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, May 11, 2017

Always Dreaming makes it 6 straight, 8 of 10, for unbeaten 3YOs

This year's Kentucky Derby was billed as wide open. But all it took to come up with Always Dreaming was to fall back on what is become a dependable trend. Bet the horses who are unbeaten as 3YOs. There were only 3, including Always Dreaming, in this year's race and there were reasons to put a line through the other two. Over the past decade, this system is an 80% proposition. There's another high percentage handicapping tool in the Preakness.

When does a small sample become a recognized trend?

Always Dreaming became the sixth straight Kentucky Derby winner to reach the finish line undefeated as a 3YO. (If you want the names and exact numbers, they are in my previous column, just below this one.)

Excuse Animal Kingdom’s second-place finish in a turf race at Gulfstream and the list grows to seven, who went into and came out of the Derby perfect as a sophomore. Big Brown’s romp in 2008 makes it eight in 10 years. Anyone know of other 80 percent systems in racing?

It wasn’t as if you had to spread wide to come up with Always Dreaming. There were only three horses who met the undefeated standard and two could have had asterisks. Fast and Accurate was two-for-two in 2017 but one was on turf and the other was on Polytrack. Thunder Snow--who I will spend a long time living down--won a pair of races in Dubai.

The last Derby winner who had tasted defeat at a 3-year-old is Super Saver, Todd Pletcher’s only other winner. Coincidentally, both of Pletcher’s wins have come on off tracks.

Not to take anything away from Always Dreaming, who had as perfect a trip as you could hope for in a 20-horse field, but so many horses with gilded credentials misfiring has to be attributed in some way to lack of experience on off surfaces. Some handle it, others don’t. Lack of familiarity has to be at least a small factor.

I’ll never understand why trainers do everything they can to cover every other possible contingency in prepping for the Classics but change workout schedules and scratch from prep races to avoid anything but a fast surface.

Toss non-Derby horses

The prospective field for the Preakness stands at about 10. As I said, Always Dreaming had a near perfect trip but his combination of tactical speed and stamina untapped to this point makes him a tough beat. He worked out the same trip in the Florida Derby. Christopher Kay must be preparing his “the Belmont crowd will be capped at 90,000” press release already.

Before you even open the Racing Form, more than half Always Dreaming's challengers can be tossed because they didn’t start in the Kentucky Derby. Only three horses in this millennium have won the second jewel of the Triple Crown without competing in the Derby.

One was Rachel Alexandra, who won the Kentucky Oaks the day before the 2009 Derby. Rachel was a filly for the ages, arguably the best horse of her generation of either gender. Bernadini won the 2006 Preakness, which is infamous for undefeated Barbaro breaking down a few steps out of the gate. The other was Red Bullet in 2000.

You have to go back to 1983 and Deputed Testamony for another non-Derby starter winning the Preakness. That’s four in 34 years—two under extraordinary circumstances. This is not a trend savvy players want to buck.

Wood, Blue Grass fire blanks

The Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes weren’t helped in their quest to retain Grade 1 status.

The Wood’s shortcomings were further exacerbated. Irish War Cry was the only one of the eight starters who even bothered to make the trek to Louisville and he ran 10th. If you’re looking for a straw to grasp, at least he beat Blue Grass winner Irap, who checked in 18th.

Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown, trainers of Wood runner-up Battalion Road and show horse Cloud Computing, respectively, decided their horses weren’t up to America’s race. I believe subsequent races will show these to be astute decisions. They might win some stakes but unless the attrition rate is worse than usual, I doubt a Grade 1 will be among them.

The Blue Grass, which seemed like the most loaded of the final preps, sent five starters, including its first four, to Churchill Downs. The best it got was Practical Joke’s fifth-place finish. Practical Joke is already a dual Grade 1 winner as a juvenile and some of the other also-rans, most notably, McCraken and Tapwrit, might fare well in big races later this year. But unless some of them bag Grade 1 stakes in 2017, the Blue Grass need not apply to regain Grade 1 status.

A very live corpse

It’s time for those closest to racing—myself included—to stop wringing their hands about the alleged many things allegedly killing the sport--drugs, breakdowns, abuse of whips, etc. America has repeatedly indicated it really doesn't care, at least not a lot. This is not to say these problems shouldn't be addressed. They just should not be obsessed over.

The Kentucky Derby TV ratings were the strongest since 1989. NBC’s average audience was 16.5 million with 19.1 million tuned in for the actual race, according to fast Nielsens. This was the biggest Saturday audience for any program of any kind since an NFL playoff game—the gold standard—in January. It was also the most watched program of any kind last week by a blowout. The two prime-time leaders, "NCIS" and "The Big Bang Theory," pulled in 12.89 million and 12;38 million, respectively.

As someone who covered TV full time for more than 30 years I can say without equivocation there is not a single series, special program (Oscars, etc.) or sport, including the NFL, whose ratings are as strong now as they were 15 years ago, let alone almost 30.

“American Idol,’ which is coming back next season, was referred to by rival networks as “the death star” because of the extent to which it crushed all competition during its heyday. At its peak, more than 30 million Americans watched. When it left the air at the end of last season, the audience had dwindled to about 10 million. Meanwhile, the year “American Idol” debuted, 2002, the Derby attracted just under 13 million viewers, almost four million fewer than this year.

Fans bet more than $200 million on a single card Saturday for the first time in history, despite the dismal weather and sloppy track.

This comes on the heels of all kinds of terrific news from around the nation. Gulfstream had another record-breaking winter season. Oaklawn was up 5 percent, which allowed purses to soar to more than $500,000 a day. Maryland, a dead racing state walking only a few years ago, saw its average handle soar 22% during its winter meeting.

The only major jurisdiction with a sad story is Southern California and this can be attributed to inept management and horsemen who repeatedly demonstrate they view fans as suckers to be fleeced.

All of this comes in an era of ever increasing competition from casinos, state lotteries, fantasy sports games and widespread availability of playing poker and betting sports online, illegal though much of it is.

The message is a lot of Americans really enjoy and embrace racing when the show is good. Those who participate in and cover the sport should keep this in mind when they fret about all that’s wrong with this “dying” sport.

Miami, May 11, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (18)


Thursday, May 04, 2017

In a wide-open Derby, 20-1 (or better) on Thunder Snow looks really attractive

The Kentucky Derby has had an obvious big horse the past few years and all have come through. This year's Run for the Roses is the most wide open in memory so why not take a big price on UAE Derby champion Thunder Snow, who has established distance ability and a proven will to win? He also is one of three Derby entrants who fit the recent pattern of coming into the Derby undefeated as a 3-year-old.

The Derby has been too easy the past few years. Nyquist was unbeaten and coming off a big Florida Derby win last year. American Pharoah was a once-in-a-generation horse. California Chrome looked like a standout and was. Orb was a little tougher to zero in on but the fact that I had seen him win three times at Gulfstream and was convinced his late-running style was perfect for Churchill Downs put me on him.

There is no such horse this year.

No matter what kind of race I handicap, my first step is the process of elimination, drawing a line through those I feel aren’t good enough to get the money. It’s a maddening chore this year. Two-thirds of the field could win without triggering wonder about how it happened. But the process has to start somewhere.

(For these purposes, I’m basically a win better, whether it’s a straight wager or part of Daily Double, Pick 3 or Pick 4. Improbable horses have a way of sneaking into the vertical gimmicks but my sole concern with the Derby is the horse who wears the roses.)

I’m tossing late qualifiers Untrapped, Lookin at Lee and Sonneter. Until someone shows me otherwise, I’m saying no horse, who needed another to scratch to get into the race, has ever won the Derby.

I’ll have none of Patch, Battle of Midway, State of Honor, Irap and Fast and Accurate, either, even though the latter fulfills the most dependable Derby system of recent years. The Spiral winner is undefeated in his 3-year-old season, albeit neither of his two wins came on conventional dirt.

Nyquist and American Pharoah were two-for-two. California Chrome and Orb each won all three starts before Louisville. I’ll Have Another was perfect in a pair of preps. The last Derby winner to suffer defeat going into the race as a sophomore was Animal Kingdom in 2011. But this came with an asterisk, since his lone blemish was a second in a grass race. (Girvin could qualify for the same exemption, since he was second in a minor grass stakes but has won both dirt starts in 2017.)

The only other Derby horses who have not lost in 2017 are Always Dreaming and Thunder Snow, my top two selections for this and other reasons. More about them in a bit.

With some reluctance, I’m also cutting Hence, who looks better after horses he beat at Sunland won the Blue Grass and ran second in the Arkansas Derby; J Boys Echo, who beat nothing in the Gotham, his strongest credential; Gormley, who won an atypically slow Santa Anita Derby; Girvin, who I didn’t like before the foot problems and twice delayed work; Practical Joke, who I can see in the leading group turning for him but not at the wire; and the one who really hurts, Tapwrit. He was one of my prime Derby horses much of the winter but after the Blue Grass I have to conclude he beat little in the Tampa Bay Derby after being unable to handle McCraken in the Sam F. Davis.

It gets tougher with the final half-dozen, each of whom I hope to be able to squeeze onto at least a Pick 3 ticket. Classic Empire looks back in championship form but you never know if he might melt down as he did prior to the Holy Bull. Always Dreaming’s Florida Derby was as good as it gets. He's my second choice. No one has a better late kick than Gunnevera. McCraken has to be forgiven his third in the Blue Grass but Ian Wilkes was Carl Nafzger’s right-hand man when Street Sense bounced out of a runner-up showing in the Keeneland race into the Churchill Downs’ winner’s circle.

I almost chucked Irish War Cry because of the Wood Memorial’s dismal record in Louisville and the conviction his big fig is at least partly a product of the NY bias I feel is baked into the Beyers. But his Holy Bull might have been the most impressive race in North America this Derby season.

The continental qualifier is one you don’t often see but it brings me to the horse who will have the bulk of my money on Saturday, Thunder Snow. The five other horses I narrowed the race down to will all likely be single-digit betting propositions. So I’m going with the one who will be double or triple that? I’ll take Mike Battaglia’s 20-1 morning line right now, although the No. 2 post does give me some pause. Only lethal No. 1 is worse.

The Derby points system is working just fine but there should be one more tweak. Connections should get to pick their posts according to their standings in the qualifying points. This would alleviate a major contender being eliminated at the draw by pulling No. 1. That post should go to a horse at the bottom of the points barrel.

Thunder Snow’s race in the UAE Derby was extraordinary. At about a mile and three-sixteenths, it is longer than any of the U.S. Derby preps, a not insignificant factor with so many others having questions about their 10-furlong stamina.

Considering the trip Thunder Snow had, four wide early and three wide around the final turn, he might have run close to a mile and a quarter. Yet he was the strong horse after a stretch-long war against gutty Japanese star Epicharis, who was undefeated in four starts and is coming for the Belmont. Not to be overlooked is the stretch run at Meydan is even longer than the one at Churchill Downs and Thunder Snow was in a dogfight with Epicharis for every inch.

There were 16 starters in the UAE Derby and Thunder Snow had to fight for position early, so the unwieldy Derby field will be nothing new. Veteran jockey Christophe Soumillon will give away experience at Churchill Downs but he will have the advantage of having ridden countless big races with huge fields in Europe. If you're not familiar with the Belgian-born rider, he's up there with Europe's best. You lose nothing with him in the saddle.

Thunder Snow is already a Group 1 winner on grass and could have stayed in Europe for the 3-year-old classics there. But the Kentucky Derby is one of the few unchecked boxes for Godolphin. Thunder Snow is by far the strongest candidate they have brought to the U.S.

Most important, as I said, the price will be right.

Not so fast…

What looked like a sure thing a week ago has become a dead piece.

The Florida legislature is scheduled to adjourn without passing a gambling bill, which seemed headed for certain passage. The key component for pari-mutuels would have allowed greyhound, quarterhorse and harness tracks as well as jai alai frontons to eliminate their races and games while maintaining card rooms and slots.

There were no hang-ups over this issue in the conference committee. The bill-killer was the Senate’s insistence that pari-mutuel venues in eight upstate counties, where voters had approved it, could add slots to their gambling menus. Currently outside Miami-Dade and Broward (Fort Lauderdale) only Indian casinos are allowed to have slots. The House balked at the expansion of gambling.

This puts decoupling into what could be an extended limbo, since 2018 is an election year. Expanded gambling is a volatile issue outside South Florida. Religious groups, deep-pocketed Disney and its satellite theme parks use hefty campaign contributions and faux grass roots activism against pro-gambling lawmakers.

Ergo, there will be at least one more year of Gulfstream West as well as quarterhorse racing at Hialeah.

This is disappointing but I’m not going to let it ruin my Derby weekend.

Miami, May 4,2017

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (9)


Thursday, April 27, 2017

Decoupling almost a done deal in Florida

The Florida legislature has worked out a compromise that would allow Calder Race Course (now Gulfstream West), Hialeah Park's quarterhorse operation, area greyhound tracks, jai alai frontons and Isle of Capri's harness racing to cease their pari-mutuels while maintaining their limited casinos and card rooms. If and when this bill is finalized and all the components realized, Gulfstream Park will be the only pari-mutuel operation in South Florida.

Gulfstream Park is only some legislative fine tuning away from becoming the only pari-mutuel facility in the Miami area.

The Florida House and Senate have worked out the major details of a compromise on gambling in the state. The headline is, Hialeah Park; the skeleton that remains of Calder Race Course; the Magic City Casino (nee Flagler Dog Track); Mardi Gras Casino (nee Hollywood Greyhound Track); Isle of Capri Casino (nee Pompano Park harness track) and jai alai frontons in Miami and Dania get the decoupling they have been pursuing. They can cease pari-mutuels while retaining their casino and card rooms.

There is one surmountable obstacle. They have to get approval in a county-wide referendum to eliminate pari-mutuels. Since the final wording of the bill was not settled as this was written, it is not clear whether they could go the voters as a group or would have to do it individually. The legislature might as well make it as easy as possible since there is no known organized opposition. Horsemen's groups have spoken against decoupling but if they had any clout, these bills would never have gotten this far.

The referendum provision could prove crucial down the road, should Gulfstream ever decide it wants to go the casinos-only route. An attempt to end tourist-magnet thoroughbred racing would likely ignite substantial opposition.

This is a moot point for the foreseeable future, since the Stronach Group, which owns the track is thoroughbred racing oriented. Patriarch Frank Stronach owns an Eclipse Award-winning breeding farm, Adena Springs, in addition to Gulfstream; Laurel Park; Pimlico, home of the Preakness; Santa Anita and Golden Gate.

He remains active in the operation of the track and is outspoken on racing issues. On Wednesday, he endorsed the bipartisan Barr-Tomko Act in Congress, which would create uniform medication standards in all racing states and put the USDA in charge of testing for illegal pharmaceuticals. Stronach is on record many times as opposing all race-day medications. Even with the weight of such an influential figure behind it, this praise-worthy campaign remains an uphill climb because of the opposition of horsemen.

Stronach is 84 but he has created a line of succession for TSG, which seemingly will keep racing in the family for decades to come. His daughter Belinda, 50, holds the title President of The Stronach Group. She called almost all the shots for the first Pegasus Stakes, which had a $12 million purse last winter, a world record that will increase to $16 million next January. Her brother Andrew also is active in racing.

The absence of pari-mutuel competition in South Florida doesn’t necessarily have to be the boon to Gulfstream it might seem. Freed from the obligation to maintain expensive tracks and housing for its dogs and horses, the tracks and frontons could pour tens of millions into sprucing up and expanding their casinos and offer consumer enticements Gulfstream, which has a casino of its own, would be hard put to match.

Another provision of the bill would allow one new free-standing casino in Miami-Dade. Leading contenders for that license seem to be The Genting Group, which bought the Biscayne Bay waterfront site that used to be the home of the Miami Herald, and the Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach. Each has spoken of elaborate facilities to rival the top end casino hotels in Las Vegas. Every new casino in South Florida moves it closer to Las Vegas South. There is only so much disposable income among the public. Every dollar spent in a casino is a dollar that will not find its way to the track. There has never been a successful race track in Las Vegas in spite of several attempts.

We’ll have more on this in the coming weeks as the final wording of the gambling compromise is worked out and the pieces start to fall into place.

Santa Anita irony challenged

Add a sense of irony to the many deficiencies in California racing. Less than 48 hours after announcing that the Thursday racing program had been canceled due to lack of entries, Santa Anita issued an email/press release with the headline, “Daring Daschunds race for glory this weekend.”

Before getting into the body of the release, there was a headline in bold red type, “Note: No racing Thursday, April 25. Racing returns Friday, April 26.”

Included was a picture of wiener dogs frolicking on the Santa Anita turf course…the same course where there would be no horses on Thursday and goodness knows how many more Thursdays.
Does anybody in the Santa Anita front office think before sending out a release so open to ridicule?

The situation is not funny if you value California racing. Santa Anita had already cut back to a four-day race week. Now it’s a three-day week. Next week and beyond, who knows?

Is it any surprise that California racing has hit this low ebb after abominations such as the Pick 6 Jackpot ripoff; threats to turn off access to one of the nation’s largest ADW sites in a territorial hissing war; myriad stewards’ decisions that defy consistency and logic; cave-ins to activists like PETA, who will never be satisfied until horse racing is abolished; admission prices that top the industry and the most exorbitant exacta takeouts of any major circuit? I’m sure I left plenty out.

In any other business, heads at the top would roll. What is Frank Stronach waiting for?

If that isn’t enough bad news

In the midst of these major events a smaller one likely to go largely unnoticed also speaks to the sorry state of California racing. The only satellite horse racing betting facility north of Sacramento closed its doors on Tuesday.

A spokesperson for the Shasta District Fairgrounds in Anderson said the facility suffered a $6,000 loss last year. To be fair, it was never a big money-maker. On good years, it would turn a $10,000 profit, according to the spokesperson.

However, the downturn from the black into the red can be interpreted in only one way: a declining interest in horse racing in the nation’s most populous state. This might not go unnoticed in the legislature, which meets in Sacramento.

When four- and five-horse fields are commonplace—when even that many can be assembled--and customers are treated like pigeons on track and off, this is the inevitable result.

Hall of Fame needs patience

What do the major sports-NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL--have in common that thoroughbred racing doesn’t?

None have Hall of Famers still competing. You don’t qualify for the highest honor in the team sports until you are out of it for a specified number of years.

Racing doesn’t subscribe to this qualifier. Horses have to be retired for five years before they are eligible for induction into the shine in Saratoga but trainers are eligible 25 years after taking out their license and riders have to be licensed for 20 years.

Fortunately, there have been no major scandals involving the game’s most honored but why take the chance? Most riders hang up their saddles by their mid-50s. They can afford to wait. Maybe their eligibility could come two or three years after they call it quits, leaving time to relish the honor.

Trainers are a little more complicated. Some ply their trades into their 80s and beyond. Ron McAnally is 84, D. Wayne Lukas is 81 and Jack Van Berg is 80. Others Hall of Famers, such as Jonathan Sheppard and Roger Attfield, are approaching their octogenarian years.

Perhaps the waiting period for trainers could be cut to one year after they announce their retirement. But they should have to wait until they declare their career over.

The catalyst for this commentary is the election of still active riders Javier Castellano and Victor Espinoza as well as the late Garrett Gomez. All have credentials worthy of Hall of Fame status but Castellano and Espinoza could continue riding for many years, as Mike Smith, John Velazquez, Kent Desormeaux, Gary Stevens, Edgar Prado and Calvin Borel have.

Hall of Famers should be remembered fondly for their many achievements, not be subject to vilification for their latest failure.

Miami, April 27

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (12)


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