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 21, 2016

It’s up to players to make Canterbury takeout reduction succeed

Canterbury Park is taking a bold step to reduce its takeout to the lowest blended rate in North America. The experiment, which will be monitored closely by other jurisdictions, needs the support of simulcast players nationwide to succeed.

This could be a challenge considering the unfamiliarity of Canterbury's horses, jockeys and trainers. If nothing else, players should consider support of Canterbury this season to be an investment in the future, no matter where their major plays are.

MIAMI, April 21, 2016--All hail, Canterbury for becoming an industry leader in reduction of takeout.

Canterbury Park is lowering its takeout to a blended 16.5%, a North American low. Win-place-show will be taxed at 15%. Exotics will have 18% removed from the pool before winners are paid. The blended takeout has been 20.4%.

Horseplayers have been advocating this for years. So its success or failure will be monitored closely nationwide. This is why elation must be tempered. The downside is, if the reduced rates don’t increase handle, other jurisdictions will use it as an argument against similar reductions.

Canterbury is not the ideal canary in this coal mine. Success is dependent on simulcast players taking some of their action to the Minnesota track. Widespread unfamiliarity with the track, its horses, trainers and jockeys could work against this.

On-track handle is approximately one-third of Canterbury's total wagering. This is about three times the 10% norm at most tracks. In other words, Canterbury’s handle is disproportionately a product of its on-site fans. Interest among outsiders has been limited.

What’s more, its 7:30 first post in the East on Thursdays and Fridays comes well after the end of the cards in New York, Florida, Kentucky and the Mid-Atlantic tracks. The weekend cards, which spring from the gate at 1:45 p.m. in the East, will have to buck the live racing at these jurisdictions. It’s a daunting challenge to win over bettors who have been betting these tracks for years.

Eric Halstrom, Canterbury’s vice president of racing operations, was quoted in the Racing Form acknowledging a major motivation for the lower takeout is an attempt to attract new simulcast players. “We have not been a part of everybody’s simulcast day. We’re fine with admitting we weren’t on everyone’s radar but this is a way to increase our visibility. When you go from zero to a new player, that’s a big thing. We’re taking a gamble here but we’re not opposed to taking some risk.”

Canterbury is not only risking a hit to its bottom line. To get the support of its horsemen, which was essential, it has guaranteed that even if the total handle plunges, purses will be at least the same as they were last year with a higher takeout.

Andy Asaro, tireless champion of horseplayers (slogan: “We never quit”), raised another potential pitfall. There are jurisdictions, most notably his home state of California, adamantly opposed to takeout reductions. They might do everything they can to sabotage the Canterbury experiment, starting with dropping the signal. If they do, they must be punished with a boycott.

On the positive side, it would behoove simulcast players to throw a few bucks each session at the Canterbury races. A $10 bet each time you go to the races would push Canterbury way over the top. This isn't a lot to ask. You might even show a profit. Even if you don’t win, the money could eventually come back big time if success at Canterbury forces other jurisdictions to adapt.

Appeals make penalties a joke

Rafael Bejarano is the latest to make a mockery of racing penalties. Bejarano drew a three-day suspension for a ride at Santa Anita on Feb. 11, the heart of the lucrative winter racing season. As is usually the case, Bejarano appealed, delaying imposition of the penalty.

Last week he dropped the appeal, a timely decision. He’ll serve the days during the Los Alamitos meet when the number of races, especially quality races with horses a rider wouldn’t want to give up, is down substantially from Santa Anita.

Bejarano’s first day on the ground was Sunday, when Los Alamitos was able to scrape together only eight races with a total of 49 entries on a weekend. Four of the eight went for $20,000 or less. The feature offered $50,000, less than what a maiden race goes for during the winter.

Bejarano’s “suspension” includes Thursday and Friday. Both programs, eight races each, are more of the same. Thursday’s first three races drew fields of five. This swelled to six for the next three races. Friday’s first two heats had five horses, apiece. The next three had six each. Five of Thursday’s races had purses under $20K. The feature went for $46K. The Friday feature was another 50 grander. Three races offered less than $20K. Another had a $27K purse.

In effect, Bejarano is using the Santa Anita suspension as an excuse to take a vacation during Los Alamitos, when it’s hardly worth his while to show up. This isn’t an indictment of Bejarano. It’s business as usual for jockeys.

The appeal was filed in February. The big question is why it was still in limbo more than two months later. It should have been ruled upon within a week or less. “Justice delayed is justice denied” wasn’t coined for racing suspensions but it could have been.

If suspensions are to have any meaning, the appeal process has to be changed. Swift rulings are a must. Absent this in our litigious society, jockeys (and trainers) should have to serve their time during a comparable meeting, preferably at the same track at roughly the same time of year. In other words, if Bejarano’s appeal was found to be without merit or withdrawn, he should have been forced to do the days in the heart of the next Santa Anita winter season.

Otherwise, why bother.

Songbird will be missed but not at windows

The supposedly minor illness that has knocked Songbird out of the Kentucky Oaks has created a new sub-division of bridge-jumpers, the bettors who took 7-10 in the Oaks future wagering, seven weeks out, on the supposed sure thing. They get no pity here.

Let’s hope that Songbird’s illness is indeed minor and we see this superstar filly on the track again soon, perhaps as early as the Preakness, although that might be wishful thinking.

To put a positive spin on the unfortunate situation, Songbird's absence makes Derby weekend more interesting gambling-wise. Where Songbird would have been 1-2 or less, the new favorite in the Oaks, whoever that turns out to be, will probably be in the 4-1 or more range.

The Oaks exactas, trifecta’s and supers become more alluring, too.

The Oaks-Derby double also becomes a more lucrative opportunity. A Songbird-Nyquist double might have returned a laughable payoff, 2-1 or less. Doubles with Songbird and any Derby winner probably would have paid very close to what the straight Derby price winds up, negating incentive to make the two-day play.

Now the Oaks-Derby double is more enticing than other daily double bets because the 20-horse Derby field greatly increases the number of combinations. This also goes for the Oaks-Turf Classic-Derby pick 3.

We’ll get seriously into sorting out the possibilities as we get closer to the day.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Pharoah’s gone but Baffert’s in the Derby picture again

Bob Baffert isn't bringing an American Pharoah to the Kentucky Derby this season. But he's not coming unarmed. He feels he has a potent arrow in his quiver in Cupid, who is on target to give Baffert his seemingly annual victory in the Arkansas Derby, the final major prep for Louisville. Baffert isn't giving up on Mor Spirit, either, in spite of a disappointing effort in the Santa Anita Derby.

MIAMI, April 14, 2016--American Pharoah is gone to a life of love and leisure, leaving a huge void in Bob Baffert’s barn. The attention this spring has moved down shed row to Doug O’Neill’s barn, home of undefeated juvenile champion Nyquist.

But Baffert can never be counted out during Derby season. He could have the second betting choice in Cupid, who is favored to win Saturday’s Arkansas Derby, as well as Grade 1 winner Mor Spirit, who has never been worse than second in seven career starts.

There is an outside chance Collected, who runs in the Lexington on Saturday, will also move into the Derby picture. However, Baffert said in a conference call that he has reservations about Collected getting 10 furlongs.

He has almost no reservations regarding his other two potential Derby starters. He’s especially high on Cupid, who has won around two turns twice, including the Rebel. “He’s very fast and a beautiful long striding horse.”

The Rebel was impressive on its face but Baffert feels Cupid’s race was even better than it appeared. “He broke a little step slow, rushed up and still made the lead. He almost hit the rail and still managed to hold off fast closing Whitmore.”

The necessity to ship cross country to Arkansas from California twice, as he did with American Pharoah, gives him some pause. “When you ship then you ship twice, it can be a little bit tough on them. That’s what made Pharoah such a great horse. Horses have a small window of greatness. Pharoah had a window all year long, which is very rare.”

So far, so good with Cupid, Baffert said. “I haven’t seen him regress. If I thought I saw a little regress, I would have just run him fresh into the Derby or maybe I could have taken him to the Coolmore Lexington.” The 50 points Cupid earned in the Rebel would have afforded Baffert these options.

Mor Spirit slipped in the estimation of many after being soundly beaten by Exaggerator in the Santa Anita Derby but Baffert hasn’t lost faith in him. “I don’t like to make excuses for my horses but he didn’t get the trip we were hoping to get. We wanted to be near the lead. But Gary (Stevens) said they all left like their hair was on fire. So he hung in the middle. He basically just passed tired horses at the end. The winner ran a great race. It was disappointing but we’ll move on.”

One thing Baffert has no reservations about is using a race only three weeks out as a final Derby prep. “I think three weeks is fine. They changed (the preps) because some trainers feel like they need an extra week. I think everybody has their own way. But to me, three weeks is fine. It’s the sheet guys who sort of tell them you don’t want to run a big number this close. Your horse is going to bounce. So they go by that. I don’t really go by that.”

From Baffert’s lips to the ears of every trainer in America.

Like most others, Baffert feels Nyquist stands above the crowd. “He hasn’t done anything wrong. He has been handled great. He’s all race horse. We keep waiting to see if he’s going to get the distance but he’s so good that he just keeps on going.”

Nyquist’s stamina issues trace to his sire, Uncle Mo, who didn’t win past a mile and a sixteenth. Baffert said this might not matter. “Pedigree in America now is so diluted that it doesn’t really matter anymore. It’s how good you are. So I think you have Nyquist and a lot of horses underneath.”

This doesn’t mean he’s conceding anything. “You need some luck. We have a 20-horse field to deal with. So many things can go wrong. So we still have a long way to go.”

Songbird still the one

America’s best 3-year-old will not be running for roses on the first Saturday in May. She will be racing for lilies on Friday.

On last Saturday’s busiest day for Derby preps, the most dazzling performance was again turned in by Songbird, who cantered to her seventh straight blowout in the Santa Anita Oaks.

I opined recently that Nyquist will be one of the shortest priced Derby favorites in recent years, deservedly so. But if Songbird was in the race, Nyquist would be no better than second choice.
I’ll double down. If Songbird does her thing in the Oaks, then runs in the Preakness, as is being speculated, she will be favored over Nyquist even if he wins the Derby.

Ponder that. An undefeated, Eclipse champion Kentucky Derby winner would not be favored in the second jewel of the Triple Crown.

That’s how good Songbird is.

Another Stymie?

Ken Ramsey plans to supplement Spiral winner Oscar Nominated, who he claimed for $75,000 last fall, to the Derby even though he has never raced on conventional dirt. Why not, the colorful Eclipse-winning owner figures? “I’m optimistic. It’s not a stellar field after Nyquist.”

Depending on how the points shake out in the Arkansas Derby, a pair of maidens, Laoban, fourth in the Blue Grass, and Trojan Nation, second in the Wood, could be in the Churchill Downs starting gate.

Ramsey, who is always looking for new worlds to conquer, is targeting another. “We got a chance to make a little history. I go back a long way. I’m 80 and I remember back when Hirsch Jacobs claimed Stymie. They say Stymie is the greatest claim in history. So if Oscar Nominated goes on to win the Derby, I guess that puts me right in the history books with Hirsch Jacobs and Stymie.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, April 07, 2016

Derby preps lack usual luster but there are prices to be had

The Kentucky Derby shapes up as Nyquist against the world after last Saturday's demolition of Mohaymen in the Florida Derby. This weekend's trio of final major preps will decide little beyond who might be second choice in Louisville but the lack of standouts makes them attractive betting races.

MIAMI, April 7, 2016--The Kentucky Derby is too big to be rendered anti-climactic by any other race. But the normally prestigious final round of preps has fallen into this category. Nyquist’s demolition of previously unbeaten Mohaymen in the Florida Derby has taken a lot of the oxygen out of the pre-Derby atmosphere. However reports of an elevated white cell count keeping him in his stall at Keeneland will lend encouragement to the connections of Derby wannabes and those shopping for a price horse.

Still, unless the situation lingers--elevated white blood cell counts are not unusual after a ship, as Nyquist did from Florida to Kentucky--no matter what happens in this weekend’s Blue Grass, Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby as well as next week’s Arkansas Derby, Nyquist will enter the starting gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May as one of the strongest Derby favorites in years. The standard in the era of 20-horse fields is the $2.40-1 Big Brown went off in 2008.

Nevertheless this weekend’s tripleheader of Derby preps provides some great betting opportunities with potential live price horses all over the map. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

A couple of all stakes Pick 4’s, which, thanks to their wide open nature, also could pay handsomely. An all-NYRA Pick 4 opens with the Gazelle. The Bay Shore, Wood Memorial and Carter Handicap follow. The Bay Shore, Keeneland’s Madison, which is Breeders’ Cup caliber, Wood Memorial and Blue Grass make up the Kentucky-New York Pick 4.

The Wood Memorial, Blue Grass and Santa Anita Derby will anchor a telecast on the cable NBC Sports Network from 5-7 p.m.

John Pricci will have his customary extensive analysis of the weekend stakes Friday. I will share some comments from trainers and jockeys on an NTRA conference call earlier this week as well as my own observations from this winter at Gulfstream.

Undefeated Gotham winner Shagaf is the horse to beat from the fence in the Wood Memorial. Some might downgrade his chances, especially at a short price, because of relatively light numbers. Chad Brown said this would be a mistake. “His speed figs haven’t been super impressive but he hasn’t done anything wrong.” Brown noted that the lightly raced colt has been making steady progress, physically and mentally and he sees more room for improvement.

Shagaf’s uncoupled stablemate, Flexibility, also has a big shot, in Brown’s estimation. Off a couple of seconds to Mohaymen followed by an impressive score in the Jerome, he looked like the class of the New York winter 3-year-olds until a misfire in the Withers.

The Withers might have been a case of too many races in too short a period, Brown said. Flexibility was due for a layoff between that race and the Wood in any event. “The plan was the (Kentucky) Derby would be his second race off a short layoff.”

If Flexibility’s tank was on fumes, he’s bounced back well, according to the trainer. “His energy level is terrific. I’m real happy with the way he’s coming into the race.”

This hasn’t been Todd Pletcher’s finest winter for 3-year-olds but he’s back home and it would be imprudent to toss his chances with Outwork, whose only defeat in three races has been to stablemate Destin in the Tampa Bay Derby. He was a little short that day in his first try around two turns but the Tampa surface builds conditioning.

The overflow field of 14 plus two AE’s for the Blue Grass is a sign that beyond Nyquist, the 3-year-old division is currently lacking star power. Pletcher will have the likely favorite in Zulu, who chased Mohaymen home in the Fountain of Youth after a couple of sprint wins. However, off Mohaymen’s collapse in the Florida Derby that doesn’t look as impressive as it did a week ago.

Dale Romans likes the chances of his pair, Brody’s Cause and Cherry Wine. Brody’s Cause is a prototypical horse for course. He became a Grade 1 winner at Keeneland in October when he took the Breeders’ Futurity. Four weeks later he put in a big late run to finish third in Nyquist’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Romans has no explanation for Brody’s Cause’s dull seventh in his seasonal debut in the Tampa Bay Derby. “He was training like a monster. I’ve never had a horse train so well then run so poorly. Maybe he needed the race.” Romans is hoping the return to his favorite track will turn around Brody’s Cause. “I know he ran third in the Breeders’ Cup and won a Grade 1 here.”

Romans is also high on Cherry Wine, who was talked up as a Derby sleeper after a flashy allowance win around two turns at Gulfstream. Romans thought enough of him to ship to Oaklawn for the Rebel. His fourth place finish was better than it looked, the trainer says. “It was sneaky good.” After breaking from an outside post in a bulky field, Cherry Wine got shuffled back to last down the backstretch. He was forced to split horses at the top of the lane and weave his way through traffic but he was charging hard at the end.

The Santa Anita Derby is a rematch of Danzing Candy, who wired the field in the San Felipe for his third straight win, and Mor Spirit, who closed fast to get the place. That was a mile and a sixteenth, 110 yards shorter than the Santa Anita Derby. It didn’t appear Mor Spirit was going to get to Danzing Candy if they were still running but Bob Baffert has a way of getting them up for the big ones. Unfortunately, a forecast of heavy rain for Saturday could change its impact on the Derby picture, especially if some improbable mud-lover jumps up and upsets the field.

However, the story Saturday at Santa Anita is the 3-year-old who won’t be in the Santa Anita Derby, super filly Songbird. She’ll be 1-10, maybe 1-20, in the Santa Anita Oaks. She also would have been odds-on against the boys in the Derby.

Asked if he thinks Songbird could beat the colts, Smith, who rides Danzing Candy, said, “Without a doubt.” Smith has ridden great distaffers Zenyatta, Azeri and Royal Delta. Songbird is more advanced than any of them, he says. “She’s the most promising 3-year-old I’ve ever been on. That includes the boys.”

Romans, whose Go Maggie Go upset the Gulfstream Oaks last Saturday, jokingly suggested Songbird should have taken the supposedly tougher assignment. “Songbird should go in the Santa Anita Derby, get some points, then run in the (Kentucky) Derby and leave the (Kentucky) Oaks alone.”

Written by Tom Jicha

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