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, November 17, 2016

Gulfstream Has Eclipse Ceremony But No Honorees

Gulfstream without vociferous argument has the strongest racing program in the nation each winter. But when this year's Eclipse Awards are presented in January, it's likely that not a single horse who raced there in 2016 will be celebrated.

Also: Santa Anita stewards made another outrageous call; Unacceptable double standard for workout descriptions; Another juvenile stakes makes a mockery of the grading system; Churchill Downs puts revenue first again when it comes to the Kentucky Derby.

MIAMI, Nov 17--Racing is such a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately game.

In my opinion, Gulfstream has the finest winter racing in America. But when this year’s Eclipse Awards are presented, chances are that, as stated, not a single horse who raced in South Florida during the 2015-16 season will be honored.

There is no 2-year-old program to speak of during the prime winter dates, so a shutout in those categories is understandable. Nyquist won the Florida Derby en route to getting draped with roses in Kentucky but Arrogate’s late season brilliance seized the 3-year-old male title. Songbird moved around but never to Florida.

California Chrome, who will finally get to Gulfstream in January for the Pegagsus, is a cinch for older dirt horse and Beholder will capture a fourth Eclipse trophy without ever winning a race outside Southern California.

A.P. Indian, Drefong and Lord Nelson will vie for the sprint crown but none made it to Gulfstream. Finest City has the inside track on the female side off her Breeders' Cup score, and she never left California.

Flintshire, the likely male turf king despite ending the season with a pair of runner-up decisions, didn’t begin his campaign until June. Tepin, best of her gender on grass, trained in South Florida but both her Sunshine State races were at Tampa.

As far as I’m concerned, the Gulfstream shutout is strictly coincidental, but how ironic is it that the Eclipse ceremony again be held at Gulfstream?

Another California travesty

It fell between the cracks last week because of the emphasis on the Breeders’ Cup but there was another outrageous stewards’ decision at Santa Anita on the day after the big days. This one went beyond the officials just being wrong. It reflected badly on the integrity of racing in California.

Lofty Cause, Rafael Bejarano up, crossed the wire first in the opening race on Sunday. The inquiry sign went up immediately because Bona Fide Image and Tyler Baze went down during the running. After the typical ridiculously extended deliberations, the stewards took down Lofty Cause, deciding that he came into Bona Fide Images’ path, triggering the mishap.

In spite of looking at the replay a dozen or more times, the stewards failed to see what most at the track and watching on TV could. Lofty Cause was indeed directly in front of Bona Fide Image when the spill occurred but he was holding his own path and was in no way responsible. Bona Fide’s Image bobbled on his own.

Inept calls are commonplace with the Southern California stewards but this one was particularly egregious. The horse who was put up, Friendly Request, was ridden by Alex Solis. Yes, that Alex Solis of the California Horse Racing Board.

It might have seemed like a good idea to have a jockey’s perspective on the board but incidents like this one and Solis’ recent beef with trainer Steve Miyadi and the unacceptable conflicts of interest they create, greatly outweigh any benefits.

Surely there must be some respected retired jockeys, who could provide the same insights the still active Solis does.

Breezing? Handily?

Is it asking too much for the the Racing Form to get its workouts act together? Drilling into the Breeders’ Cup past performances at Santa Anita, it was hard to miss that the descriptions of how a horse worked is dependent on which side of the Mississippi the clocker comes from.

Horses who race in the East frequently have their works listed as breezing. West Coast horses rarely do. They are almost always categorized as handily.

As an Easterner, I’ve always considered breezing as less vigorous than handily. However, when horses from the opposite coasts come together for an event like the Breeders’ Cup or Triple Crown races, this could be a misinterpretation.

How hard could it be for the Form to get its clockers together and create a guideline for the difference between breezing and handily?

Grade 2 is a Grade 1 joke

My longstanding contention that there should be no more than a handful of graded stakes for juveniles and only the Breeders’ Cup as a Grade 1 was bolstered again last week.

The Nashua Stakes on opening day at Aqueduct drew five entrants. Only four ran. Three of them had one victory in their past performances, one of these a race restricted to Iowa-bred 2-year-olds. The fourth entrant, Hemsworth, went into the race a zero-for-two maiden with a couple of off-the-board finishes.The latter won by a pole.

The Nashua is a Grade 2 race, same as the Pennsylvania Derby, whose recent winners include Frosted, Bayern—California Chrome was an also ran--and Eclipse champion Will Take Charge. Other Grade 2 stakes include the Suburban Handicap, Brooklyn Handicap, Oaklawn Handicap, San Antonio Handicap and Fountain of Youth. I could go on.

Graded juvenile stakes on both coasts regularly go to the post with a half-dozen or fewer starters, most with only maiden wins on their resume. Who’s kidding who?

Follow the money

It was curious when Churchill Downs announced that a couple of races for 3-year-olds in Japan would produce one guaranteed starting berth in next May’s Kentucky Derby.Since this could deny a more accomplished American horse a coveted spot in the field, it raised the question why Churchill would make such a move.

All you had to do to come up with an answer was remember who was doing it. As always with CDI, it was all about revenue. Japan has a rule that bettors there cannot wager on an international race unless it has at least one Japanese runner.

The Japanese bet about $40 million on this year’s Arc. The globally storied Kentucky Derby could attract double that.

Why should we expect anything better from the corporation that sold the Kentucky Derby name to a fast food conglomerate?

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

BC Classic rematch is a must for the Pegasus

The $12 million Pegasus at Gulfstream now has a chance to become the instant classic Frank Stronach designed it to be. To achieve this goal, "the world's richest race" must find a way to stage a rematch between Arrogate and California Chrome on Jan, 28. Anything less and it's just another Saturday feature. California Chrome is being pointed toward the race, which will be the last of his career. Arrogate is the challenge. His connections are not among the dozen $1 million subscribers. Even if Gulfstream has to give him a scholarship, it must be done.

MIAMI, Nov. 10--Memo to Frank Stronach: You have to make Arrogate-California Chrome happen again in the Pegasus. This should be your over-riding priority for the next two months.

Skepticism has abounded about whether "the world's richest race" will actually happen on Jan. 28 and what it will look like if it does. If Gulfstream can arrange an encore of the Breeders' Cup Classic, the race will be an instant classic, the goal since its inception.

People will be talking about horses rather than money. The purse was a creative way to capture attention in the racing community and media. However, it means nothing to fans. Even-money pays the same $4 on a snowy January night at Penn National as it will on sunny (hopefully) Jan. 28 at Gulfstream.

Round two of Arrogate-California Chrome will excite the masses. I don't know if it will excite them enough to go for the $100 general admission charge. This really needs to be rethought. But it will put eyeballs in front of TV screens, which will matter when it's time to go back to NBC to negotiate the 2018 renewal.

Anything less than a Breeders’ Cup rematch and it's just another Saturday feature. With only one of the two stars, it's a non-appealing walkover. What was it, about half a furlong back to the third-place finisher in the Classic? Who is there, who wasn't in the Classic, who could be taken seriously against Arrogate or California Chrome?

It looks like California Chrome is a sure thing. His people are among the original $1 million subscribers. Arrogate's connections are not. They are the ones who have to be courted and cajoled.

There should be plenty of berths in the starting gate up for negotiation. One is owned by Stronach. It probably was ticketed for Shaman Ghost, whose status is uncertain after his scratch from the Classic. The upset winner of the Woodward is a nice horse but he adds nothing in the way of star power.

The $1 million buy-in for Arrogate’s Juddmonte gang is tip money but they are in a position to play hardball. So even if Stronach has to give Arrogate a scholarship, it has to be done.

The first call should go to the pizza guy in Illinois, who bought one of the dozen berths on speculation. He doesn't own a single horse to run around the track for the minimum $200,000 purse or a share in the $400,000 consolation stakes, so he should be amenable to a reasonable offer.

About that $200,000 guarantee; this is another thing that has to be re-imagined. It could create a sham situation, where those who own the 12 slots but don't have a credible contender dig deep into their barn, or even claim some cheap horse to run around the track, to get back what they can from their investment.

It was a savvy move in August to drop the participation reward $50K from $250,000 to moderately buck up fourth and fifth money. However, the guarantee for sixth to 12th has to go in the future, so that place and show rewards can be bolstered.

As it is now, the $1.75 million for second constitutes only a small profit after expenses and the $1 million for third represents a negative return when the traditional 10 percent each for the trainer and jockey are deducted.

The minor awards need to be kicked up to about $2.5 million and $1.5 million. With the $7 million top prize etched in stone, $1million would still be available to divvy up among the fourth and fifth finishers. There should be no rewards for lesser placings. Participation awards are as bad an idea in racing as they are in youth sports.

Not everything stays in Vegas

"What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" is one of the most clever ad slogans ever. But there is an exception. Bad feelings about ill treatment go home with visitors.

There used to be a welcome mat around town for horse players, especially since the advent of simulcast pari-mutuels, which took the gamble out of racing and guaranteed casinos a profit.

This is no longer the case. In addition, the extraneous perks that made Sin City such a delight are fading faster than Runhappy in the Mile.

Inexpensive rooms and entertainment are relics of the past. Cheap buffets no longer exist. Some cost as much as $30. It’s going to get worse. Nevada legalized recreational marijuana on Tuesday. You can just see people toking up before attacking the all-you-can-eat lines.

The MGM properties on the Strip now charge up to $10 a day for parking, a trial balloon for all of Las Vegas, I fear.

I was a regular at the once horseplayer-friendly Orleans, home of the World Series of Handicapping each spring, for many years. For a change of pace, the past few years I switched my tack to the newer South Point, which still rolls out the red carpet for racing fans. Unfortunately, I procrastinated making my Breeders' Cup weekend reservations and got shut out at South Point.

I foolishly opted for a return trip to the Orleans. I was quickly and constantly reminded that I left the Orleans for reasons beyond South Point's newness. There now seems to be a contempt for horse players at the Boyd property.

In a stupefying decision, Racing Forms, which were $2 (you have to buy three to cover the major tracks) at the Orleans, are now $3 apiece the night before. The rationalization is the extra dollar discourages players from picking up a Form at the Orleans then going somewhere else the next day.

Right, people are going to make a special stop at the off-the-Strip hotel to save a buck. Measure this against betting revenue lost from guests at the hotel, who can't handicap overnight. The casino’s cut from one extra $10 bet the next day would cover the surcharge.

It’s not the dollar. It’s the attitude it conveys.

Simulcasts were piped into the guest rooms for years. No more. It’s not that there is no space on the closed-circuit system. The channels that used to carry racing now lie vacant.

Drinks used to be free without hassles while you were playing. A few years ago, the Orleans instituted a ticket system. You have to ask for one when you make a bet or the cocktail server can't bring you a drink. Fair enough. There are free-loaders, who sit in the race and sports book all day without making a bet.

The tickets could be used at any bar 24/7. This was eventually revised so they could only be used at the bar nearest the race book. This came in handy when the cocktail servers were slammed. Now they can be used only through the server.

On Breeders' Cup Day, one harried server was assigned the entire race and sports book, which seats a couple of hundred. Slower service translates to fewer drinks.

It doesn't end there. A ticket formerly got you your drink of choice. Now if you want a premium beer--Corona or Heineken--or a brand-name liquor, it's three tickets.

These are fringe issues. On Breeders' Cup day, half the screens in the racebook area had football games, so a lot of seats were filled by sports fans, who didn't move, pushing out horse players.

You had to search the top row of monitors to find the racing signals. It was worse on Sunday when NFL games were displayed on all the prominent monitors in the race book. You couldn't see and play, say Aqueduct and Santa Anita, because the sets showing them were so far apart on opposite sides of the room. Churchill Downs was isolated down in a corner.

Meanwhile some NFL games were on two or three monitors in the race book even though the sports book area has ample TV's to show every game.

The worst was yet to come. For more than an hour on Saturday, covering the second and third races at Santa Anita, the computers went down and there didn't seem to be any urgency to fix the problem. Scores of players were shut out.

Regulars said this is a common occurrence at the Orleans, due to antiquated equipment. Indeed. I bet a few games the night before I left. When I went down to cash in the “24-hour” sports book in the morning en route to catching my flight home, they were down again.

Did I mention there are five restrooms spread around the casino—all a hike from the race book--and three went out of service for all or part of Saturday?

Las Vegas is still the greatest but the sour feeling of this weekend at the Orleans, which will be my last there, will not stay in Vegas.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, November 03, 2016

A single on Friday and an audible on Saturday

Pick 3's are my bet of preference, especially when I feel strongly enough to single one race, allowing me to spread in the other legs. I zeroed in on such a horse both Friday and Saturday and neither of them is named Songbird or California Chrome. This strategy paid well last year when even with 1-2 Liam's Map in the middle, a very playable Pick 3 returned $117.50 for every $1 combination. Then a late scratch of Lord Nelson forced an audible.>

MIAMI, Nov. 3, 2016--Check out the BC Dirt Mile. You won’t find American Pharoah or California Chrome (Texas is not California).

The Triple Crown champion and season-long No. 1 in the NTRA poll are the only horses who have won races in which Dortmund ran and didn’t win. This is why I see Dortmund as the safest single on Friday’s card; maybe the entire BC weekend.

This is like déjà vu. A year ago, I felt the same way about Liam’s Map. He came through while overcoming adversity that only an exceptional horse could. The difference is Dortmund, who is ducking California Chrome and his stablemate Arrogate just as Liam's Map ducked American Pharoah, will not be 1-2, maybe not even odds-on. Thanks for this goes to the presence of Eclipse-winning sprinter Runhappy, whose connections opted not to have him defend his BC Sprint title. I made it clear last week how little I think of his chances to win his first race beyond seven furlongs in his debut around two turns.

If I was going to save, I prefer Vyjack over Runhappy in a trainer’s play. Those in the East are familiar with Vyjack but perhaps not so much with his trainer Phil D’Amato. All you need to know about him is he is the left coast version of Chad Brown, the game’s next superstar. Everything the protégé of Mike Mitchell sends out is worth a second and third look.

But I am not hedging. I am all in on Dortmund. I plan to use my favorite Pick 3 strategy, singling Dortmund and going deep in the other legs looking for an upset. It worked beautifully last year. With standout Liam’s Map in the middle, a $1 Pick 3 including Catch a Glimpse ($14.80), one of two North American runners I used, and Aidan O’Brien’s Euro shipper Hit It a Bomb ($16.40), the Pick 3 returned $117.50 for every $1 ticket.

The two races surrounding this year’s Dirt Mile could not be better for this. As usual, the Juvenile Turf and its filly counterpart are wide open due to a plane load of Euros.

A lesson I have learned at some expense over the years is it’s folly to try to come to a definitive conclusion based on overseas form. It’s a different game over there, played on straightaways and right-hand turns on courses much softer than the Santa Anita pool table. It’s a question of which ones best adapt. So I throw them all in on at least one ticket.

So Friday’s ticket will start with O’Brien’s pair, Lancaster Bomber, who has been chasing Euro standout Churchill, and Grade 3 winner Intelligence Cross, along with top North Americans Good Samaritan, winner of the Summer Stakes at Woodbine, and Oscar Performance, whose devastation of a strong Pilgrim Stakes field was the strongest grass performance by an American 2-year-old in memory. Alas, he drew post 13. Then again, Hit It a Bomb started from the 14 stall.

On the other side of Dortmund, a herd of Euros will force me to go really deep. Aidan O’Brien has two, Hydrangea and Roly Poly, and his son Joseph will attempt to one up Dad with Intricately, who I think is the Euro to beat. I’ll follow my own rule and throw in Euros Spainburg, Cavalee Doree and Madam Dancelot. I was really impressed by La Coronel’s Jasmine runaway so she’ll be my lone North American.

That’s a $28 ticket. If you want to swing for the fences, a Pick 4 with these and Songbird at the end will cost another $14.

A scratch changes things

As you might imagine, I produce this column about 24 hours before publication. This week, because I would be traveling to Las Vegas, I had it set on Tuesday.

Then I woke up Thursday morning to the disclosure that my Saturday single, Lord Nelson, has been scratched with an injury. So I've called an audible. I like these selections but not with the conviction I had with Lord Nelson as the key and a single.

I’ve already expressed my support for Florida shipper Three Rules in the Juvenile. He’ll certainly be on my ticket but this Juvenile is loaded with colts with star potential. So I’ll also include dominant Breeders’ Futurity winner Classic Empire, who has never lost when he didn’t throw his rider, and Not This Time, who Dale Romans thinks might become the best horse he has ever trained.

Because this ticket is relatively inexpensive, I’ll include Champagne winner Practical Joker and Front Runner Stakes runnerup Klimt, who had a much tougher trip than the winner Gormley. With Todd Pletcher’s want-the-front pair of Theory and Syndergaard, there will be no easy leads for Gormley this time.

In the Turf, I can’t go past defending champion Found, Highland Reel, who chased her home in the Arc, and Flintshire, North America’s best. One thing concerns me about the latter. If you check his form, it’s noticeable that he has a case of second-itis on the world’s biggest stages—the 2014 and 2015 Arc; Hong Vase last December; the 2015 Dubai Sheema Classic and the 2014 BC Turf.

I will go against my own Euro rule by leaving out Ulysses, who I don’t think classes up.

I'll wrap up a $15 Pick 3 with Carina Mia, whose connections made the right choice in entering her in the Filly & Mare Sprint rather than the Distaff, which was under consideration. She won't run into three Eclipse winners in the shorter race. I mentioned in my previous column that I don't think defending champion Wavell Avenue is the same filly this year.

I guess it’s incumbent to at least take a shot at the Classic. After what he did for me in the Travers, I have to go back to Arrogate.

I have other preferences but none I couldn’t be talked out of, inasmuch as I’ll be spending the two Breeders’ Cup Days in Las Vegas with the boss, who will have his mountain of research, and Paul Cornman. Life is good.

Written by Tom Jicha

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