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 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)


Thursday, March 02, 2017

Fountain overflowing with talented Derby hopefuls

March is the month when college basketball and Kentucky Derby fever get serious. The injury related absences of Classic Empire and McCraken have made this spring's Derby run-up more wide open than usual. But the new leader of the pack is likely to emerge from Saturday's Fountain of Youth, where Irish War Cry will bid to remain undefeated and Chad Brown will bring back dual Grade 1 winner Practical Joke. Locally based multiple stakes winners Gunnevera and Three Rules are not without upset chances.

Racing has its own variation of March Madness. Starting Saturday with Gulfstream’s Fountain of Youth, the 2017 crop of 3-year-olds will jockey to earn the opportunity to become champion of racing’s biggest dance, the Kentucky Derby.

Circumstances have made this year crazier than most. Classic Empire, the Eclipse juvenile champion, is temporarily sidelined with an abscess suffered in the vicinity of the Holy Bull. McCraken, who succeeded him atop the polls, also went into a holding pattern this week with an ankle sprain.

Neither ailment is supposed to be serious enough to knock the colts off the Derby trail but you know how these things go. How many times have you heard a trainer say there can be no hiccups on the road to Louisville?

The Fountain of Youth is loaded as always with undefeated Holy Bull winner Irish War Cry the horse to beat. More on this race in a bit.

Also Saturday, El Areeb, the only sophomore with a pair of graded stakes wins this year, bids for his third in a row in the Gotham. It will be impossible to get an accurate gauge on him until he faces better than the inner track bunch he has been dominating.

Next Saturday, Santa Anita’s San Felipe offers a showdown of Grade 1 winners, Bob Baffert’s undefeated Mastery in his 2017 debut against Sham winner Gormley.

The same afternoon, the Tampa Bay Derby figures to have a huge field thanks to the absence of McCraken, who dominated the prep, the Sam F. Davis on Feb. 11. If runnerup Tapwrit comes back, he’s my choice, no matter who else shows up. If you’re looking for a Derby sleeper, you could do worse.

Getting back to the Fountain of Youth, Irish War Cry impressed in running his record to three-for-three in the Holy Bull. However, the race could not have broken more in his favor, especially with the likelihood Classic Empire wasn’t on top of his game.

Irish War Cry was able to lope along on the lead in non-taxing, almost even 24 second quarters—24.14, 47.92, 1:11.87. This left him with plenty in the tank to fend off the closers by almost four lengths. Graham Motion, who trained 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom, doesn’t expect his son of Curlin to have it so easy this time. “There’s a target on us now.”

While Irish War Cry had things all his own way in the Holy Bull, Gunnevera, who closed resolutely for second, was forced to steady going to the far turn and lost valuable momentum. With different trips, the outcome could be turned upside down in the FoY.

Chad Brown has a dangerous new shooter in Practical Joke. His only miss in four starts came when he ran a troubled trip third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Practical Joke has proven he’s a fighter, a valuable asset. He won the Hopeful by a neck and the Champagne by a nose. Brown isn’t known to lean on horses in the morning, ala Baffert, but Practical Joke has been firing bullet after bullet at Palm Meadows this winter.

Gulfstream specialist Three Rules is not without a chance. His Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, his only loss in six starts in 2016, came in a tough trip on the track after a grueling trip getting from South Florida to Santa Anita. His 3-year-old debut in the seven furlong Swale was an ideal set-up for Saturday. He was close to the pace, swung wide to take the lead in early stretch then hung in to be beaten less than a length by Favorable Outcome, who Brown thinks might become one of the nation’s top sprinters.

Not to be overlooked is the fact that Three Rules beat Gunnevera twice at Gulfstream last summer before the latter skipped town to win the Saratoga Special and Delta Jackpot.

I like Practical Joke to get the money but I’ll have Three Rules on at least one horizontal ticket.

Guarantees are a drag

At this point it’s as futile to request Gulfstream observe post times as it would be to ask Miley Cyrus to keep her clothes on. You don’t change what is working.

Gulfstream’s post drag reached its nadir last Saturday. When the clock clicked to zero for the 10th race, there were four minutes to post for Fair Grounds’ Mineshaft Handicap. As we often do in the press box to amuse ourselves, we wondered aloud which race would go off first.

It wasn’t close. The Mineshaft not only went off first, the two-turn race was completed before the gate was sprung at Gulfstream. To make matters worse, Fair Grounds also dragged its post two or three minutes because the Mineshaft started an all-stakes Pick 4.

Gulfstream's post drag, barring a mishap, is not usually seven or eight minutes. Post-time plus four minutes is the new normal.

The reason the post was delayed so long became apparent when the pool totals were posted. The $350,000 guarantee for the late Pick 4 was barely reached with $366,621 wagered. Obviously the 10th race wasn’t going to go until the guarantee had been met.

This raises the oft-asked question, what is the point of guarantees at top tier tracks? This isn't the Rainbow 6 jackpot. No regular player is fooled into thinking that the six- (or seven-) figure guarantee is what the payoff will be. In fact, “the $350,000 guaranteed” Pick 4 on Saturday paid $249.80, less than one-tenth of one percent of the guarantee.

At best, the big money guarantee is misleading to casual fans and tourists, big parts of Gulfstream’s winter clientele. Is this a desirable business plan?

Guarantees might be useful at smaller tracks with lesser handles. They assure bettors that if they are lucky enough to come up with two or three price horses they will be commensurately rewarded and not collect substantially less than what a parlay would have paid, because there was only a few thousand dollars in the pool.

Given the typical pools at major tracks, this is never the case. So guarantees are pointless. The only thing they accomplish is to fool novices and occasionally hold up races longer than usual, making a further joke of post times.

Miami, March 2, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

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