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, February 11, 2016

Super Saturdays wouldn’t be hurt if some stakes were spread out

Super Saturdays are becoming regular occurrences at Gulfstream. They're great. But in packing these cards with stakes, non-Super Saturdays are suffering. The next two weekends feature a six-horse stakes for older females and a five-furlong turf sprint for 3-year-old fillies. This is not what racing fans have come to expect from the prime winter meeting. In an unrelated matter, some of the sports biggest stars are pointing to the March 26 World Cup program in Dubai. They all race on Lasix in the U.S. but will race without it in the Middle East. So much for the argument that Lasix is essential.

MIAMI, Feb. 11, 2016--There can be too much of a good thing in racing.

Gulfstream has had Super Saturdays on three of the past four weekends—two six-stakes cards and a five-stakes card. They're great. But fans, who enjoy serious stakes action every weekend, will pay the price the next two weeks as they did on the one Saturday that wasn’t Super in the past month when there was only a single non-graded stakes.

There is only one stakes apiece on the next two Saturdays. This coming Saturday’s Grade 2 Royal Delta has come up light with only six entrants. Next weekend’s solo stakes, the ungraded Melody of Colors, is a five furlong turf sprint for 3-year-old fillies.

It borders on foolhardy to argue with success and Gulfstream is having a dynamite season. This past Saturday’s Donn Handicap program handled $20 million. So Gulfstream has the figures on its side. But couldn’t we make these Super Saturdays just a little less Super and spread out the stakes throughout the season?

Would Super Saturdays be that much less Super if they had four stakes with an extra one or two reserved for weekends like the next two? Saratoga has Super Saturdays but there are still multi-stakes cards on the other Saturdays.This is Presidents Day weekend coming up, the busiest three-day tourist period of the winter in the Miami area. It cries out for an alluring Saturday card.

To give credit where it’s due, Gulfstream is trying to dress up its holiday card on Monday with 12 starter allowances. Despite a lack of advance fanfare, the dandy dozen drew an astounding 270 nominations, including several horses with stakes credentials.

With this kind of interest and support, let’s hope this isn’t a one-shot deal. A couple or three starter allowances on Saturdays would be way preferable to the bottom level maiden claimers and beaten claimers, which have shown up with far too much frequency.

The scheduling of the Fred W. Hooper this past Saturday is the strongest example of over-scheduling stakes on Super Saturdays. Why stage a race for older horses on the same day as the Donn? The argument that the Hooper is a one-turn mile and the Donn is a two-turn mile and an eighth wouldn’t score points in any debate.

These two races were essentially drawing from the same pool. Indeed, the Hooper winner, Tommy Macho, was coming out of four straight nine-furlong stakes. Runner-up Stanford had raced a mile and an eighth in three of his five most recent starts and a mile and a sixteenth in the other two. The Hooper surely would have bolstered the Royal Delta or Melody of Colors programs.

The Holy Bull card two weeks ago included turf stakes for 3-year-olds of both genders, the Sweetest Chant and Kitten’s Joy. They got lost that day but also would have added luster to the cards the next two weekends.

A little bit less on Super Saturdays could be so much more on Saturdays that are not quite Super.

No Lasix; no problem

Frosted set a track record the other night in Dubai. California Chrome is scheduled to have his World Cup prep at Meydan in a couple of weeks. Mshawish, who took the Donn, will soon be leaving for the Middle East. Keen Ice, who got what his connections wanted from his practice run in the Donn, is ticketed for Dubai, too. Lady Shipman, who ran away with the Ladies Turf Sprint on the Donn undercard, is also heading to Dubai for a $1 million grass sprint. Crack sprinter X Y Jet’s connections are still hoping for an invitation to a rich sprint on the World Cup undercard. Hoppertunity and Donworth are going from the West Coast to Dubai.

These stars all have something in common besides being pointed to the mega-rich World Cup program on March 26. They all race on Lasix in the U.S. but they will race without it in one of the biggest races of their careers next month.

Keep this in mind the next time you hear a horseman argue that Lasix is essential.

A different kind of bad beat

Bad beats come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve been suffering through one with my cable TV for almost a year.

I switched to AT&T U-verse about five years ago because it offered both TVG and HRTV. A couple of years ago, TVG was suddenly dropped. I was annoyed but I assumed this was one of those contract disputes I used to have to cover all the time when I was a TV writer. The one thing I stressed to readers was complaining is futile. Big business does what it wants, the public be damned. (AT&T U-Verse customers in the Miami area have been blacked out of the local Fox affiliate for about a month now.)

HRTV still had most of the major tracks, especially NYRA and the Southern California circuits, so I learned to live with the new normal because of the hassle that comes with switching cable providers.

Then TVG purchased HRTV. My worst fear was racing was about to disappear from my lineup, which has almost 500 channels.This fear didn’t materialize but another disappointment has. Where HRTV used to be, I now get TVG again. But not the main TVG channel with the major tracks. I get TVG2, which is primarily devoted to lesser thoroughbred tracks and a lot of harness racing.

The races from Laurel, Tampa Bay Downs and Oaklawn are fine but not at the expense of being blacked out of Aqueduct, Gulfstream and Santa Anita. When Santa Anita is running on TVG, I get Flamboro Downs on TVG2.

So on behalf of racing fans nationwide, who have AT&T U-verse, I want to make a plea to TVG. As long as you are back on our system, is it too much to ask that you give us the main TVG feed? You would make a lot of friends among racing fans.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, February 04, 2016

Let’s not drape the roses on Mohaymen just yet

Mohaymen looked like one of the ones in the Holy Bull. But let's not lose sight of the fact that there is an undefeated Eclipse champion, Nyquist, on the West Coast. Thanks to a $1 million bonus, the showdown of the undefeated colts could come in April, not May.

MIAMI, Feb. 4, 2016--We interrupt the coronation of Mohaymen as the 13th Triple Crown winner in order to inject some perspective. I was as blown away as everyone else by the grey son of Tapit’s arrogant dismissal of an accomplished group of challengers in Saturday’s Holy Bull. Christopher Kay is probably polishing his Belmont crowd cap press release as you read this.

I would embrace another conquest of America’s most coveted prize as enthusiastically and emotionally as I did American Pharoah’s. (I shed tears and I’m not ashamed to admit it.) I’m rooting for Mohaymen as hard as I did for American Pharoah. Affirmed’s Triple Crown was no less exhilarating even though it came the year after Seattle Slew’s.

However the calendar had not turned into February when Mohaymen flashed under the wire to remain undefeated in his four-race career. It’s still more than three months, an eternity in racing, to the first Saturday in May.

I was equally awestruck when Algorithms—Holy Bull runnerup Greenpointcrusader’s half-brother--buried Juvenile champion Hansel in the 2012 Holy Bull to go three-for-three. Two years earlier, Eskenderya looked any price for the Spring Classics when he ran away with the Fountain of Youth. Between them they would make one more start, Eskenderya’s romp in the Wood Memorial.

I hate to bring up these things but stuff happens in racing. Thankfully, some of it is positive, so let’s accentuate that.

Has everyone forgotten that there is an undefeated Eclipse champion named Nyquist on the West Coast getting ready for his 3-year-old debut in the San Vicente on Feb. 15? Before anyone resurrects my own words to throw in my face, yes I did say in my Eclipse column that while I was voting for Nyquist, if someone gave me a free Derby futures bet, I would place it on Mohaymen. I still feel this way. This doesn't mean I would tear up a ticket on Nyquist.

Being out of sight since Halloween has taken Nyquist out of mind for many. To remedy this I suggest going back and taking another look at the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. (Just Google “Breeders’ Cup Juvenile”.) It’s an eye-opener.

Nyquist was hung out in post 13, got bumped coming out of the gate and wound up about six or seven wide around the first turn. He didn’t get in going down the backstretch so he was four or five wide around the far turn into the stretch. The race might have been a mile and a sixteenth but he ran damn close to a mile and an eighth. Nevertheless, he was able to draw away from everyone but Swipe, who has run second to him four straight times but keeps getting closer.

Swipe looks like the Triple Crown distances were drawn up with him in mind. His 3-year-old debut has been delayed by an ankle chip but he is on the road to recovery and should get going about the same time American Pharoah did last year.

Also in Nyquist’s wake were some nice horses people in the East are still excited about. Brody’s Cause, the Breeders’ Futurity winner, was third. Exaggerator, the Saratoga Special winner, who was second to Brody’s Cause at Keeneland, then won the Delta Jackpot after the Juvenile, is also looking at the San Vicente.

Champagne champion Greenpointcrusader, second to Mohaymen Saturday, checked in 7th behind Nyquist in the Juvenile. Conquest Big E, non competitive in the Holy Bull, was eighth in the Juvenile.
So anybody who dismisses Nyquist at this point does so at their own peril.

Thanks to an extraordinary circumstance, racing fans might not have to wait until Louisville to see the showdown of the two undefeated colts. Doug O’Neill announced some time ago that Nyquist’s Kentucky Derby trail could run through the Florida Derby, the race Mohaymen is also tentatively being pointed toward.

There are a million reasons for this unconventional plotting. Last spring, Fasig-Tipton and Gulfstream Park collaborated on a $1 million bonus available to any horse bought out of the March 2015 Fasig-Tipton sale, who went on to win the Florida Derby. Nyquist was a $400,000 purchase out of that auction. So he would be racing for the winner’s share of the regular $1 million purse plus an extra $1 million if he were to triumph—about $1.6 million, more than the winner’s share of any of the Triple Crown events.

This is a tempting lure to travel cross country to take on Mohaymen without any roses at stake. Then again Kiaran McLaughlin also would have options. He isn’t one to duck any man’s horse under normal circumstances but the final prep before the Derby is not a normal circumstance.

McLaughlin could return to his home base in New York with Mohaymen, where the Wood Memorial on April 9 offers the same $1 million pot as the April 2 Florida Derby without having to take on an Eclipse champion.

Besides, McLaughlin would love to win one of the most tradition rich races on his home circuit. He might opt for this route no matter what O’Neill decides for Nyquist.

This should make for interesting speculation and conversation over the next couple of months, which can only be good for racing.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Seminole casino deal could push decoupling to back burner

The contentious issue of decoupling pari-mutuels and slots and card rooms is on Florida's legislative agenda again this year but it is liable to get pushed aside by a bigger gambling debate, a new casino compact with the Seminole Indians, which promises the state $3 billion over seven years. However, decoupling isn't going away.South Florida's dog tracks have a backdoor strategy to rid themselves of greyhound racing.

MIAMI, Jan. 28-2016--Florida’s thoroughbred industry, which has marshaled its efforts and built cross-breed alliances in a rare show of strength against decoupling, can probably take a breath. Unless years of legislative precedent are abandoned, there is little chance decoupling will be approved during the current legislative session.

But the breath can only be a short one. The issue is sure to keep coming back.

Florida lawmakers traditionally meet in March and April. To get out of the way of the presidential primaries in March, they are convening in January and February in 2016. The prevailing attitude among lawmakers when it comes to pari-mutuel issues always has been, get everyone to agree on a clean bill, bring it to us and we’ll pass it. We are not going to referee intramural squabbles.

There is little chance of a clean bill in the short term because of how decoupling--allowing South Florida pari-mutuels to keep their card rooms and slots operations without staging dog, harness or quarterhorse races or jai alai games—has split the industry. The pari-mutuels other than Gulfstream are all in on decoupling. Since they’ve introduced lucrative slots and card rooms, their former businesses are considered a nuisance and a big money loser, if they can be believed. Creative bookkeeping can produce any outcome you want.

The horse industry has assembled a formidable coalition of Gulfstream, the national and local HBPA, breeders, the American Quarterhorse Association and standard bred organizations in opposition. The Ocala Star Banner has editorialized against decoupling. That’s a cacophony of loud voices the legislature doesn’t want to hear.

This is especially true inasmuch as decoupling is a small line item in a big picture, debate over a new gambling compact with the Seminole Indians, which promises the state $3 billion over the next seven years. Decoupling promises zero dollars.

The compact negotiated by Gov. Rick Scott has not been universally embraced by lawmakers for the usual reasons—religious groups against what they see as an expansion of gambling, DisneyWorld corridor businesses fighting anything with the potential to pull dollars out of their neighborhood and the usual partisan politics.

The debate has the potential to be so rancorous that some are predicting it will be put aside for a special session so that typical legislative business can be tended to during the regular session. With all the wrangling expected, lawmakers are unlikely to want to make another divisive issue a part of the deal this year, even in a special session. So the issue could be tabled until at least 2017.

A lot of hysteria has been generated about decoupling eventually leading to the end of thoroughbred racing in Florida. I don’t believe this, as I wrote in a previous column. Thoroughbred racing means too much to the state in terms of revenue, tourism and maintenance of green spaces.

However, I have come to appreciate the horsemen’s fears. There is universal agreement that as long as Frank Stronach is running Gulfstream Park, there is no chance thoroughbred racing will be pushed aside. However, Stronach is 83 and mortality is a reality for all of us.

Horsemen reasonably ask what happens when Frank is no longer around. Supposedly, there is a succession plan in place but trying to find out what it is elicits the same reaction as asking Donald Trump for a detailed position paper on any issue.

Andy Stronach appears to be the crown prince. However, in the wake of his Sweepstakes 6 brainstorm at Portland Meadows—formless culls racing two furlongs to build huge jackpots—I’m affording a lot more credibility to the doomsday scenario horsemen have created for life after Frank.

Suppose Churchill Downs were to buy Gulfstream to expand its casino footprint in South Florida. What used to be Calder provides all the evidence needed about CDI’s attitude toward racing. Five years ago, people would have scoffed at the notion of the abandonment of racing.

It wouldn’t have to be Churchill. Any number of mega-casino corporations with no regard for racing could bid for Gulfstream for its casino license only.

That said, Gulfstream’s objection to decoupling has little to do with the preservation of racing and a lot to do with the preservation of its casino. Gulfstream is against decoupling out of fear that the other pari-mutuels, especially Mardi Gras Casino (formerly Hollywood Greyhound Track) right up the road, will use the money that now goes to purses to create incentives and perks to lure slots players from Gulfstream’s casino.

If the non-thoroughbred pari-mutuels are relieved of the obligation to stage races and games, it will de facto create six new stand-alone casinos in South Florida to operate against Gulfstream. This is in addition to the fabulously prosperous Seminole Hard Rock Casino. Their advertising and promotion dollars will go 100 percent to touting their casinos while Gulfstream’s marketing budget will be split between racing and its casino. Racing could come out on the short end of that.

It’s revealing that Hollywood Greyhound Track now goes by the name Mardi Gras Casino; Flagler Dog Track is now Magic City Casino; Pompano Park Harness Track is now The Isle Casino and Miami Jai Alai is now Casino Miami.

The South Florida greyhound tracks feel they have a pocket ace. Izzy Havenick, the third generation to run what was Flagler Dog Track, has been quoted as saying if the legislature doesn’t give the greyhound tracks decoupling, they will go at it another way--a referendum to outlaw greyhound racing as cruelty to animals.

Consider the gall of that. Nevertheless, Hecht expressed confidence, probably well founded, that this would easily pass with voters, just as it did in Massachusetts in 2008.

But the dog tracks will be running a gamble that could backfire. I’m sure their thinking is, if dog racing is outlawed, they can go to the legislature and say, “What can we do? Our hands are tied” and plead to be allowed to stay in the casino business. Granted this would be like a child murdering his parents then asking for mercy because he is an orphan. But considering what Florida is allowing Churchill Downs to get away with at Calder, they’re probably right.

But it’s not a sure thing. The other South Florida pari-mutuels and the Seminoles could pour millions into lobbying efforts to rid themselves of a couple of competitors by getting lawmakers to tell the former Flagler and Hollywood dog tracks, “You made this bed….”

What a delicious possibility.

Written by Tom Jicha

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