s Wood winners has finished even among the top half of the field in Louisville.

Pletcher has a less heralded, deservedly so, second entrant, Bonus Points. He brings a second and fourth in Aqueduct’s winter stakes into the Wood. Pletcher’s chief rival, Chad Brown, has Cloud Computing, second in the Gotham (somebody had to be) and is still eligible for an entry level allowance. Brown’s big 3-year-old, Practical Joke, is in Kentucky for the Blue Grass.

McCraken set for a big race

The Blue Grass, on the other hand, is taking an impressive first step back toward the top of the heap. It is inarguably the most talent rich field of the prep season. It’s revealing that Practical Joke, is not competing at the trainer’s home base in New York, where he is a dual Grade 1 winner, and J Boys Echo, who won the Gotham, New York’s penultimate 3-year-old prep, also has spurned the Wood for the Blue Grass.

McCraken and Tapwrit, who stood out at Tampa Bay Downs this winter and are in most everyone’s top five Derby contenders, resume their rivalry in the seven-horse field.

Tapwrit has his Derby berth cinched with 54 points but McCraken, although undefeated has only 20 Derby points and needs no worse than a second to guarantee a slot in the gate. Third might be enough but it could become a sweat.

Ian Wilkes sounds like a trainer who doesn’t lose sleep over this. “McCraken has had three good works at Keeneland and I couldn’t be any happier. I’m looking for a really big race.”

Wilkes said he has no qualms about jumping into the stiffest prep. “Horses get better running against good competition. You get a different kind of fitness.”

Forget the mild ankle sprain that cost McCraken a prep, Wilkes said. “It was very minor.” The colt recovered quickly enough that if Wilkes wanted, he said he could have run in the Tampa Bay Derby. He opted out because he would have been unable to squeeze in the kind of final work he wanted.

He’s the horse to beat until someone does it. I can’t see anyone but Tapwrit having a shot to do this Saturday. I’m not going any deeper on my multi-race bets.

Baffert vs. O'Neill

California-based horses have won the past three Derbies and four of the last five but odds are against them improving that statistic on May 6. Mastery looked like this year’s hot contender but he went down before he could even be unsaddled after his breath-taking San Felipe score. Maybe Bob Baffert will get him back in late summer as this year’s Arrogate.

What’s left of the West Coast Derby hopefuls is a relatively non-descript bunch and an uninspiring Santa Anita Derby. The most interesting aspect of this year’s renewal is the intramural scrimmage between Doug O’Neill, who is entering four, and Baffert, who will send three to the gate.

This is illustrative of what’s wrong with the trend toward super trainers and 200-horse barns. “The other Baffert”—the one with the longer odds when he starts two—is a mantra among Southern California fans. What do you do when he starts three and O’Neill, whose success also has inspired skepticism, has four? In any event, what this implies is not good for racing.

How ironic that O’Neill is one up because a horse Kaleem Shah took from Baffert and sent to him, Iliad, is among the four. “It was like a late Christmas present,” O’Neill said. He gives the impression that Iliad will be the gift that keeps on giving.

“Iliad has impressed me from the first day I got him.” O’Neill blames himself for the colt's failure in the San Felipe, although chasing Mastery had a lot to do with it. “I hadn’t trained him hard and he got tired.”

O’Neill has been trying to harness Iliad’s early speed by training him behind horses and feels the effort is paying off. “He doesn’t need to be on the lead.” This should be advantageous in a full Santa Anita Derby field loaded with speed. “Iliad will move way forward on Saturday,” O’Neill said.

Pegasus-World Cup war is on

Frank Stronach has launched a pre-emptive strike at Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashad al Maktoum, who said after last month’s Dubai World Classic that the $10 million purse would be raised to exceed the $12 million offered by the Pegasus at Gulfstream Park.

The Stronach Group announced Wednesday that the 2018 Pegasus, scheduled for Jan. 27, would have a $16 million purse. Stronach is putting up the increased $4 million himself. Where the madness will end is anyone’s guess but it’s hard to imagine Stronach one-upping the Sheikh for world’s richest race.

A disappointing aspect of the Pegasus increase is that it will be bottom heavy. Each of 12 starters is promised at least $650,000, well up from the $250,000 guaranteed to horses who finished fourth through last this past winter. This will leave an increase of only $400,000 to be split among the top three.

This can only be interpreted to mean that Stronach was finding it difficult to get 12 owners to ante up $1 million apiece again after nine of the 12 lost about $750K in January. But this is not what horse racing is about or should be about. The notion of a horse or horses trailing the field by a pole yet bringing home $650K is absurd. It also brings into question the true value of the purse since the connections are really not putting up more than $350K apiece.

A more sensible and headline-grabbing approach for the additional money would have been to hang up an eye-popping $10 million for the winner, $3 million for second, $1.5 million for third and $500K for fourth through sixth. Any horse who doesn’t finish in the top half of the field doesn’t deserve a payoff.

How long do you figure it will be before the Sheikh plays "Can you top this?"

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Gulfstream, Fair Grounds could produce a leader of 3YO pack

This year's Kentucky Derby crop is still without a clear leader. This could change after Saturday's Florida and Louisiana Derbys. But there are reasons to proceed with caution before going all in on early favorites Gunnevera and Girvin. Not the least of them is both have sufficient points to guarantee a Derby starting berth, so there is no necessity to lay it all on the line in their final preps for the first Saturday in May.

The observation that this season’s Kentucky Derby crop is an uninspiring group lacking a standout has been widely expressed. The latest to join the chorus is Joe Sharp, who will send out favored Girvin in Saturday’s Louisiana Derby. “This year’s Derby picture is as muddled as I can ever remember,” Sharp said on an NTRA conference call this week.

Facts bear this out. Nineteen Kentucky Derby qualifying points races in 2017 have produced 18 different winners. The only horse to double is El Areeb, who won the Jerome and Withers over Aqueduct’s inner track, against winter track competition. He fell off most Kentucky Derby hot lists when he threw in a clunker in the Gotham.

There are extenuating circumstances. McCraken looked like he could be one of the ones as he ran his unbeaten streak to four in Tampa’s Sam F. Davis. But then he went to the sidelines with a minor ankle problem and will have only one more Derby prep, next week’s Blue Grass.

Juvenile Eclipse champion Classic Empire came unhinged before he got to the starting gate in the Holy Bull, the only time he has appeared under silks this year. A foot abscess and back problems have been offered as explanations but when he supposedly was 100% again, he balked at working at Palm Meadows.

Subsequently he supposedly worked like Arrogate at an upstate farm. This is encouraging but what happens when he has to deal with a less bucolic setting, especially one as raucous as Churchill Downs on Derby Day? Maybe we’ll get a clue next week when he goes in the Arkansas Derby.

Mastery looked like the next budding superstar on the Bob Baffert conveyer belt when he destroyed his competition in the San Felipe but he came back bad and probably won’t be seen again until summer at the earliest.

Even those who fell in love with the notion of standout filly Unique Bella trying the boys had their dreams crushed when she came up injured this week, sidelining her for at least 60 days, according to Jerry Hollendorfer.

So there really is no leader as we head into the final round of major Derby preps.Gunnevera and even Girvin could lay claim to pro tem leadership with big efforts Saturday but there are reasons to proceed with caution with both.

Gunnevera already is safely in the Derby field, so there’s no urgency to lay it all down to win. His trainer Antonio Sano said at Gulfstream’s post position draw ceremony that he wants to win the Florida Derby. It is a million dollar race, after all. But he’s training Gunnevera more for the big Derby on May 6 than for this weekend’s race.

Sano hopes Saturday will be deja vu all over again.

It doesn’t help that Gunnevera drew the outside post with the short run to Gulfstream’s first turn. Moreover, when Chad Brown decided to take Fountain of Youth runnerup Practical Joke out of town to prep in the Blue Grass, a bunch of no-chance dreamers jumped into the Florida Derby. Eleven passed the box although only 10 will go. Todd Pletcher indicated Batallion Runner will scratch and look elsewhere.

Four or five of the late arrivals on the scene have no chance to win but a big chance to back up in the face of Gunnevera when he launches his late bid, likely from last considering his post. If he gets a clear run, he wins and becomes the horse to beat in Louisville--at least until next week. However the price will be too short to tap out on him.

Another Pletcher hopeful, Always Dreaming, is worth a long look at a decent price. He’s never run a bad one and both his two-turn tries have been impressive wins. He has the style to get first run on the cheap speed and the rider, Johnny V., to put him in the optimum spot.

Way down yonder, Girvin, who will be making only his fourth start, still has much to prove. He saved all the ground in the Risen Star and the rail opened for him at the top of the lane as if Calvin Borel was aboard. Even Sharp wants to be shown he has a legitimate Derby horse. “He needs to show he belongs in the Derby and not just because he has the points.”

Meanwhile, Lecomte winner Guest Suite also had a dream journey…a bad dream. Although he comes from off the pace, he got shuffled back further than trainer trainer Neil Howard wanted, so his impressive late run was for naught. Howard loves the way he’s coming up to Fair Grounds’ biggest event. “He’s still moving forward, getting close to the peaking point.”

If he reaches it Saturday, Girvin will need a maximum effort to hold him off.

Kill the 7 p.m. rule

It is illegal to allow a donkey to sleep in a bathtub in Arizona.

You can’t keep an ice cream cone in your back pocket on Sunday in Georgia.

Whale fishing is against the law in Nebraska (think about that one).

These are among scores of inane laws still on the books because they are so ridiculous no one has gone to the trouble to eradicate them.

Florida, which once unintentionally banned all computers by wording an anti-internet café bill poorly, has one of its own. No thoroughbred race may begin after 7 p.m.

While no one pays attention to the laws previously mentioned because they are so asinine, the 7 p.m. rule is scrupulously adhered to by Gulfstream and could come into play on Florida Derby Day. Since daylight savings time has extended the number of sun-lit hours, Gulfstream has flirted with going past 7 p.m. on both Saturdays. Neither day had huge crowds. Saturday will draw the biggest turnout of the season and 14 races are scheduled.

This rule was put into place to protect greyhound tracks and jai alai frontons from thoroughbred competition. Now dog racing and jai alai are virtually dead and thoroughbred simulcasts contribute mightily to greyhound and jai alai bottom lines. Races from Gulfstream would be a boon not a blow.

Yet no one has bothered to have this rule eliminated. With decoupling and other pari-mutuel issues on the legislative agenda this session, it should be a priority to have killing the 7 p.m. rule tacked onto any racing bill. Who would be against it?

There Are No Words

Arrogate’s breath-taking triumph Saturday triggered a flashback to Shea Stadium in 1969. Part of the sideshow to the Miracle Mets was the fan who had an appropriate sign for every occasion.

After one of the championship triumphs—I don’t recall if it was the division, pennant or World Series-- by the team that had been baseball’s laughingstocks (Remember the book “Can Anyone Here Play This Game”), the sign guy held up “There Are No Words.”

The past year has been marked by comebacks usually seen only in movies: the Patriots climbing out of a 25-point hole in the Super Bowl; the Cubs coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the World Series to claim their first title in 108 years; the Cavaliers also rallying from a 3-1 deficit against the record-breaking Golden State Warriors.

None of these compare to what Arrogate did in Dubai. When he crossed the finish line, ears pricked looking for more, I sent a one-word text to J.P.—“Wow!”

I’ve been going to the races since I was 14 and Arrogate is the horse I have been waiting my whole life to see.

I witnessed Secretariat’s Belmont, the performance that rivals what Arrogate did in Dubai. On his best day, Secretariat might have beaten any horse who ever lived. But he had off days. He ran third in the Wood Memorial, his final prep for the Triple Crown, and lost twice more before retiring at the end of his 3-year-old season.

Arrogate hasn’t had any bad days since his debut. Only days that have been better than the last. I can no longer conceive of a scenario, barring injury, in which Arrogate can be beaten. It’s a pity we will only get to appreciate him three more times and maybe not again until August.

Miami, March 30, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

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