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, December 29, 2016

Masochistic DQ another shameful disregard for players

Masochistic, who should be a charter member of Racing's Hall of Infamy, is expected to be disqualified on Friday from his second-place finish in the BC Sprint for a steroid overage. The owners, trainers and jockeys of horses who finished behind him will benefit from increased purses. Bettors who would have had the new official exactas, tri's, etc., will, as usual, get nothing. But this situation is different from the norm. The stewards had a reasonable expectation that he would test positive yet they allowed him to run.

MIAMI, Dec 29--The year ended in keeping with the way it played out. Bettors were played for fools again. I was going to say one last time but there are still a few days left in 2016.

Not surprisingly, it happened in California, ground zero for bettors being screwed.

Masochistic is expected to be disqualified on Friday from second in the Breeders' Cup Sprint for a steroid overage. The owners of Mind Your Biscuits, third under the wire, will inherit the difference between the show purse and the place. The other minor place finishers also will experience a windfall. Ditto the jockeys and trainers involved.

But bettors who had the Defrong-Mind Your Biscuits exacta will get bupkis. The same goes for those who wagered on what will be the new official tri and super.

These situations, when discovery occurs well after the fact, happen every now and then. Because of the time lapse, it would be unwieldy--but no longer impossible with computer betting and the like--to make bettors as whole as the owners, trainers and jockeys.

This time is different. Masochistic's DQ could be seen coming. The horse, who coincidentally (or not) was involved in the apparent betting coup of the millennium on Derby Day 2014, tested positive three times for the steroid stanazolol in the days leading up to the Breeders' Cup.

Masochistic's trainer, Ron Ellis, knew a post-race positive was possible, if not likely. The Santa Anita stewards knew. It's debatable whether Breeders' Cup knew beforehand because of medication confidentiality rules, though there might have been some winking and nodding involved. Yet Masochistic was allowed to run.

Samantha Siegel, one of Masochistic's owners, was quoted as saying, "I was shocked that we weren't automatically scratched."

The stanazolol overage was so slight as to be laughable, in the trillioniths of a gram. But a positive is a positive and there is zero tolerance for steroids on race days. (There should be zero tolerance at all times. Allowing out of competition use is like letting baseball and football players juice up during their offseasons.)

Nevertheless, the stewards allowed Masochistic--by their definition a drugged horse--to race against rivals who were found to be clean. The only ones who didn't know this were the bettors.

The potential impact extends beyond the final order of finish. Masochistic, who according to the rules had an illegal advantage, pushed Drefong through torrid fractions. Only Drefong's superiority allowed him to gut it out to the wire. But this exertion could have caused Drefong to be caught late by the surging Mind Your Biscuits. Absent Masochistic, Drefong is on an easy lead and probably coasts home.

Only seven horses started in the Sprint. If Masochistic had been scratched, the field would have been one of the shortest in BC history, meaning dramatically fewer combinations in horizontal and vertical pools. Could this have been the Santa Anita stewards protecting the track (in this case, the Breeders' Cup) handle, as they did with the Jimmy Durante Handicap when flying debris at Del Mar should have resulted in the stakes being ruled "no contest"?

Given the litany of fan-screwing outrages in California, it's difficult to give the stewards the benefit of the doubt.

A promising start to 2017

It appears the new year will get off to a more positive start. Also on Friday, Ramon Preciado is expected to lose his license for multiple drug offenses. Anyone buying his tale of a disgruntled female groom hopping his horses because she hated him?

Preciado will join another serial offender, Kirk Ziadie, on the sidelines, although a lot of people around Gulfstream remain convinced he is still a factor in horses running under his father's name, Ralph Ziadie. At least Gulfstream is trying to clean up the game.

Along these lines, Marcus Vitali and his alleged beard, Allan Hunter, also have been told they are not welcome at Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs.

Yet, unbelievably, Vitali has been nominated to serve as a director of the Florida HBPA. This is like nominating Bernie Madoff for a seat on the Security and Exchange Commission.

For those with short memories, Vitali tried to avoid punishment for numerous drug violations in Florida by turning in his license and relocating his stable to Maryland. When Tim Ritvo realized what was going on, he banned Vitali from entering his horses at Laurel.

Meanwhile, evidence emerged that Vitali was using Hunter as a program trainer at Gulfstream for horses he formerly trained.

If the FHBPA doesn't have a rule that someone in Vitali's circumstances is ineligible to hold office, it should. ASAP.

Driving finishes

Before I close the page on 2016 there are a few other things I'd like to get off my chest:

The Pegasus is the most talked about event to come to racing in years. However, it's introduction comes at the expense of the Donn Handicap, which had been the most significant race for older horses of the winter. Gulfstream owes its existence to the Donn family, so it would be a nice gesture to recognize this by rechristening another major race with the Donn name. The Gulfstream Park Handicap is the obvious candidate.

Del Mar's out-of-state wagering for the fall meet was up more than 15%. I'm claiming a major contributing factor was the 12:30 first post. The 2 p.m. opener (5 p.m. in the East) during the summer session loses an untold number of East Coast bettors, who opt for dinner at a normal hour. Santa Anita has 12:30 and 1 p.m. posts so an earlier start at Del Mar would also provide bettors with consistency.

The Eclipse Awards came up with a winning parlay in selecting Steve Crist and Andy Beyer for Awards of Merit. They have long been an entry. They were in the vanguard of turf writers who brought real journalism in place of puff pieces to the sport. As publisher of The Racing Times, Crist introduced previously unavailable information to bettors, most noticeably the Beyer figures. The Racing Times didn't last but Crist's innovations have.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, December 22, 2016

No suspense in this year’s Eclipse Awards

The Eclipse Awards asks voters to list first, second and third choices, even though only first-place votes count. The purpose is to eliminate the possibility of unanimous vote-getters tipping off the results when the finalists are announced. This year more than any other, the Eclipses are well served by this process. The winners in the majority of divisions are so clear-cut there could be a half-dozen fields with unanimous winners.

MIAMI, Dec. 22--There are no place and show prizes at the Eclipse ceremonies. Members of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and other voting groups are asked to list their second and third choices on ballots, which arrived during the past week. But only the first-place votes matter. The reason for adding second and third is to try to create some suspense leading up to the Jan. 21 presentations at Gulfstream Park.

This year the winner of almost every division is so obvious. There used to be more drama in an old episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

California Chrome is the Horse of the Year. End of discussion. Arrogate beat him in the Breeders’ Cup Classic but the Eclipse Awards are supposed to be for a body of work, not just one race. Winning seven of eight in a campaign that stretched from January to December and included a pair of wins in the Middle East, California Chrome towers over the field. Obviously, he is best Older Dirt Horse, too.

Beholder is almost as much a layover as top Older Dirt Female, her fourth Eclipse without ever winning a race outside Southern California. Stellar Wind, who beat her twice, had her chance to end Beholder’s reign but couldn’t get it done in the BC Distaff.

Songbird should get every vote in the 3-year-old filly division. A case could have been made for Horse of the Year if the BC Distaff photo had gone her way.

The Kentucky Derby is usually the be-all and end-all among 3-year-old males. Not this year. Arrogate’s breath-taking brilliance in the Travers and BC Classic outweigh Nyquist’s spring triumphs.

The irony and unfair aspect of Eclipse voting is if Nyquist had retired after the Derby, he very well could have held on to the title despite Arrogate’s late-season surge. But inexplicably disappointing performances—a growth spurt is not an excuse-- in the Preakness, Haskell and Pennsylvania Derby doom any case that could be made for Nyquist.

Classic Empire, the early favorite for next May’s Kentucky Derby off his BC Juvenile win, and the fact that he has never been beaten in a race in which he carried his jockey to the finish, did more than enough to out-rate Bob Baffert’s undefeated Masterly.

Champagne Room is a lot shorter than the 33-1 she was in the BC Juvenile Fillies to grab the Eclipse in her division. She had only one other stakes win but she took the big one and no other young filly distinguished herself enough to overcome that laurel.

Every season there seems to be one unfortunate horse, who does enough to capture an Eclipse in any other year only to be denied because a rival did even more. Maybe we should create an Alydar Award for this.

Miss Temple City would be the prime candidate this year. She beat males in the Makers Mark and Shadwell Turf Mile and went out to California and won the Matriarch, all Grade 1’s.

But Tepin’s six straight wins, including a world class triumph in the Queen Anne at Ascot, gets the gold as Female Turf champion. Miss Temple City also went to Ascot for the Duke of Cambridge, where she finished fourth. In their only head-to-head meeting, Tepin was second in the BC Mile while MTC checked in fifth.

As strong as the distaff turfers were, the male division was weak. Like Tepin, Flintshire ran second in his final two starts of the season. Unlike Tepin, Flintshire had no serious rival for the title. His wins in the Manhattan, Bowling Green and Sword Dancer are more than enough since no other North American horse stood out. I refuse to vote for a Euro, who wins one start in the U.S., as Highland Reel did.

Male Sprinter is one of the divisions still up for grabs. Drefong’s campaign mirrors Arrogate’s. He won five in a row but didn’t win his first stakes until the Kings Bishop on Travers Day. Then he encored at the Breeders’ Cup.

His Bob Baffert stablemate Lord Nelson was undefeated in four races, three of them Grade 1’s, and would have been a heavy favorite at the Breeders’ Cup only to be scratched with an injury that sent him into retirement.

If Drefong makes it six in a row in the Grade 1 Malibu this coming Monday, he gets my vote. If he comes up short, I’ll support Lord Nelson.

Female Sprinter is another case of no one really rising above the class, so Finest City, on the strength of her BC victory and an overall (4) 2-1-1 record around one turn gets my vote to take home the trophy.

In the key human categories Chad Brown has saddled the winners of the most money, dethroned perennial champion Todd Pletcher at Saratoga, the nation's glamor meet, and conditioned Turf champion Flintshire. He also deserves plaudits for bringing Lady Eli, the year’s feel good story, back from near death to Grade 1 form.

Bob Baffert trained a couple of likely Eclipse winners, Arrogate, and either Defrong or Lord Nelson, in addition to Masterly. But Brown finally should get his first Eclipse.

I’m going slightly outside the box for top jockey. Javier Castellano again cleared the pack in purses and "Money Mike" Smith had a career year, even for him. However, I’m going with Jose Ortiz, who really broke through, for winning the most races and almost every riding title in New York. He also traveled well for stakes engagements elsewhere.

Knocks on Wood

The downgrading of the Wood Memorial has generated a firestorm of conversation and controversy. This isn’t the first time the Wood was lowered from Grade 1 to Grade 2, but it could be a lot harder to climb back to the top this time.

With Grade 1 options and million dollar purses at Gulfstream, Oaklawn and Santa Anita, it’s going to be difficult to lure the type of horses that can propel the Wood back to the top.

The only way to make it happen is for the Todd Pletcher’s, Chad Brown’s and Kiaran McLaughlin’s to set an example to other New York trainers by making an all-out effort to support their home circuit with their top Kentucky Derby hopefuls, not their mid-level 3-year-olds who might show well in the Wood but aren’t going to have a significant impact on the Classics.

There is little loyalty in racing but this is one instance where the guys who have become rich and famous on the NYRA circuit need to give a little back.

Merry Christmas (and/or Happy Hanukah). You people make all my seasons bright.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, December 15, 2016

NY state wants to teach Pletcher, Brown, et al, how to train

The New York Gaming Commission has dictated that all trainers, including superstars such as Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown and Bob Baffert, must take a four-hour course each year on how to care for horses and manage a stable. Elsewhere, the Pegasus Stakes will not only be the world's richest race, it will be the most expensive to attend. On top of the previously announced $100 general admission, Gulfstream plans to charge $50 per car to park.

MIAMI, Dec. 15--The following has to be prefaced with this is not a joke.

Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown are being compelled by the New York State Gaming Commission to take a four-hour course annually on how to train horses and run a stable. So is Kiaran McLaughlin and every other trainer on the NYRA circuit. If he starts more than 12 horses in New York the entire year, Bob Baffert also is subject to this ludicrous dictate, as is every out-of state-trainer.

This is like New York forcing Billy Joel, who regularly plays Madison Square Garden, to take performing lessons from the state.

The Gaming Commission mandate, which also applies to assistant trainers, would be praiseworthy if it were limited to those trying to break into the profession or running one- and two-horse barns. To subject Hall of Fame achievers to it is beyond insulting. But as often is the case with government, common sense is a non-starter.

“Creating a continuing education requirement for trainers will bring knowledge and evidence-based research to an audience that otherwise generally would not be exposed to it,” according to Rob Williams, the gaming commission’s executive director.

Fortunately, there is an expedient escape. The course can be taken online, so trainers too busy conditioning hundred-horse barns can assign an underling, who it might help, to take the course for them. Stupid edicts beg to be circumvented.

The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association is understandably opposed to this onerous burden, especially since standardbred horsemen are exempt. A similar program is being contemplated for the standardbred industry, according to Williams.

Why is the state only thinking about it? Before this program was announced, someone should have figured out that when it comes to physical issues, a horse is a horse, (of course, of course), whether it’s toting a jockey or pulling a sulky. Sound business practices and ethics are equally crucial in both games.

The intriguing question is who is going to teach Pletcher, Brown and their colleagues to do what they do better than anyone? Apparently, it’s going to be a bureaucrat. Beautiful.

Bridge jumping on way out?

At the same session, the Gaming Commission took under consideration allowing tracks to eliminate show wagering in races with four entrants to combat staggering minus pools.

This is a reminder of a proposal West Coast racing activist Andy Asaro has been pushing in California. To reduce minus pools, he wants tracks to be able to reduce the minimum payoff to $2.05.

His tradeoff is breakage would be eliminated. If a horse’s odds dictated, say, a $6.39 payoff, that is what the bettor would get. This was not feasible in the era when most players cashed at the windows and pennies would have tied up the lines. With fractional betting and a large percentage of players opting for automated tellers and computer betting, this is no longer a significant drawback.

I think the proposal has a lot of merit. Like the overwhelming majority of players, I don’t get involved in bridge-jumper situations. However, I would like to get the true odds on a winning bet and it’s not a matter of pennies. It could come out to a couple of bucks on a $10 win bet. Asaro argues this might steer some players back to the win pool, thereby increasing churn and fans cashing bets.

What do you think?

Movable finish lines?

Kent Desormeaux, who can ride the hair off a horse, doesn’t have a lot going on under his own hair.

Biting the hand that has fed him spectacularly over the years, Desormeaux said at the annual jockey’s convention in Las Vegas that he doesn’t trust photo finishes. His contention is the finish line can be drawn wherever the placing judges want it.

The irony is Desormeaux is someone who has typically not had a handle on where the wire is. He has been fined and suspended repeatedly for not riding his horse out to the finish.

Desormeaux isn’t the only one to voice this opinion. I have pondered it myself when they put up a number I couldn’t believe. But there has never been a smidgen of proof that this is happening.

Unless and until he produces evidence of tampering with photos, Desormeaux should keep his mouth shut. The last thing the game needs is another conspiracy theory challenging its integrity espoused by someone with his prominence.

Commoners not welcome

If you asked Santa to bring you one of those $100 tickets to the Pegasus Stakes, better send him an addendum that you need a $50 parking pass, too.

If the purpose of the $12 million Pegasus—the world’s richest race—is to bring new fans to racing, The Stronach Group is choosing a strange way to do it.

The $100 general admission gets you through the gate, nothing more. Every place to sit down except the toilets is substantially extra. Bar stools are going for $200.

On top of that, parking will cost $50 per car. That’s self parking. If you want to valet, it will cost you a C-note, tip not included.

General admission and parking at Gulfstream is normally free. It has been since the new plant with its slots casino opened. Given that the mainstream media doesn’t devote much space to thoroughbred racing and Gulfstream isn’t highlighting the budget-busting prices in its advertising, it’s a sure bet thousands of regular race-goers are going to be shocked when they arrive at the track.

When you factor in what it is going to cost Gulfstream to erect and staff barriers where there are none, it’s fair to ask whether there could be a point of diminishing returns in revenue while suffering a major blow in public relations.

The premium areas, where a seat at a restaurant table goes for as much as $765, could be segregated by wrist bands to keep out the commoners while the general areas could be free as always or cost a nominal amount, say $10 or $20, without the bottom line taking much of a hit. This is somewhat how the crowd is handled on Florida Derby Day and it has worked well.

This doesn’t take into account that Gulfstream is essentially putting its mall out of business for the day because of the parking fee and essentially closing its casinos to the general public on a weekend day in the height of tourist season.

Speaking of the Florida Derby. the Pegasus situation also creates a long range threat to horse players. If a substantial number of race-goers spring for the $100 admission, a precedent will have been established. It would seem to be only a matter of time until admission and parking are no longer free on Florida Derby Day and maybe other big attraction afternoons.

Written by Tom Jicha

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