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, January 12, 2017

Masochistic BC ban should be the model for drug offenses

The Breeders' Cup has introduced a new penalty for drug violations. They are banning Masochistic from competing in next year's events. This is an idea that deserves wider consideration. If owners knew they would not only lost a purse but also the use of their horse, they would not be so tolerant of cheater trainers.

MIAMI, Jan. 12, 2016--The Breeders’ Cup dropped the anticipated hammer on Ron Ellis and Masochistic this week. For an overage of the steroid stanozolol, the purse for Masochistic’s second in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint has been redistributed and Ellis and Masochistic are both banned from competing at the 2017 Breeders’ Cup.

The punishment, in my opinion, doesn’t fit the crime for Ellis. He has a reputation for running a clean shop with hardly any violations in a long and distinguished career. Moreover, the overage in Masochistic’s system was so minuscule--something like a few trillioniths of a gram--it wouldn’t enhance the performance of an ant carrying a crumb across the floor.

By every indication, this was a case of a permitted out-of-training pharmaceutical not clearing a horse’s system in the time it was supposed to clear.

Also, the Santa Anita stewards—why do they always seem to be at the heart of every controversy?--were aware that Masochistic might not pass his post-race drug test. Nevertheless, they allowed Ellis, who was totally transparent about the situation, to enter him.

Being banished from next year’s Breeders’ Cup is a tough blow for Ellis. He is unlikely to be given any top stock with Breeders’ Cup potential and could lose some already in his barn. As I wrote last week, absolute rules with zero tolerance occasionally produce unjust results. This is another of those instances.

On the other hand, it’s almost karmic justice for Masochistic, who was used in my opinion and that of numerous others, in one of the greatest betting coups ever on Derby Day 2014. A non-competitive fifth in a Cal-bred MSW at Santa Anita at 7-1, he came back in an open MSW at Churchill Downs, was bet off the board on the day when more money is wagered than any other and crushed his rivals by 14.

In assessing this unprecedented penalty against Masochistic, the Breeders’ Cup might have created a paradigm for how to deal with medication violations. In addition to fining and/or suspending trainers, a horse found to have run juiced should be barred from the entries for 60 days. My original inclination was to say 30 days but in this era of overly conservative training, 30 days is coming back quickly for a lot of barns.

A second offense should increase the penalty to six months. Any additional violations should rule the horse off for life. It’s unlikely it would ever get to the latter. Owners who look the other way, wink and smile en route to the winner’s circle might have a different attitude toward their trainer if a positive meant they would not only lose the purse but also use of the horse.

Another mockery of the rules

Irad Ortiz has been spending the past week serving a five-day suspension for an infraction last October at Belmont. As is often the case, he used the appeals process to drag out serving his time until now.

How is there any equivalency between a week in frosty January, when few important races are being run, and what used to be called the Belmont fall championship meet, which is endowed with numerous stakes and huge purses?

Ortiz hit the gaming-the-system lottery when a winter storm knocked out racing both weekend days.

To alleviate exploitations of the appeals process, most of which are frivolous attempts to delay justice, appeals should be heard and ruled upon promptly, within a week or less, and the penalty enforced without delay.

Any rider who pursues his case beyond the stewards and loses should be subject to additional significant penalties. There is precedent for this in the legal system. If you get a traffic infraction and take it to court, the penalties are far more severe than if you plead guilty and pay the fine.

What’s an extra half-furlong?

Racing is a game where a quarter of an inch can be the difference between riches and despair. I recall a controversial circumstance from several years ago at old Gulfstream. It was clear the official timer was off by quite a bit race after race. Sharpies, who time the races themselves, provided ample evidence that it was a consistent problem.

Track officials—not the ones running the show now—felt compelled to call a press conference to deal with the subject. The person in charge of the timer hemmed and hawed about how this wasn’t that big a deal. Pressed on the absurdity of this stand, he finally blurted out. “What difference does 3/5ths of a second make?”

A media wise guy came up with the perfect retort. “It’s the difference between Alydar being a Triple Crown champion instead of Affirmed.”

Flash ahead to the present. The Dania Beach Stakes and its filly counterpart, the Ginger Brew, were each supposedly contested at 7 ½ furlongs on the Gulfstream turf course last Saturday. This is how they were listed. In fact they actually were much closer to one-mile races. So we’re talking about substantially more than 3/5ths of a second.

The run-up last Saturday was 296 feet. For non-math majors, this translates to almost 99 yards longer than the listed distance but only 11 yards short of a one-mile race. This is the case, give or take a few yards, with all 7 ½ furlong turf races at Gulfstream. It would be more accurate to list the distance as about one mile than 7 ½ furlongs.

I’ve asked why this is done and the answer is a head-scratcher. Essentially, some trainers don’t think their horses can handle a mile race. This might seen illogical but if the race was in the books at one mile, there also would be a run-up so horses would have to run further than a mile.

This discrepancy is a disservice to handicappers, especially simulcast players not familiar with the layout of Gulfstream and those who use comparative times.

Ironically, Gulfstream might be the only track in America where one-mile races on the main track are truly contested at a mile, because the eight furlong chute is almost flush with the back of the track. This is why, contrary to the norm for racing everywhere, the second quarter is usually run a second or two faster than the opening quarter.

Those who create their own figs as well as the better known commercial figs guys all compile the actual running time of a race from the moment the gate springs to the finish line and make note of the run-up.

To be fair, this is not a problem peculiar to Gulfstream or to grass courses. It’s one of those “this is how it’s done everywhere and how it always has been done.”

But the run-up varies so widely from day to day that it’s long overdue that either the gate be placed at the precise distance from the wire as listed or the Racing Form parenthetically report the run-up for each event, dirt and turf.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, January 05, 2017

Pegasus stuck on 7 but has only 2 who matter

The Pegasus missed out on a couple of attractive starters when the connections of Midnight Storm opted to keep him in California and Gun Runner became locked into the Fair Grounds by an EHV-1 quarantine. But the big two, California Chrome and Arrogate, are still on target for the Jan. 28 super race. The $12 million stakes might be leaving Gulfstream after one year for the greater capacity of Santa Anita, according to a Stronach Group executive.

MIAMI--A glass just a bit over half full is not almost half empty when it's the Pegasus Stakes. Three weeks out the prospective field is stuck at seven of the available dozen stalls in the starting gate.

The connections of Midnight Storm briefly considered the $12 million race after he dominated Sunday's San Pasqual, which was passed by Arrogate. On second thought, Midnight Storm's people opted for discretion over valor. He'll stay home on the West Coast for the rich races for older horses at Santa Anita.

Gun Runner, who finally got his Grade 1 in the Clark, had his participation in the Pegasus put into doubt when an EHV-1 outbreak at the Fair Grounds closed the New Orleans facility's backstretch to horses coming in and out. The quarantine could be lifted in time for Gun Runner to ship to Gulfstream for the Jan. 28 Pegasus but nothing is certain.

For now, this leaves the seven who have been probable all along, including the only two who matter, presumptive Horse of the Year California Chrome and even more certain 3-year-old champion Arrogate.

Some of the others are not without credentials. Woodward winner Shaman Ghost will represent Gulfstream owner and Pegasus creator Frank Stronach. Keen Ice will live forever on being the horse who upset American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers.

War Story, winner of the recent Queens County, is intriguing more for his connections than his achievements. He switched barns this week from Pennsylvania-based Mario Serey Jr., who has had four recent drug positives (all four horses won). War Story joins the barn of Jorge Navarro, who hit at a 30 percent clip last year and is currently second in the Gulfstream standings despite slumping to only 25 percent this season.

Entry level allowance winner Neolithic and Argentine import Eragon appear to be in the Pegasus because their owners had $1 million slots and there is a guaranteed $200,000 consolation prize.

Pegasus to Santa Anita

The Pegasus' run at Gulfstream might not be an extended one, according to Mike Rogers, president of racing for The Stronach Group. A Thoroughbred Daily News report quoted Rogers as saying Santa Anita, also owned by TSG, is under consideration for the 2018 renewal.

The relative capacity of the two tracks is a factor, according to Rogers. Gulfstream, whose main building is dominated by slots facilities on its first two floors, is strained by crowds approaching 20,000. Santa Anita has handled crowds in excess of 70,000.

The greater capacity on the West Coast might also alleviate the need to price the event as exorbitantly as it has been at Gulfstream. A tipoff to resistance to the $100 general admission and $50 parking fee, where otherwise both are free, is an unheralded drop to $20 for parking in recent ads.

Unless there is a corresponding drop in the cost of admission, the Pegasus might attract a lesser crowd than a normal Saturday and about half a typical Florida Derby Day. This would be too bad for an event of this magnitude.

Jerome gets points, MMM doesn't

Absolute rules can produce absolutely unfair results. The two-turn Jerome on Monday at Aqueduct was worth 10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to El Areeb, who romped over a suspect field by more than 11 lengths.

In addition to putting the winner on the Derby trail, the result casts some doubt on the magnitude of Mo Town's victory in the Remsen. The late-season juvenile stakes has produced a succession of highly touted winners, including Mohaymen last year, who have been busts in the spring classics.

Mo Town can't be faulted for who he beat but Takaful, who pushed him in the Remsen, had nothing in the Jerome. He spit it out three furlongs from the wire.

Meanwhile this Saturday's Mucho Macho Man at Gulfstream, which generally attracts a more promising group of Derby hopefuls, is endowed with zero Derby points because it is a one-turn mile and one-turn races are not eligible for qualifying points.

This might as well be called the anti-Gulfstream rule, since the South Florida track is the only winter venue that offers one-turn miles.

New year, old issue

The debate over decoupling will be a major topic of conversation in Florida the first third of the year. (The Florida legislature meets in March and April.)

Dog tracks and jai alai frontons continue to push hard for permission to maintain poker and slots without pari-mutuels. Some form of decoupling seems inevitable. It's mandatory that horsemen and their representatives keep a close eye on any forthcoming legislation.

A plan almost got through last year, which would have excluded Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs from decoupling and paid horsemen and the two tracks millions in subsidies for operations and purses. This is a good starting point but there must be a perpetuity provision for the two thoroughbred tracks, so Gulfstream and/or Tampa can't go back to the legislature in a few years asking for equal treatment with the former dog tracks and jai alai frontons.

Beware Genting

Gulfstream horsemen also need to keep a wary eye on Genting's new association with the South Florida track's casino. This is the same outfit that is royally screwing horsemen at Aqueduct by moving the most lucrative slots off the books from which horsemen benefit and putting them on the Nassau County OTB account.

There is a connection to decoupling. Genting has proven itself to have no affection for horse racing. It's not hard to imagine Genting advising Gulfstream to renovate the building to open more slots space at the expense of the already limited space for racing fans. An opening created by decoupling would only increase the likelihood of this occurring, not immediately but eventually.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Masochistic DQ another shameful disregard for players

Masochistic, who should be a charter member of Racing's Hall of Infamy, is expected to be disqualified on Friday from his second-place finish in the BC Sprint for a steroid overage. The owners, trainers and jockeys of horses who finished behind him will benefit from increased purses. Bettors who would have had the new official exactas, tri's, etc., will, as usual, get nothing. But this situation is different from the norm. The stewards had a reasonable expectation that he would test positive yet they allowed him to run.

MIAMI, Dec 29--The year ended in keeping with the way it played out. Bettors were played for fools again. I was going to say one last time but there are still a few days left in 2016.

Not surprisingly, it happened in California, ground zero for bettors being screwed.

Masochistic is expected to be disqualified on Friday from second in the Breeders' Cup Sprint for a steroid overage. The owners of Mind Your Biscuits, third under the wire, will inherit the difference between the show purse and the place. The other minor place finishers also will experience a windfall. Ditto the jockeys and trainers involved.

But bettors who had the Defrong-Mind Your Biscuits exacta will get bupkis. The same goes for those who wagered on what will be the new official tri and super.

These situations, when discovery occurs well after the fact, happen every now and then. Because of the time lapse, it would be unwieldy--but no longer impossible with computer betting and the like--to make bettors as whole as the owners, trainers and jockeys.

This time is different. Masochistic's DQ could be seen coming. The horse, who coincidentally (or not) was involved in the apparent betting coup of the millennium on Derby Day 2014, tested positive three times for the steroid stanazolol in the days leading up to the Breeders' Cup.

Masochistic's trainer, Ron Ellis, knew a post-race positive was possible, if not likely. The Santa Anita stewards knew. It's debatable whether Breeders' Cup knew beforehand because of medication confidentiality rules, though there might have been some winking and nodding involved. Yet Masochistic was allowed to run.

Samantha Siegel, one of Masochistic's owners, was quoted as saying, "I was shocked that we weren't automatically scratched."

The stanazolol overage was so slight as to be laughable, in the trillioniths of a gram. But a positive is a positive and there is zero tolerance for steroids on race days. (There should be zero tolerance at all times. Allowing out of competition use is like letting baseball and football players juice up during their offseasons.)

Nevertheless, the stewards allowed Masochistic--by their definition a drugged horse--to race against rivals who were found to be clean. The only ones who didn't know this were the bettors.

The potential impact extends beyond the final order of finish. Masochistic, who according to the rules had an illegal advantage, pushed Drefong through torrid fractions. Only Drefong's superiority allowed him to gut it out to the wire. But this exertion could have caused Drefong to be caught late by the surging Mind Your Biscuits. Absent Masochistic, Drefong is on an easy lead and probably coasts home.

Only seven horses started in the Sprint. If Masochistic had been scratched, the field would have been one of the shortest in BC history, meaning dramatically fewer combinations in horizontal and vertical pools. Could this have been the Santa Anita stewards protecting the track (in this case, the Breeders' Cup) handle, as they did with the Jimmy Durante Handicap when flying debris at Del Mar should have resulted in the stakes being ruled "no contest"?

Given the litany of fan-screwing outrages in California, it's difficult to give the stewards the benefit of the doubt.

A promising start to 2017

It appears the new year will get off to a more positive start. Also on Friday, Ramon Preciado is expected to lose his license for multiple drug offenses. Anyone buying his tale of a disgruntled female groom hopping his horses because she hated him?

Preciado will join another serial offender, Kirk Ziadie, on the sidelines, although a lot of people around Gulfstream remain convinced he is still a factor in horses running under his father's name, Ralph Ziadie. At least Gulfstream is trying to clean up the game.

Along these lines, Marcus Vitali and his alleged beard, Allan Hunter, also have been told they are not welcome at Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs.

Yet, unbelievably, Vitali has been nominated to serve as a director of the Florida HBPA. This is like nominating Bernie Madoff for a seat on the Security and Exchange Commission.

For those with short memories, Vitali tried to avoid punishment for numerous drug violations in Florida by turning in his license and relocating his stable to Maryland. When Tim Ritvo realized what was going on, he banned Vitali from entering his horses at Laurel.

Meanwhile, evidence emerged that Vitali was using Hunter as a program trainer at Gulfstream for horses he formerly trained.

If the FHBPA doesn't have a rule that someone in Vitali's circumstances is ineligible to hold office, it should. ASAP.

Driving finishes

Before I close the page on 2016 there are a few other things I'd like to get off my chest:

The Pegasus is the most talked about event to come to racing in years. However, it's introduction comes at the expense of the Donn Handicap, which had been the most significant race for older horses of the winter. Gulfstream owes its existence to the Donn family, so it would be a nice gesture to recognize this by rechristening another major race with the Donn name. The Gulfstream Park Handicap is the obvious candidate.

Del Mar's out-of-state wagering for the fall meet was up more than 15%. I'm claiming a major contributing factor was the 12:30 first post. The 2 p.m. opener (5 p.m. in the East) during the summer session loses an untold number of East Coast bettors, who opt for dinner at a normal hour. Santa Anita has 12:30 and 1 p.m. posts so an earlier start at Del Mar would also provide bettors with consistency.

The Eclipse Awards came up with a winning parlay in selecting Steve Crist and Andy Beyer for Awards of Merit. They have long been an entry. They were in the vanguard of turf writers who brought real journalism in place of puff pieces to the sport. As publisher of The Racing Times, Crist introduced previously unavailable information to bettors, most noticeably the Beyer figures. The Racing Times didn't last but Crist's innovations have.

Written by Tom Jicha

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