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, April 11, 2019


There’s no holding back in final Derby preps


The final Kentucky Derby preps are often races you try to win without having to demand everything a horse has to give with the big one three weeks away. This year, some big name horses cannot afford to leave anything in the tank or there will be no Run for the Roses. Among them is Bob Baffert's Improbable, who was among the top five Derby favorites until he ran second in the Rebel. In less positive news, the rules of racing at Santa Anita keep changing on a moment's notice. Lasix was out, now it is back in. Whips were out, then they were back. Then the Jockeys Guild said they would prove a point by racing without whips Friday. Within days, they backed off this. It's as if no one in SoCal can make a bold decision and stick to it.

It’s pedal to the metal in both the Arkansas Derby and Lexington on Saturday. Connections of leading contenders will be scoreboard watching as avidly as fans are toteboard watching.

Some years the goal of leading Derby contenders is to try to win without emptying the tank with the Big Day only three weeks away. This year, there is no Derby for most without a top effort. The exception is Long Range Toddy in the Arkansas Derby, who is safely in as a result of winning a division of the Rebel.

Omaha Beach, who took down Game Winner three weeks ago, is 19th on the scoreboard with 37.5 points. Nineteenth might not be good enough with a Japanese entrant, Master Fencer, guaranteed a spot and the possibility a Euro will also come overseas.

Moreover, with 185 points on the line at Oaklawn and another 34 at Keeneland, it’s a sure thing that at least a couple of horses will blow past 37 ½.

The horse to beat at Oaklawn and my selection is Bob Baffert’s Improbable, who was a lot of sharp people’s Derby horse until he got caught in the shadow of the wire in the Rebel. That race was an emergency Plan B when Santa Anita went dark. In any case, he might have needed the race and Baffert is putting on blinkers. He doesn’t make major equipment changes on a whim. He has to feel it will make a difference. It won’t have to make much of a difference.

Most seasons, the Arkansas Derby wouldn’t be so critical for Improbable’s Derby hopes. He would have gotten 40 points for running second in the Rebel. Because the race was split this year, he earned just 25 in his only start in a points race.

Bill Mott hopes to clinch a second Derby berth with late running Country House, who needs only the 20 points for third to go with the 30 points he has to earn a berth in Louisville. He’ll be underneath Improbable along with Omaha Beach on my exacta tickets.

Last chance Lexington

The Lexington has been Anothertwistafate’s last resort to get into the Derby ever since he ran second in the Sunland Derby to get to 30 points. If he didn’t need more points, he would have gone straight to Churchill Downs. As it is, only a 20-point win will do it for him.

It’s also all-or-nothing for Sueno, who has 28 points. I like his chances. He’s been on the board in four straight stakes against better than Anothertwistafate has been outrunning.

Normally, sneaking into the Derby’s final spot or two is no big deal. It’s like the final teams to qualify for March Madness. They’re not serious contenders.

This year, no matter how Saturday’s races turn out, there are going to be horses left out who would have had more than a puncher’s chance at Churchill Downs.

Racing needs a backbone

Does anyone in racing have the spine to make a decision and stick to it?

The situation at Santa Anita is turning into a bad joke reminiscent of the old Ella Fitzgerald tune Undecided: “First you say you will, and then you won’t. And then you say you do, and then you don’t. You’re undecided now, so what are you gonna do?”

First Lasix was banned on race day. Then the ban was put off until next year and even then only with 2-year-olds. Then the ban was modified to only half the current dosage. This is like being half-pregnant.

Rules at Santa Anita have the shelf life of fresh fish.

The Stronach Group next decided to banish whips from racing, a cave to PETA. (An aside: could we please stop calling them crops? Tomatoes and potatoes are crops. The equipment carried by jockeys are whips. Until the past week or so, they have been called that for more than 150 years. Calling them crops is not fooling anyone.)

TSG will rue the day it gave an inch to PETA. When the CHRB said a change this significant would require a 45-day public comment period, the Southern California branch of the Jockey Guild decided to voluntarily show how short-sighted this would be. The Guild’s riders announced they would compete without whips on Friday.

Within a couple of days, they reversed this decision, which was a meaningless stunt from the get-go. The Thoroughbred Owners of California gave them the out they desperately wanted by requesting the experiment be tabled.

To the credit of the sport, efforts have been made over the years to take the sting out of the whip. The latest attempt, the 360 GT, is the softest yet and supposedly doesn’t hurt the horse in any way. They were used without negative reports last week at Keeneland and will now be used Friday at Santa Anita--unless someone decides they won’t be.

What a sorry state racing is in that on the week of the final Derby preps, with the qualifying point standings in chaotic flux, the talk of the game is all about whips. The folly is all of this is an over-reaction to the tragic deaths of 23 horses. No one, not even PETA, alleges that even one of these deaths is the result of use or misuse of the whip.

Why solve the serious problems you have when you can solve the ones you don’t have?

The fact that this conversation is even taking place is a misguided capitulation to PETA, which is dedicated to doing to horse racing what it did to greyhound racing and circuses.

Appeasement never works yet some people never learn. Banning whips is merely a preliminary step toward PETA’s ultimate goal, the end of horse racing.

Belinda Stronach is a good person, as best I can tell. I had the opportunity to interview her earlier this season at Gulfstream. One of the takeaways for me is that she loves horses but is kind of indifferent to the subtleties of horse racing.

She said visiting the family’s thoroughbreds was always a joy. However when discussions around the dinner table turned to specific races and breeding, she would excuse herself and find something else to do.

Her affection for horses might explain why she is making a horrible mistake by getting into bed with PETA. Good people often assume others are as well-meaning as they are.

PETA is playing good cop/bad cop with her. Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of PETA, passes herself off as reasonable. She’s not. If she was, she would not be a member of PETA. This is like claiming religious tolerance and joining ISIS.

Even if Guillermo were open to compromise, PETA’s co-founder and boss, Ingrid Newkirk, is a person who has said she would rather see a dog or cat be put to death than be adopted by a loving family because she doesn’t believe in the concept of pets.

In fact, PETA kills thousands of dogs and cats every year. You think there’s any common ground to be found with her or her organization?

You can’t negotiate with crazy people and PETA is as crazy as they come. Equally crazy is thinking there is any peace short of total surrender to them.





Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, April 04, 2019


Wood can’t catch a break; Beware Baffert’s other in Santa Anita Derby



NYRA is doing everything it can to regain Grade 1 status for the Wood Memorial. It even offered to juice the purse by a quarter-million dollars if a Grade 1 winner showed up. All the candidates passed. This leaves a field that probably wouldn't qualify as a Grade 2 if it were ranked objectively. But there are a couple of horses, who could go on to elevate the status of the race. Out West, Bob Baffert loves Game Winner in the Santa Anita Derby but the way he is talking up Roadster hints he might love his "other" entrant a little more.

NYRA can’t catch a break. You wouldn’t expect to hear that about an organization that just got to pocket a quarter of a million dollars. However, it is money NYRA desperately wanted to spend.

At a time when NYRA endows relatively insignificant stakes with high six-figure lures, it inexplicably opted to slash the purse of the Wood Memorial, New York’s showpiece Triple Crown prep, to $750,000. This makes it the only final phase Derby qualifier not to offer a seven-figure payoff.

Horsemen reacted predictably. They took their best elsewhere. New York-based trainers demonstrating loyalty to their home circuit occasionally bring a top of the line 3-year-old to the Wood. This is how Bill Mott’s Tampa Bay Derby winner Tacitus and Kiaran McLaughlin’s Gotham winner Haikal, the big horses Saturday, wound up in this season’s renewal.

But home town loyalty doesn’t always rule. Chad Brown could have added a touch of luster last year by entering Eclipse champion Good Magic. He opted for the Blue Grass the same afternoon, which Good Magic won.

Inferior fields led to the Wood being reduced to a Grade 2, which makes it even more unattractive to the connections of top 3-year-olds.

NYRA got the message. In an effort to lure more Derby hopeful A-listers, it announced if there is a Grade 1 winner in the field, the purse will be jacked back up to $1 million. Only problem is, it can’t get any Grade 1 winners; not last year, not this year. So the purse stays at $750,000 and the field reflects the lesser reward. The horses to beat each have only one Grade 3 win each. If this Wood was graded as a normal stakes, it would be lucky to keep its Grade 2.

Prospects were bright for Grade 1 participation only a few weeks ago. Hopeful winner Mind Control wintered in New York, ostensibly to take the New York route to Louisville. There was little reason to doubt this was going to happen when he took the Jerome then ran a solid second in the Gotham. Alas, his connections surprised everyone when they in explicably decided to drop back to sprints, starting with the Bay Shore on the Wood undercard.

Breeders’ Futurity champion Knicks Go diverted from Tampa to Aqueduct for the Gotham, a step toward the Wood, but disappointed and will be a no show Saturday.

The Wood desperately needs a Kentucky Derby winner—probably two--if it is to regain Grade 1 stature. Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 is the last Wood winner to double at Churchill Downs.

Tacitus and Haikal have considerable upsides, so maybe NYRA can get lucky. But they also have potential holes. Tacitus got a big pace set-up in the Tampa Bay Derby. This might not happen every time. It certainly wouldn’t have if he had run in the Florida Derby.

Garrett O’Rourke, manager of Juddmonte Farms, owner of Tacitus, is an optimist. “Invariably, you are more likely to get those pace set-ups in big races than you are in allowance races. There is more on the line, so jockeys go for the gold earlier. I think that will hopefully benefit him in the Wood Memorial and, hopefully, down the line.”

Haikal is the opposite. On breeding, he is not meant to go nine furlongs. His half-brother, Takaful, was a wickedly fast winner of the Vosburgh. But seven furlongs was a stretch for him.

Haikal conquered a mile in the Gotham but the Wood will be his first attempt around two turns. McLaughlin is confident he is up to it but you never know until they do it. “Because of his pedigree and his brother, we were a little concerned that he would be just a one-turn horse,” McLaughlin said. But Takaful was just a run-off. He was very difficult. (Haikal’s) mind is great. He’s a different type of horse even though he’s a half-brother to Takaful. His attitude is great. He just does everything asked of him. So we don’t think nine furlongs should be a problem.”

I still have to be convinced Tax’s big Beyer Withers is legit. So I see the race coming down to these two, with the edge going to Tacitus—with small defensive plays on the two Jason Servis entries, because…well, you know.

Blue Grass lacks star power

The best thing going for the Wood is the Blue Grass also isn’t rich in star power, either, although it has a stronger bunch than will run in Queens. The Blue Grass was lowered to Grade 2 with the Wood. However, it seems closer to regaining top shelf prestige.

It was won last year by an Eclipse champion, Good Magic, who subsequently ran second in Louisville and later won the Haskell. A top performance or two down the road by its winner this year could bolster its case for regaining its Grade 1 ranking.

This would leave the Wood the only final Derby prep not offering at least $1 million or Grade 1 prestige, a double whammy that could negatively feed off itself.

There are no champions in this year’s Blue Grass. The only last out winner of a stakes is Somelikeithotbrown, who has yet to prove he is as effective on dirt as he is on turf and synthetics.

Nashua winner Vekoma and Kentucky Jockey Club winner Signalman were highly regarded until they ran third and seventh, respectively, in the Fountain of Youth, which was not flattered in the Florida Derby. Tampa record-setter Win Win Win was another hot prospect until disappointing when stretched out in the Tampa Bay Derby.

I don’t have a strong feeling on the race but I’ll most likely take a shot on Signalman. Ken McPeek, who is known for his patience, said before the Fountain of Youth that it was merely a step along the way. With Signalman needing major Derby qualifying points, the Blue Grass has to be a full go.

The other Baffert

Bob Baffert said he loves his two horses in the Santa Anita Derby. Eclipse champion Game Winner is no surprise. He’s a whisker away from being undefeated. “He’s talented, he’s gritty and he always shows up,” the trainer said on a conference call this week. “If he runs the same race (as in the Rebel), I’ll be fine with it. The next race is the big step forward. I don’t want a blowout this week.”

The enthusiasm Baffert expressed for his “other” starter, Roadster, might be revealing. Baffert said he considered Roadster his top Derby prospect until he ran third behind Game Winner in the Del Mar Futurity. It turned out he had an excuse, a breathing problem, which has been corrected. He left no doubt of that when he returned from six months on the shelf to impressively win a one-mile allowance. “That race was phenomenal,” Baffert said. “I’ve always liked him. He’s shown flashes of brilliance. He’s a very live horse. I expect him to run a very big race.”

You’ve been put on alert.

Vindication

I’ve been a lone voice in these parts against getting the federal government involved in racing. I wish it wasn’t the case but I feel vindicated by events of the past few days.

The tragedies at Santa Anita have captured scrutiny inside and now outside the sport. Everything I’ve been railing against became reality when California Sen. Diane Feinstein, wet her finger and stuck it up in the air to see which way public opinion is going.

Feinstein, who is not known for ever doing anything related to racing, rifled off a letter saying that racing should be halted at Santa Anita until an investigation could be completed into the deaths of 23 horses.

You know how long a federal investigation can take? Two words: Mueller Report.

Politicians: Democrat, Republican, Conservative, Progressive, Independent can’t help themselves. Any event that lends itself to widespread media coverage, as the horrific situation at Santa Anita has, is going to bring out the soap boxes.

This is happening without the feds having an official role in racing regulations. The sport is in enough trouble with dunderheads like the California Horse Racing Board in control. The thought of what might happen if Uncle Sam is ever given real jurisdiction ought to give pause to anyone arguing for a federal role in policing the game.





Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, March 27, 2019


Shug likes his horse in Florida Derby; nobody likes what’s happening out West


By Tom Jicha

Shug McGaughey, who won the 2013 Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby with Orb, says fans shouldn't be fooled by the optics of the Fountain of Youth, when it appeared Code of Honor was tiring late. Shug feels his colt won easily and will handle the extra distance in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby. Meanwhile action on the Derby trail is being over-shadowed by the tragedies at Santa Anita and Belinda Stronach's over-reaction to them. Unless there is an 11th hour intervention, Santa Anita will ban use of the whip, separating it from the rest of the racing world.

A widespread perception after the Fountain of Youth was that Bourbon War would have run down Code of Honor in another few jumps, certainly if the mile and a sixteenth would have been a mile at an eighth, the distance of Saturday’s Florida Derby.

Subscribe to this theory at your own risk, Shug McGaughey warns. “I thought (Code of Honor) was an easy winner and I think the extra distance will help us. Johnny (Velazquez) told me that when he made the lead, he started waiting.”

McGaughey stressed he is not being disrespectful to Bourbon War, who like Code of Honor trains at Payson Park. “I see him train every day. He’s training good. He’s a good horse.”

McGaughey is confident he has a better horse. Code of Honor’s Fountain of Youth was actually better than it looked, he feels. “Johnny said he had to press the button earlier than he wanted. He didn’t want to get stuck behind horses backing up in front of him. He’ll run for us as far as we need him to run.”

McGaughey teamed with Velazquez to win the 2013 Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby with Orb. Velazquez practically owns the Florida Derby. He has won four of the past six.

Hidden Scroll, coming off an other-worldly 14-length maiden score on the Pegasus undercard, was the Fountain of Youth buzz horse and somewhat surprisingly has been installed as the 5-2 morning line favorite for the Florida Derby despite tiring late and finishing fourth behind Code of Honor.

McGaughey has a been-there, done-that attitude about taking him on again. “He couldn’t carry his speed a mile and a sixteenth. I know they went fast early but speed carries on this track.”

Code of Honor might be facing a different Hidden Scroll. After getting into a pointless speed duel with a 100-1 shot, Bill Mott has been working Hidden Scroll behind horses in an effort to have him conserve his speed. Hidden Scroll has ample room for improvement in his third career start.

Nevertheless, McGaughey feels he has the horse to beat and should be the favorite. “If he’s not the favorite, he’s going to make people seem kind of funny.”

UAE Derby over endowed

At least one, probably two, perhaps even three horses, who otherwise wouldn’t be in the Kentucky Derby conversation, will earn sufficient qualifying points in Saturday’s UAE Derby. Off the atrocious performances at Churchill Downs the past couple of years of Mendelssohn and Thunder Snow, each a runaway winner of the UAE Derby, this is unfair to horses who will have had to earn their way into the Run for the Roses via more demanding crucibles.

The rash of upsets in Derby preps has scrambled the points system to an extent not seen since it was introduced in 2013. The barrier for admittance the past three years has been about 30 points. With six races that award points on a 100-40-20-10 basis still to come, 13 horses have already achieved that level.

The UAE Derby is one of the six premier races and it shouldn’t be. The Sunland Derby, which carries only 50 points to the winner, has at least produced a Derby winner in Mine That Bird, who ran fourth. The UAE Derby never has. It deserves to have its allotment of Derby points cut in half, at least.

Should horses from Japan and Europe accept their invitations, only 18 others will qualify. Take one or two from Dubai and some top horses could be omitted. As of now, this would include Holy Bull Winner Harvey Wallbanger; Improbable, considered by many to be Bob Baffert’s best until his second in the Rebel; Bourbon War; Hidden Scroll and Instagrand.

They will get another chance over the next two weekends to earn their way in but in much tougher spots than the UAE Derby. Who would you like in head-to-head bets? Any of these five or the three U.S. horses who could sneak into the Derby through the Dubai back door: Plus Que Parfait, 5th in the LeComte and 13th in the Risen Star; Gray Magician, 4th in the Sham, 5th in a subsequent allowance and second in a Laurel stakes; or Stubbins, who won the minor Pasadena Stakes.

For the record, I’m looking at one of the locals, Walking Thunder, to steal the day. But he could win by two poles and I wouldn’t bet him back in Louisville with Michael Avenatti’s money.

Cold turkey not the answer


Heroin abuse is a national scourge. Americans are dying at a level not seen outside wars. It has become a priority to get people off the narcotic before they are found in an alley, a needle in their arm. But it has to be done at a deliberate pace. Going cold turkey can be almost as lethal.

I wouldn’t attempt to equate heroin abuse with the use of the whip in racing but the principle is the same. I’ve been a long and steady advocate of removing whips from racing. The optics are terrible even if today’s new softer whips don’t hurt a horse, they merely get its attention.

However, in a misguided public relations gambit and to appease PETA while distracting from the 22 deaths at Santa Anita this winter, Belinda Stronach, president of The Stronach Group, has decreed a cold turkey approach to the use of whips in a race. Racing figures can't get it through their heads that they will never satisfy PETA, which is as dedicated to ending the game as it was to end circuses and greyhound racing.

Unless something changes at the 11th hour, the ban on whips will alter the nature of centuries of racing and race riding without a weaning off period. Horses have been trained from their breaking to respond to a whip. Some will not give anything close to a top effort without a reminder about why they are in a race.

Jockeys, too, have grown up and been trained in use of the whip. No question some abuse it. This can be dealt with in other ways; fines and suspensions.

The latest example of what might happen with a sudden removal of a primary tool of the trade came Sunday in the Sunland Derby. Johnny V, one of the smartest, most talented humans to ever sit above a race horse, suggested Cutting Humor might not have won the important Kentucky Derby prep if he hadn’t resorted to left-handed whipping in late stretch.

“Once I got to the quarter pole, I thought he was going pretty easy…As soon as he found himself on the lead, he started waiting…I waited until the eighth pole, switched to left-handed and he responded.”

Under the new rules at Santa Anita, Cutting Humor and Velazquez might have been disqualified for use of the whip. Stewards will have this authority at their discretion. I hope the first time this happens, Santa Anita has plenty of security people on hand.

You have to wonder how many fans holding suddenly worthless win tickets will become so disgusted they will walk out and never come back.

The new rule isolates Santa Anita and Golden Gate from the rest of the racing world. A new consideration will have to be added to the already daunting handicapping process. How do you assess a horse coming out of Santa Anita, where his jockeys couldn’t encourage him with a whip, to a track where whips are still legal. Also vice versa, although I don’t see a lot of horses shipping into Santa Anita under the circumstances. Look for an exodus of jockeys, too.

To reiterate, the goal of phasing out whips is an admirable one, long overdue. But it can’t be done cold turkey. It has to start with the earliest training of horses. Likewise, jockeys must be given leeway to accustom themselves to the new norm. Start with a warning, move to fines, then suspensions. Don’t punish the fans.

If Lasix-free racing can be phased in over a couple of years, as Santa Anita and Golden Gate intend to do, there’s no reason the same can’t be done with restrictions on the use of whips.



Written by Tom Jicha

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