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, July 18, 2013

One longshot winner led to a lifetime love affair with Saratoga

A side trip en route to a wild weekend of revelry became the catalyst for a half-century of rich Saratoga memories and it's all owed to a 2-year-old maiden longshot winner named Bugler.

MIAMI, July 19, 2013--Every great love story with a racetrack begins with a major score. Mine with Saratoga is no exception.

I can’t believe it was 50 years ago. But this is the summer for Saratoga milestone anniversaries. It was the summer I turned 18, the legal age to bet and then, not insignificantly, to drink. I was still living in New York City.

People didn’t talk about bucket lists then. But after hearing wild tales about how Lake George in the summer was the northern version of Fort Lauderdale for spring break, going there for a weekend as soon as I was old enough was atop my “to do” list.

A couple of friends, George and John, were down for it as much as I was. I had gotten hooked on the horses, very modestly, a couple of years before. “As long as we were heading upstate,” I cajoled, “why don’t we stop at Saratoga? I hear it’s a really cool place.”

So we took the NY Central on a Friday morning and got off at Saratoga, about 30 miles from our ultimate weekend destination. We pooled some money, about $10 apiece and promised we would bet only a couple of bucks a race. The only gimmick then was an early daily double.

Four races in, our cache was down to $15 and we were getting discouraged enough to ponder an early exit. Maybe Saratoga wasn't such a great idea.

I was the supposed expert so I suggested making a win bet on a 25-to-1 two-year-old first-time starter named Bugler. I couldn’t understand the price because he was a Darby Dan colt, trained by Jimmy Conway and ridden by Braulio Baeza, at the time a triple crown of top connections. (The reason was there was a hot firster sent off at 3-5. I think his name was Jacinto.) George went to make the bet.

This was the thrill of our young lifetimes right from the start. Bugler bounced out to the lead. By the time he passed us at the Top of the Stretch, he had about six, and he didn’t give up an inch of it to the wire. It wasn’t until they put up his number that a laughing-like-a-banshee George revealed he had bet the whole $15, $5 across the board. His logic was, if we lost, we would get an early start on Lake George.

We collected $196. This has to be put in perspective. It was about double what my father made for a six-day week at his newstand. The three of us combined left home with little more than half that for the weekend. (Our motel was paid in advance, as was our train fare.) Beers at the bars we hit in Lake George were only 50 cents, drinks a buck, and you could eat well for less than $10 a day. Suddenly we were flush enough to party like rock stars.

Screw the economy bus ride to Lake George. We found a limo for $5 apiece. We bar hopped with abandon. We called cabs for ridiculously short rides. The only bummer was we didn’t hook up with anyone. Didn’t even get a name or phone number.

(Just as well. Two weeks later, I had a blind date that started on the boardwalk in Rockaway and hasn’t ended yet. Pat and I will celebrate our 47th wedding anniversary in the fall. What was the line from the movie, “In every boy’s life there is a summer of ’42.” Mine was the summer of ’63.)

Saratoga was supposed to be merely a pit stop on Friday afternoon en route to Lake George. But there was no question where the three of us were heading on Saturday—and, as it turned out, Monday. Sunday racing wasn’t legal or we would have been there then, too.

We didn’t have any other big scores but we had enough winners that we were still flush enough to deep-six the train home for the first plane ride for each of us, from Albany to LaGuardia on Mohawk Airlines. Thanks to Bugler, it became the weekend of our young lives.

I’ve made the pilgrimage to Saratoga in 48 of the 50 years since. At one point I had a streak of 35 straight Travers. Pat has been at my side on all of those trips. The tradition endured even after we moved to Florida in 1972. Every August we packed the car, loaded the kids and headed 1,500 miles north to the Adirondacks.

We started taking my younger brother Greg with us as soon as he could appreciate it. He was standing alongside me for another memorable Spa moment. We were by the rail in mid-stretch one weekday afternoon in 1977 when a two-year-old (we didn’t have) flashed by. “I’ve never seen a horse run that fast,” I said to my brother. That colt was Affirmed. I still haven't seen a horse run that fast.

Eventually our younger sister, Leslie, came along, too. Our tales of the joys of Saratoga eventually convinced my parents to check it out. My father isn’t with us anymore but my mother, now 88, hasn’t missed a year at the Spa in I can’t tell you how long. She’ll be there again at the Top of the Stretch next weekend and probably a couple more weekends before the end of the meet. She picks her own horses, too.

Unfortunately, we all didn’t make it at the same time every year. However, season before last, we planned to all be there together: Pat and I, our son and daughter and their spouses and children; Greg, his wife Patti and their three grown children; Leslie, her spouse John and their three daughters and their boyfriends. There were about 25 of us, total.

Race tracks have never come to appreciate that their No. 1 marketing tool is horse players. I’ll bet a vast majority of fans broke their racetrack maidens when a friend brought them along. I know that most of the extended Jicha clan would never have made it to the Spa if I hadn't broken the ice with them. But they've all become Saratoga regulars and race fans year round.

My niece Hayley, a marketing major at the University of Miami, had T-shirts made up with neon lettering, “Jicha Family Reunion 2011.” There were so many of us wearing the shirts walking around the track, we began to attract attention. Sam the Bugler (there’s that word again) was the first to notice. He came to the Top of the Stretch to visit and serenade us. He came back the next day, too.

Word got to Channel 10 in Albany. Its crew, there to cover the races, found us and did a feature on us. It was about a three-minute piece on the air. It’s a tape we’ll all cherish as our lives go our separate ways.
We’ll be out in force again this season, ready to start a second half-century of memories.

I don’t know if any of this would have happened if it wasn’t for a colt named Bugler.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, July 12, 2013

Ill will builds in the Gulfstream-Calder conflict

The Calder-Gulfstream conflict has moved from the racetrack to extraneous administrative hearings and courtrooms, which can only exacerbate the ill will that is building and make the eventual healing more difficult. Meanwhile, the Racing Form is planning to build a pay wall that will take much of its editorial content off its currently free site.

MIAMI, July 12, 2013--A circular firing squad has been formed among South Florida racing entities.

As if the head-to-head conflict between Gulfstream and Calder isn’t potentially devastating enough to the future of the game in the Miami area, the various interests have begun to take superfluous potshots at each other.

The week after the first head-to-head showdown between the two tracks on July 6-7 degenerated into a series of charges and counter-charges extraneous to the main event. The only beneficiaries were the lawyers. Isn’t this always the way?

It started when Florida’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering filed a complaint against Gulfstream for staging a 150-yard match race with betting on the morning of July 1. The odd event was intended to maintain a permit for Gulfstream-affiliated company, Gulfstream Park Thoroughbred After Racing Program. The ultimate goal is to qualify GPTARP to obtain a slots license.

The Division said GPTARP was outside the rules because one race does not constitute a racing card. Furthermore, the state is supposed to get 10 days notice of such an event. It says it got one day.

Sanctions range from a $1,000 fine to loss of license. The expectation is the decision will come down closer to the former. The latter is unthinkable punishment far beyond fitting the crime.

The bigger question is who got the Division, which rarely acts outside a complaint being filed, involved. Common sense suggests two likely suspects. Calder, its parent company or someone championing its interests and the Florida HBPA. The Calder connection is obvious. The FHBPA has been trying to get Gulfstream to assure it that if more slot machines come into operation, it will continue to get its share.

It could be neither was responsible for the Division becoming involved. But if you were Gulfstream, who would you suspect? This is important because at some point all these parties are going to have to work together again. Hopefully.

On the other side of town, the FHBPA undertook another quixotic mission. It asked the state not to renew the license for Calder’s slots casino because there is no purse agreement in place and there hasn’t been one since the start of the season on April 6.

This is the second action taken by horsemen against Calder. They denied the track permission to simulcast out of state May 2-5, cutting off their noses to spite themselves. Calder responded by cutting purses 20 percent. This was called off in time to resume simulcasting on May 9 and Calder reinstated the 20 percent cut.

The horsemen are understandably concerned that with Calder and Gulfstream racing head-to-head, handle will decline and purses will take another hit. So they tried to strike out against Calder and its parent, Churchill Downs Inc., where it hurts, at the casino.

You have to wonder if anyone considered what the impact on purses would be if the casino were shut down and the millions dedicated to purse enhancements went away.

Only problem is, Calder’s slots license had already been renewed because of a 10-year contract signed in 2010 between it and horsemen to designate a set percentage of slot revenues to purses. You have to wonder about the people advising the horsemen.

Meanwhile, there is no resolution in sight to the Calder-Gulfstream conflict. By all indications, there aren’t even talks taking place.

It’s hard not to get the feeling that a lot of the extra-curricular legal nonsense would cease if the tracks could come to an agreement beneficial to them and the horsemen. Someone has to break the ice and make the first call so the gamesmanship can end and the healing can begin.

The Racing Form has earned its sobriquet as thoroughbred racing’s Bible. I and many, if not most, horseplayers would no longer think of a day at the races without the Form than a missionary would knock on a door sans the Good Book.

Such praise often is preamble to something less positive, just as surely as one partner in a relationship beginning a conversation with “We have to talk” rarely progresses pleasantly. The Racing Form and I need to talk.

A survey regarding The Racing From showed up in my email inbox during this past week. I assume the fact that I have a DRF betting account and have long had stable mail had something to do with me being targeted.

The essence of the multi-part questionnaire was how I feel about the looming construction of a pay wall for much of the content now free on If this had been a live interview, I would have said that I feel the same way I did many years ago when I had to start paying for programming that my backyard satellite dish had been bringing in for free. I wasn’t about to give up TV’s exploding multi-channel universe, so I grumbled and paid.

I visit the Form site several times a day and enjoy it as a source of information and entertainment. I recognize that producing quality reporting and opinion is costly, and salute the Form for upgrading its editorial content in recent years.

But as I wrote at the end of the survey, quoting a golden oldie tune, “Got along without you before I met you, going to get along without you now.”

I’m certain the Form will get along without me, too. But I doubt I am in the minority on this issue. How many more people like me can the Form get along without?
There’s a racetrack saying we’ve all heard. “Never bet your eating money or eat your betting money.” I think paying for Racing Form editorial matter would come close to falling into the latter category.

As someone who worked in newspapers from my first job to my last, one thing I learned is, as circulation drops, so do ad rates. There is no question the pay wall will cost circulation. I would argue substantially. This is especially true with the explosion of alternative sites, such as this one, the Paulick Report, EquiDaily and the Bloodhorse.

So the pay wall could turn out to be a bottom-line negative.

A big issue is price, which the survey suggested could be as much as $19.95 per month. This does not include past performances. Those are extra, as they should be. Those, too, cost a fortune to gather and maintain. However, the $19.95 price point for DRF-Plus would make it one of the most expensive on the net. It’s more than five times what ESPN charges.

This is about double what most folks pay for the wonderful TV world of HBO or Showtime. Indeed, for about $19.95 you could get both, which would deliver about 20 channels of premium television, with something for everyone in the family, 24 hours a day. TV is a different universe but writing a monthly check for one is no different than writing one for the other.

This isn’t an effort to sabotage the Form. I can’t imagine a world without it. Like any business, the Form is entitled to make a profit. But if this pay wall is crucial to its survival, I fear I might have to get used to this world.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Saturday, July 06, 2013

Small fields don’t have to be the new normal

Countless factors figure into the cause of four- and five-horse fields and shorter racing weeks. The dwindling foal crop is certainly at the top of the list. But another major contributor is the reluctance of trainers to enter their horses as frequently as they did in the past. Reasons for this are all over the board, including super trainers with 200-horse barns, the introduction of trainer statistics in the past performances and the influence of the sheets. Whatever the causes, the effect is killing racing.

MIAMI, July 5, 2013--The 1969 Miracle Mets changed baseball.The fuel that rocketed the Mets into baseball’s stratosphere was a youthful pitching staff with a couple of eventual Hall of Famers. Tom Seaver was the ace. Nolan Ryan was actually only the fourth or fifth option in the rotation. Jerry Koosman and Gary Gentry both ranked above Ryan.

Rube Walker, the team’s pitching coach, decided he was going to do things differently to preserve those young arms. The norm for decades was a four-man starting rotation. Pitchers worked on three days rest. In the World Series, some started on two days rest.

Walker decided his prodigies could be more effective and enduring if they had an extra day between starts. So the Mets went to a five-man rotation, with at least four days between starts.

Success begets copycats. Every team in baseball soon followed the Mets’ lead. Starters became incapable of pitching more often than every fifth day. Their anatomy didn’t change. Their way of throwing didn’t change. Only the frequency of their starts changed.

I would argue the same thing has happened in horse racing. Contemporary thoroughbreds aren’t built differently than those from the recent past, although permissive medication might have made them less hardy. Yet the modern horse makes far fewer starts.

As ubiquitous as race-day medication has become, recently developed therapeutic drugs and state-of-the-art treatments should provide some balance. Injuries, which used to be career-ending, now sideline horses for only a few months, if that. Jeff Siegel remarked on HRTV’s “First Call” that if Ruffian had suffered the same injury today that she did in her match race with Foolish Pleasure, chances are she could have been saved.

So why can’t contemporary horses ran as often as those from the not so distant past?

They can, says Hall of Famer H. Allen Jerkens. “Nothing has happened. They could do it if (their trainers) wanted to.”

He clarified that he wasn’t making a blanket statement. “If a horse loses weight in a race or comes back a little sore, you obviously don’t want to run him back. But if he’s feeling well, eating everything, looking good and jumping and squealing, he might as well be running. Now if you run them back and they lose, they tell you that’s the reason.”

Another old school trainer, the late Hall of Famer Woody Stephens, used to say, “If they’re doing good, run them,” according to his former assistant and now top trainer in his own right Phil Gleaves. Stephens famously captured the Met Mile with Conquistador Cielo then won the mile and a half Belmont with him five days later.

More recently, Willy Beamin, then trained by Rick Dutrow Jr., won the Albany Stakes for New York breds at Saratoga last summer on a Wednesday and came back to beat a Grade 1 field in the Kings Bishop on Saturday.

Ken McPeek, more from the new school of training, offered an intriguing theory for why horses run as infrequently as they do. The trainer statistics in the Racing Form, a relatively new addition to the past performance charts, are a factor. “Owners rate us by our winning percentage. I’ve lost horses to high winning percentage trainers. If you don’t run them, you have no risk.”

You might not be able to win a race standing in the barn but a trainer's winning percentage doesn't suffer from a loss. In football, this is put down as playing not to lose.

To his credit, McPeek doesn’t allow this to change his methods. “I believe that getting a race for a horse is better than four more workouts even if it means I’ll always be a 15-16% trainer.”

Jerkens, too, believes the published stats have had an impact and sometimes put a trainer between in a tough spot. “The racing secretary expects you to run your horses. But if you run them where you don’t have a real good chance, it’s a problem.”

Jerkens and McPeek aren’t in accord on the effects Lasix has had. “You can’t run a horse on Lasix back that quickly,” McPeek said. “They lose 25 to 30 pounds in a race, more in the summer.”

What about Willy Beamin?

“That was bizarre. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Jerkens doesn’t buy this thinking. “Horses get (lost weight) right back once they drink their water.”

Another unconventional theory deals with the emergence of super trainers. Some, such as Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen, have as many as 200 horses under their care. Inevitably, many fit the same condition. “They might have 15 horses in the same category and they can’t run them all at the same time,” Jerkens said.

If those horses were spread among several barns, you could get another two or three starters in races for that caliber horse. Pletcher might run five in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes but you wouldn’t see that in an ordinary entry-level allowance.

McPeek doesn’t see this as a major issue. “Maybe Todd has that problem but not a lot of guys do. If I have two (in the same condition), I’ll run them as an entry.”

Something not to be overlooked or underestimated is the influence of “The Sheets.” Len Ragozin and his imitators have suggested it is counter-productive to run a horse too often. Many trainers have become disciples, because they and their owners are sheets players.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to trace who was racing’s Rube Walker, the trainer who initiated the less is more theory of running horses. But there is no disputing that it has created a flipside to the kiddie tune about the little train that could.

In racing, it has become, “I don't think I can. I don't think I can. I don't think I really can.” So they don’t try. And the sport is being killed by four- and five-horse fields.

Written by Tom Jicha

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