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 30, 2017

Gulfstream, Fair Grounds could produce a leader of 3YO pack

This year's Kentucky Derby crop is still without a clear leader. This could change after Saturday's Florida and Louisiana Derbys. But there are reasons to proceed with caution before going all in on early favorites Gunnevera and Girvin. Not the least of them is both have sufficient points to guarantee a Derby starting berth, so there is no necessity to lay it all on the line in their final preps for the first Saturday in May.

The observation that this season’s Kentucky Derby crop is an uninspiring group lacking a standout has been widely expressed. The latest to join the chorus is Joe Sharp, who will send out favored Girvin in Saturday’s Louisiana Derby. “This year’s Derby picture is as muddled as I can ever remember,” Sharp said on an NTRA conference call this week.

Facts bear this out. Nineteen Kentucky Derby qualifying points races in 2017 have produced 18 different winners. The only horse to double is El Areeb, who won the Jerome and Withers over Aqueduct’s inner track, against winter track competition. He fell off most Kentucky Derby hot lists when he threw in a clunker in the Gotham.

There are extenuating circumstances. McCraken looked like he could be one of the ones as he ran his unbeaten streak to four in Tampa’s Sam F. Davis. But then he went to the sidelines with a minor ankle problem and will have only one more Derby prep, next week’s Blue Grass.

Juvenile Eclipse champion Classic Empire came unhinged before he got to the starting gate in the Holy Bull, the only time he has appeared under silks this year. A foot abscess and back problems have been offered as explanations but when he supposedly was 100% again, he balked at working at Palm Meadows.

Subsequently he supposedly worked like Arrogate at an upstate farm. This is encouraging but what happens when he has to deal with a less bucolic setting, especially one as raucous as Churchill Downs on Derby Day? Maybe we’ll get a clue next week when he goes in the Arkansas Derby.

Mastery looked like the next budding superstar on the Bob Baffert conveyer belt when he destroyed his competition in the San Felipe but he came back bad and probably won’t be seen again until summer at the earliest.

Even those who fell in love with the notion of standout filly Unique Bella trying the boys had their dreams crushed when she came up injured this week, sidelining her for at least 60 days, according to Jerry Hollendorfer.

So there really is no leader as we head into the final round of major Derby preps.Gunnevera and even Girvin could lay claim to pro tem leadership with big efforts Saturday but there are reasons to proceed with caution with both.

Gunnevera already is safely in the Derby field, so there’s no urgency to lay it all down to win. His trainer Antonio Sano said at Gulfstream’s post position draw ceremony that he wants to win the Florida Derby. It is a million dollar race, after all. But he’s training Gunnevera more for the big Derby on May 6 than for this weekend’s race.

Sano hopes Saturday will be deja vu all over again.

It doesn’t help that Gunnevera drew the outside post with the short run to Gulfstream’s first turn. Moreover, when Chad Brown decided to take Fountain of Youth runnerup Practical Joke out of town to prep in the Blue Grass, a bunch of no-chance dreamers jumped into the Florida Derby. Eleven passed the box although only 10 will go. Todd Pletcher indicated Batallion Runner will scratch and look elsewhere.

Four or five of the late arrivals on the scene have no chance to win but a big chance to back up in the face of Gunnevera when he launches his late bid, likely from last considering his post. If he gets a clear run, he wins and becomes the horse to beat in Louisville--at least until next week. However the price will be too short to tap out on him.

Another Pletcher hopeful, Always Dreaming, is worth a long look at a decent price. He’s never run a bad one and both his two-turn tries have been impressive wins. He has the style to get first run on the cheap speed and the rider, Johnny V., to put him in the optimum spot.

Way down yonder, Girvin, who will be making only his fourth start, still has much to prove. He saved all the ground in the Risen Star and the rail opened for him at the top of the lane as if Calvin Borel was aboard. Even Sharp wants to be shown he has a legitimate Derby horse. “He needs to show he belongs in the Derby and not just because he has the points.”

Meanwhile, Lecomte winner Guest Suite also had a dream journey…a bad dream. Although he comes from off the pace, he got shuffled back further than trainer trainer Neil Howard wanted, so his impressive late run was for naught. Howard loves the way he’s coming up to Fair Grounds’ biggest event. “He’s still moving forward, getting close to the peaking point.”

If he reaches it Saturday, Girvin will need a maximum effort to hold him off.

Kill the 7 p.m. rule

It is illegal to allow a donkey to sleep in a bathtub in Arizona.

You can’t keep an ice cream cone in your back pocket on Sunday in Georgia.

Whale fishing is against the law in Nebraska (think about that one).

These are among scores of inane laws still on the books because they are so ridiculous no one has gone to the trouble to eradicate them.

Florida, which once unintentionally banned all computers by wording an anti-internet café bill poorly, has one of its own. No thoroughbred race may begin after 7 p.m.

While no one pays attention to the laws previously mentioned because they are so asinine, the 7 p.m. rule is scrupulously adhered to by Gulfstream and could come into play on Florida Derby Day. Since daylight savings time has extended the number of sun-lit hours, Gulfstream has flirted with going past 7 p.m. on both Saturdays. Neither day had huge crowds. Saturday will draw the biggest turnout of the season and 14 races are scheduled.

This rule was put into place to protect greyhound tracks and jai alai frontons from thoroughbred competition. Now dog racing and jai alai are virtually dead and thoroughbred simulcasts contribute mightily to greyhound and jai alai bottom lines. Races from Gulfstream would be a boon not a blow.

Yet no one has bothered to have this rule eliminated. With decoupling and other pari-mutuel issues on the legislative agenda this session, it should be a priority to have killing the 7 p.m. rule tacked onto any racing bill. Who would be against it?

There Are No Words

Arrogate’s breath-taking triumph Saturday triggered a flashback to Shea Stadium in 1969. Part of the sideshow to the Miracle Mets was the fan who had an appropriate sign for every occasion.

After one of the championship triumphs—I don’t recall if it was the division, pennant or World Series-- by the team that had been baseball’s laughingstocks (Remember the book “Can Anyone Here Play This Game”), the sign guy held up “There Are No Words.”

The past year has been marked by comebacks usually seen only in movies: the Patriots climbing out of a 25-point hole in the Super Bowl; the Cubs coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the World Series to claim their first title in 108 years; the Cavaliers also rallying from a 3-1 deficit against the record-breaking Golden State Warriors.

None of these compare to what Arrogate did in Dubai. When he crossed the finish line, ears pricked looking for more, I sent a one-word text to J.P.—“Wow!”

I’ve been going to the races since I was 14 and Arrogate is the horse I have been waiting my whole life to see.

I witnessed Secretariat’s Belmont, the performance that rivals what Arrogate did in Dubai. On his best day, Secretariat might have beaten any horse who ever lived. But he had off days. He ran third in the Wood Memorial, his final prep for the Triple Crown, and lost twice more before retiring at the end of his 3-year-old season.

Arrogate hasn’t had any bad days since his debut. Only days that have been better than the last. I can no longer conceive of a scenario, barring injury, in which Arrogate can be beaten. It’s a pity we will only get to appreciate him three more times and maybe not again until August.

Miami, March 30, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (14)


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

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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)


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