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, March 23, 2017

Too early to put down this year’s Derby generation

One of many rites of spring is a premature disparaging of the latest Kentucky Derby crop.This year is no exception. I would argue we should hold off a while until we see how long McCraken and Malagacy can maintain their unbeaten records; whether Tapwrit's Tampa Bay Derby is a precursor of brilliant things to come; and if multiple stakes winner Gunnevera might be superior to all of them. Also, Arrogate's presence in the Dubai World Cup is this weekend's big event but there are three or four horses in the supporting UAE Derby who could become serious players in the Triple Crown races.

The disparaging of the current 3-year-old crop, an annual springtime event as predictable as the swallows returning to Capistrano, has begun. At least one column in a major racing publication this week put down 2017’s sophomores as an unimpressive bunch.

I have a one-word rebuttal, which coincidentally fits with this weekend’s biggest event: Arrogate.

At this point last year, Nyquist, Exaggerator and Creator, none of whom are likely to have a plaque in the Hall of Fame, were on the verge of divvying up the Triple Crown races. No one outside Bob Baffert’s barn had ever heard of Arrogate, a 3-year-old who would go on to establish himself as at least a Hall of Famer and possibly a horse Hollywood will make movies about. He didn’t make his first start until mid-April and didn’t break maiden until June.

Saturday Arrogate will strive to solidify his status as Horse of the World in the Dubai World Cup. If he doesn’t win, it will be the biggest upset since Keen Ice—who is in the field--ran down Triple Crown champion American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers.

Even absent a late emergence of a standout, it’s still way premature to put down this year’s Derby generation.

What has McCraken done wrong? The horse he beat in the Sam F. Davis to keep his resume unblemished, Tapwrit, rebounded with a Tampa Bay Down performance that offered indications he might be pretty special, too. Gunnevera has stakes wins at fabled Saratoga, the bull ring at Delta Downs and the capital of winter racing, Gulfstream Park. What’s not impressive about this?

Who’s to say any of these or undefeated Rebel winner Malagacy—breeding questions aside, no one has been close to him at the finish of his three races--is incapable of becoming the next American Pharoah. Malagacy, who didn’t make his debut until Jan. 4, also is this year’s candidate to crack the 135-year jinx of Apollo.

Although the circumstances between Mastery and Arrogate are unfortunately different, Mastery could be back by late summer for Bob Baffert, the same time of year Arrogate began knocking people’s socks off.

So let’s not be premature in putting down a crop of 3-year-olds that could yet produce a horse we’ll talk about for years.

World Cup a race mostly to watch

Getting back to Dubai, Arrogate has made the World Cup more of a watching race than a betting race. A case could be made that Gun Runner is an improved colt over the one who finished a zip code behind Arrogate in the Travers. He won the Grade 1 Clark in the fall and the Razorback in his Dubai prep.

His connections must think he’s a much better horse. They were willing to take on Arrogate in the Pegasus until the Fair Grounds quarantine kicked in and now are chasing him halfway around the world. But Gun Runner will probably be an underlay with American bettors as the most logical alternative to Arrogate. An Arrogate-Gun Runner exacta is probably a single-digit proposition.

A potentially more rewarding option in vertical gimmicks is Mubtaahij. He was second in a three-horse photo in the Woodward last summer and is the horse for course at Meydan. He broke his maiden there as a juvenile; won three-of-four, including the UAE Derby, as a 3-year-old; was second to California Chrome last year and was second in this season’s final World Cup prep. Unfortunately, he has drawn the outside post 14 but Meydan’s stretch goes on forever so there is time to overcome any early issues and the challenging post might enhance his odds.

The Gold Cup isn’t the only race of interest for American players. Logic dictates U.S.-based horses are the ones to beat in the dirt races while the overseas contingent are just as dominant in the turf stakes. There’s no reason to believe this won’t hold Saturday.

Off his eye-catching Gulfstream Park Handicap romp, Sharp Azteca stands out almost as much in the Godolphin Mile as Arrogate does in the World Cup. The cherry atop the sundae is trainer Jorge Navarro is on another of his incredible runs, winning with seven of his last nine starters at Gulfstream. Does magic travel across the globe?

Another American magic man, Peter Miller, will attempt to upset Mind Your Biscuits, placed second in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, with St. Joe Bay, on a three-race roll at Santa Anita. This appears to be a trainers’ mismatch. Mind Your Biscuits is conditioned by Chad Stewart, who became a trainer only last month.

To return to the Derby run-up, the UAE Derby could produce as many as three starters in Louisville. Epicharis is already qualified as the top point-earner in Japanese races designated as Derby qualifiers. Adirato, who ran a close second in the final Japanese qualifier, could punch his ticket to Louisville with a win or place, since the UAE Derby is a 100-40-20-10 race, which is outrageous. It’s totally unfair that this race is put on a par with the final Derby preps in Florida, California, New York and Kentucky.

Todd Pletcher, who already has Tapwrit and Malagacy with sufficient Derby points and two or three others in position to use the final preps to earn their way in, could sneak in through the back door with another, Master Plan, who will be one of the favorites in the Dubai race. He was a fast closing second to Tapwrit in the Pulpit after an eventful trip then rebounded to take the Ocala Breeders Stakes, albeit on a synthetic track.

A Euro, Thunder Snow, might be good enough to steal the show here and make his presence felt in Kentucky. A Grade 1 winner in England as a juvenile, he kicked off his 3-year-old campaign by running away in the UAE 2,000 Guineas on Meydan’s dirt oval. His connections must be impressed. They put up the $6,000 late nomination fee for the Triple Crown this week.

The UAE Derby at almost a mile and three-sixteenths, longer than any of the U.S. preps, isn’t known for producing serious Derby contenders but this year’s renewal might. This is one more reason not to downgrade the 2017 Derby crop.

Good news, bad news

It’s gratifying to see that Marcus Vitali, barred from entering horses in Maryland and Florida for multiple drug violations and creative attempts to avoid the consequences, finished 11th of 11 in the recent Florida HBPA Board of Directors elections.

Not so pleasing is the fact that Vitali garnered 135 votes. The unavoidable conclusion is, there are at least this many FHBPA members who feel Vitali’s shenanigans are no big deal.

Add this to the national HBPA establishing a legal defense fund for serial cheaters such as Murray Rojas and anyone who thinks there is serious sentiment among many horse people to clean up the game is living in a fool’s paradise.

Good beat? Bad beat

You’ve probably all heard the joke that the definition of mixed emotions is seeing your mother-in-law barreling over a cliff in your new Cadillac.

I had a racetrack experience like that last Saturday at Gulfstream. I wasn’t crazy about the sixth and seventh races, so, just for action, I decided to make a $2 daily double part wheel, three horses in the sixth with two in the seventh. Alas, I hit the $5 key on the SAM machine, so the $12 bet I intended to make came out $30 (I had enough funds on my voucher).

I’ll make a $30 bet on something I like but, as I said, this was just for action. So I did something I was lectured not to do in my earliest days at the track. I went to the window and canceled the ticket; not completely. I made the $12 bet I intended.

You probably know where this is going. One of my horses in the sixth, Madame Uno, got up in the final strides to pay $54.80. I was sitting on doubles with the two big favorites in the seventh worth $193 and $279 for a deuce. If I had kept the original tickets they would have had will pays of approximately another $300 and $450.

The shorter of the two, odds-on Legacy Azteca, grabbed the lead out of the gate and had three at the top of the stretch. He still had a couple of lengths in mid-stretch and seemed to be going easily. But out of the pack came a flying 9-1 shot named Crocodile Charlie.

The next 10 seconds brought the slow death every horseplayer has experienced as a fading leader reaches for the wire that seems to be coming faster to the closer. Meanwhile, I’m thinking more about the $300 I might have blown than the $200 I could be collecting on a bet I didn’t really like all that much.

It all became moot as Crocodile Charlie blew past Legacy Azteca in the final strides.

So this was a bad beat that in one perverted way wasn’t such a bad beat. Or was I just being punished for greed?

Miami, March 23, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (17)


Thursday, March 16, 2017

The road to Louisville goes through Tampa

Tampa Bay Downs has been evolving rapidly from Florida's other winter track into a circuit that has to be taken seriously at the highest level. It has produced a couple of Derby winners in the past decade and chances are good that the two betting favorites in this year's Derby will have come from the Sam F. Davis and Tampa Bay Derby.

In other Derby doings, Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown have the opportunity to inject some much needed star power into this year's downgraded Wood Memorial at their home citcuit.

I’ve got my Final Four.

No, not that one. But if you’re interested, my bracket has Villanova (winning) with Arizona, North Carolina and Kansas.

In the Final Four more germane to this site, I have become convinced there are only four horses with what it takes to win the Kentucky Derby—McCraken, Tapwrit, Gunnevera and Classic Empire. I can‘t see anyone else unless American Anthem freaks in Saturday’s Rebel. (It’s amazing the political correctness tyrants haven’t done a Washington Redskins on this name.)

This is the year Tampa Bay Downs truly came of age. If McCraken wins the Blue Grass—he will be heavily favored—and Todd Pletcher finds a winning final prep for Tapwrit, it’s possible, if not likely, that the first and second choices in Derby betting will have come out of the Sam F. Davis and Tampa Bay Derby.

I haven’t wavered in my enthusiasm for Tapwrit, who did everything I expected and more in the Tampa Bay Derby. But the ankle issue McCraken had was an influence in briefly downgrading him. Now that he is back in serious training and doing well, it is impossible to ignore the ease with which he handled Tapwrit in the S.F. Davis and the fact that the 2-3-4 horses in that race came back to run 1-2-3 in the Tampa Derby.

Also McCraken fits the recent Derby profile of being undefeated (so far) as a 3-year-old. It was only one race, but he was undefeated as a juvenile, too.

This said, there is a hidden similarity between the two most recent races of Tapwrit and Gunnevera. The latter was soundly beaten by Irish War Cry in the Holy Bull after being steadied around the far turn. With an unobstructed trip, he turned the tables in the Fountain of Youth.

Tapwrit was stuck behind horses on the inside entering the stretch of the Davis, losing momentum, as McCraken circled the field and assumed command. He was gone before Jose Ortiz finally extricated Tapwrit, who closed resolutely to be much the second best. With a cleaner trip in the TB Derby, despite minor gate problems, Tapwrit demolished his field. He didn’t beat the absent McCraken but Tapwrit did smash the track record McCraken had established in the Davis.

There were about 15 seconds last Saturday when I didn’t think this would be the column I would be writing. As Mastery crossed the wire with his leave-no-doubts score in the San Felipe, I said out loud, “Louisville, we have a favorite.” What happened to Mastery in the next few moments does not need to be rehashed.

But Mastery’s demolition of his San Felipe rivals exposed their various weaknesses, mostly having to do with distance limitations, which, for me, eliminate them from serious Derby consideration. West Coast horses can't win every year.

In the latest sign of the times, the San Felipe on the Pacific Coast went off before the Tampa Bay Derby in the East. The explanation is familiar. Santa Anita wanted to keep the six-horse San Felipe out of the Pick 6, so it was carded as the fifth race. Rainbow chasing jackpot bets have surpassed important stakes as racing’s promotional priority.

As the calendar turned from 2016 to 2017, the three Derby favorites were Classic Empire, McCraken and Mastery. All have been sent to the sidelines during Derby prep season. Fortunately, it appears Classic Empire and McCraken are coming back.

If those two, Tapwrit and Gunnevera make it to the starting gate in Louisville, the rest are supporting players.

Do right thing for NYRA

Getting back to Pletcher’s decision over how best to get Tapwrit to Louisville at the top of his game, it’s doubtful the trainer will make the same mistake he did with Destin a year ago. Pletcher put Destin on the shelf for eight weeks after he won the S.F. Davis and Tampa Bay Derby.

It didn’t work so well. Destin checked in sixth in Louisville. With a more conventional five-week gap before his next start in the Belmont, Destin missed winning the third jewel of the Triple Crown by a lip.

Pletcher is not only a trainer for the ages, he is an avid student of racing history. The first rule of history is learn from your mistakes so you don't make them again. Unless he is stubborn and anxious to prove a point—traits unseen to this point--Pletcher is unlikely to sit on Tapwrit until the first Saturday in May.

The Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby come up too soon on April 1. The Arkansas Derby on April 15 is only three weeks out from Louisville. This suggests that if Tapwrit has another Derby prep it will be on April 8, when the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial will be run. (The Santa Anita Derby is also scheduled that day.)

McCraken is committed to the Blue Grass. Classic Empire also was headed there until this week when the possibility was raised that he would go to the Arkansas Derby. Dale Romans all but committed J Boys Echo to the Blue Grass in the post-race winner’s circle after the Gotham. Why take on this bunch over easier pickings elsewhere, especially when elsewhere is home?

This makes the Wood, which has none of the top Derby hopefuls on its list of probables, as the prudent choice for Tapwrit’s final prep. The Wood is the right choice for another reason. It lost its Grade 1 status this year, so it is in desperate need of star power; ideally a colt who could double up at Churchill Downs.

Tapwrit fits both bills. What’s more, Pletcher has built his fame and fortune in New York. This is a chance for him to give something back without sacrificing anything regarding his horse.

Chad Brown is in a similar situation. He also is plotting where to go for the final Derby prep for Fountain of Youth runnerup Practical Joke. He, too, could do something praiseworthy for his home circuit, which also could be the most advantageous course of action for Practical Joke, who still hasn’t answered the question of whether he can be effective around two turns.

The main track at Aqueduct has always been friendly to horses with speed going two turns. Another factor is Practical Joke is undefeated in three starts in New York, albeit at Saratoga and Belmont.

It isn’t often you get to do the right thing and the advantageous thing. New York stalwarts Pletcher and Brown have this opportunity next month.

Boycott is on

A reminder: West Coast racing activist and advocate Andy Asaro has called for a boycott of betting on Santa Anita from March 23-26. This is to protest Santa Anita taking 15 percent of the pool of Jackpot 6 bets even when a race is declared an all because of a surface switch, meaning you can't win but you can lose.

For some inexplicable, but probably political reason (perhaps jealousy of the leadership role Asaro has taken) the Horseplayers Association of North American (HANA) has chosen not to join the boycott so it is more essential than usual that everyday horseplayers do their part to protect their rights and keep race tracks from taking them for granted.

Miami, March 16, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (23)


Thursday, March 09, 2017

ADW ban in Florida an idle threat

Senate Bill 8, which has passed a very early hurdle in the Florida legislature, would outlaw ADW in the state. Obviously there is no chance this is going to happen but it got everyone talking. Apparently the real purpose of the bill is to give tracks and horsemen the opportunity to squeeze more money out of off-track bet handlers. Meanwhile, major 3-year-old stakes Saturday at Santa Anita and Tampa Bay Downs might somewhat clarify an increasingly muddled Kentucky Derby picture.

Mark Twain is widely credited with coining the phrase, “No man’s life, liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session.” However, a Wikipedia post reports a New York politician of the same 19th century era, Gideon J. Tucker, is the source. Whoever the originator, the message, which endures to the present day, is there is no limit to the mischief lawmakers can cause.

A piece of legislation that would outlaw Advance Deposit Wagering (ADW) in Florida, Senate Bill 8, passed an early hurdle last week. It got the tales in a tangle of everyone in the horse industry even though common sense dictates it has no more chance of becoming law in its current form than a bill to declare suntan lotion a controlled substance. Moreover, a companion bill in the State House, contains no such ADW language.

“That bill is dead,” Gulfstream’s Tim Ritvo said emphatically last Saturday.

“None of us in the thoroughbred industry believe that language in that form is going to be approved,” Lonny Powell, chief executive officer of the FTBOA, was quoted in the BloodHorse.

This raises the question of where did such a draconian solution to a non-problem come from? Lawmakers generally don't get involved in pari-mutuel issues unless they are doing someone's bidding. My thinking is, if you scanned the bill, there is a good chance you would find the fingerprints of many of those who claim to be aghast at it.

Senate Bill 8 seems to be serving as a stalking horse for what the industry really wants, more money from ADW’s.The best way to get it is to put the fear of God into them with a threat that they could be put out of business in the Sunshine State.

Nobody wants that. There’s a big downside. The state, tracks and horsemen all would forfeit big bucks. If there’s an upside, it escapes me. This is why SB8 cannot and should not be taken seriously.

Marc Dunbar, who represents The Stronach Group, estimated licensing and taxing ADWs could generate an additional $1.5 million for racing interests. An intriguing sidelight is The Stronach Group owns Gulfstream and ADW company So TSG appears to be lobbying for one of its subsidiaries against another.

“Give us what we want and the horse industry’s support for the anti-ADW provision disappears” seems to be the message. Don Corleone would smile.

Derby trail needs a leader

I can’t remember a week like the last one when the Kentucky Derby picture became so muddied. Classic Empire, already a question mark, put further doubt on his Derby status when he refused to work in the first attempt since his foot abscess. McCraken went on the disabled list with an ankle sprain, forcing him to skip the Tampa Bay Derby, although he has resumed training. Holy Bull winner Irish War Cry fired a blank in the Fountain of Youth. Jerome and Withers winner El Areeb did the same in the Gotham.

Perhaps Saturday’s San Felipe will restore some order to the top of the rankings. Gormley, who outfinished Bob Baffert’s American Anthem in the Sham, takes on the Baffert barn’s big 3-year-old, undefeated Mastery. There’s a wild card with an intriguing angle in San Vicente winner Iliad. He’s one of the horses Kaleem Shad took away from Baffert. Now he looks to upset Baffert’s leading Derby hopeful.

The Big ‘Cap might be the nominal feature but when it comes to generating conversation, this is the race of the day out West. This time of year my money is always on Baffert.

Back in the East, there’s no over-estimating the Tampa Bay Derby, which has produced a pair of Kentucky Derby winners in the past decade. I’m all in on Tapwrit, who didn’t get the best of trips while chasing McCraken home in the Sam F. Davis. Jose Ortiz got him trapped down on the rail behind horses as McCraken zipped by on the outside with all the momentum at the top of the lane. Once clear, Tapwrit was running as well, if not better, than the winner.

Ortiz, the uncrowned best rider in America, won’t make the same mistake twice. If Tapwrit does what I expect, he’ll become my new Derby horse. I anticipate a lot of company.

Elsewhere on the traditionally terrific Tampa Derby card, I like La Coronel in the Tampa Oaks a lot, too.


Sometimes I just want to scream. Graham Motion is an outstanding trainer. If I owned a horse, I’d be thrilled if Motion agreed to train him. But Saturday after Irish War Cry came up empty in the Fountain of Youth, Motion said his first instinct was the Holy Bull winner ran back too quickly.

The Holy Bull was four weeks previous. Fountain winner Gunnevera came out of the same race. So did Talk Logistic, fourth in the Holy Bull and the Fountain. Three Rules, a game third after doing all the dirty work, ran on the Holy Bull undercard.

Gulfstream continues to amaze. Not only did it handle a record of more than $26 million on Fountain Day, Gunnevera, now one of the favorites for the Derby, and Three Rules, who is being pointed for the Preakness, are products of the supposedly second tier summer meeting.

Poor Wood Memorial. NY winter wonder El Areeb gets thrashed and Dale Romans, trainer of Gotham winner J Boys Echo, says the Blue Grass almost certainly will be his final Derby prep. The injuries to Eclipse champion Classic Empire and McCraken have their connections also pointing for April 8 at Keeneland. So the Blue Grass could get its Grade 1 back quickly. Meanwhile, the Wood is left with...?

Go figure. (You’ll have to on Saturday.) Getting back to Santa Anita and the Big ‘Cap card, one of the top dirt horses in California, Dortmund, is skipping the main track feature to run on turf in the Kilroe Mile and one of the top grass horses, Midnight Storm, is passing on the Kilroe to run in the Big ‘Cap.

The greatest racetrack robbery this side of The Grifters took place Sunday at Santa Anita. If you missed it, the last race was taken off wet turf. Since the decision was announced after betting had opened, it made the race an “all” in the Pick 6 and Pick 4.

According to the single ticket jackpot rules of the Pick 6, the “all” dictated there could be no jackpot winner. Nevertheless, Santa Anita carried over the 15 percent set aside for days when there isn’t a single winner. So bettors couldn’t win but they could lose. Do that in other gambling games and someone calls the cops.

West Coast activist Andy Asaro is calling for a two-week boycott of Santa Anita to protest. Big Cap Saturday isn’t an optimum day to include but the point could be made by skipping all the other days the next two weeks. It's the only thing racetracks understand.

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (40)


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