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, March 17, 2016

They might be called Derby preps, but winning matters

Everyone looks for hidden clues and telltale signs this time of year to predict who might develop into the Kentucky Derby winner. The key might be not to overlook the obvious. Winning is what matters. The four most recent Derby winners went into the race 10-for-10 as 3-year-olds. Six of the past 10 had unblemished sophomore records—seven if you toss Animal Kingdom’s second on grass.

MIAMI, March 17, 2016--Destin looked like a colt with a big future winning the Tampa Bay Derby last Saturday. However recent history teaches that Destin’s future does not include wearing a garland of roses on the first Saturday in May.

Mor Spirit seemed to be everyone’s third or fourth choice in Kentucky Derby conversations until last weekend. The same history indicates Saturday’s second in the San Felipe dooms his chances in Louisville. Exaggerator became a toss even before his third on Saturday when he ran second in the San Vicente.

Mo Tom made an eye-catching late move off a tough trip in the Risen Star. Alas, close isn’t good enough. Draw a line through him. This takes care of 40% of this week’s HRI Top 10.

When it comes to digging out a Derby winner, the place to look is in the winner’s circle of the preps. Close counts less than it does in horseshoes. The combined 3-year-old record of the four most recent Derby winners is 10 races, 10 wins.

American Pharoah took the Rebel and Arkansas Derby to arrive at Churchill Downs two-for-two at the beginning of his sophomore campaign. California Chrome won three stakes—the Cal Cup Derby, the San Felipe and the Santa Anita Derby--prior to the Derby. Orb won a Gulfstream allowance then the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby. I’ll Have Another preceded his Derby triumph with scores in the Robert B. Lewis and Santa Anita Derby.

Going back another year, there’s an asterisk attached to Animal Kingdom’s only loss as a 3-year-old, the last time an eventual Kentucky Derby winner went into the race with less than a spotless sophomore record. He ran second on the turf before winning the Spiral in his only other 3-year-old start.

Kick the grass race and the past five Kentucky Derby winners are 11-for-11 on main tracks as 3-year-olds prior to Louisville. Granted, another asterisk is necessary, inasmuch as the Spiral was on a synthetic track.

This works both ways. Juvenile champion Street Sense won the Tampa Bay Derby but was second in the Blue Grass when the race was run on Polyturf.

The last Derby winner to come into the race off a defeat on conventional dirt was Super Saver in 2010. He ran third in the Tampa Derby and second in the Arkansas Derby.

Big Brown, two-for-two in 20008, and Barbaro, three-for-three in 2006, also arrived in the Blue Grass with perfect records as 3-year-olds. So over the past decade six Kentucky Derby winners—seven if you count Animal Kingdom’s Spiral-- have gone into the race undefeated on main tracks during their sophomore campaigns.

The point is, searching prep races for hidden moves or unreported trouble or coming to the conclusion that a horse is being brought slowly up to the Derby might be an exercise in futility. There’s no substitute for success. This sample is relatively small but it’s sizable enough to be taken seriously.

In my opinion, the streak’s run over the past five years is especially revealing since training methods have changed so dramatically. Horses, especially serious ones, race so infrequently that they are rarely “given one.” They are out there to win almost every time.

With Mohaymen, Nyquist, Shagaf, Danzing Candy and Suddenbreakingnews still sporting unblemished records as 3-year-olds, odds are better than not that this streak of perfection will extend another year.

Decoupling dead, Calder, Hialeah live another year

The Florida legislative session ended last Friday with no action taken on decoupling. As expected there was an 11th hour attempt to tack a decoupling amendment onto another bill but it failed.

Ergo, in addition to greyhound and harness tracks having to continue running races and jai alai frontons being forced to keep the pelotas bouncing, there will be at least one more Gulfstream West meeting at Calder and horses, albeit quarterhorses, will run at Hialeah another season,so that both venues can maintain their slots and poker rooms.

Thankfully, Florida’s lawmakers meet only two months a year. To quote Mark Twain, “No man’s life, liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session.” Normally, the session is in March and April. It was moved up to January this year to get it out of the way before the presidential primary.

So decoupling is 1-to-9 to come up again next year but it will probably be at least late next April before anything is done on the issue, since gambling matters traditionally aren’t settled until minutes before the gavel comes down.

Speaking of Hialeah, I checked out the new simulcasting center last Saturday. The facility on the second floor of what used to be the clubhouse is actually spiffier than it was during the track’s heyday. It’s the equal of any race book I’ve experienced in Las Vegas.

A couple of dozen hi def big screens are side by side on the walls. This is in addition to about a hundred carrels with individual monitors. A bank of windows with tellers are only a few steps to the rear. Self service machines are plentiful enough that I never had to wait behind more than one person—and I bet late. Most important as summer looms, it has been enclosed and air conditioned.

Outside, the grounds are as breathtaking as ever. It’s still invigorating to walk into the place. If you're in the Miami area, in the mood for simulcasting, and have never been to "the world's most beautiful racetrack," make it a point to go.

There was a darkly amusing downside to the day. The carrel I rented for a deuce wound up next to an older gent, who was as Damon Runyon as you get. During the course of the afternoon, he volunteered he was into the IRS for $300K and there are loan sharks looking for him because he stiffed them for $96K.

I don’t know how much to believe but he certainly acted like a desperate character. He was chasing solvency by trying to hit superfectas and Hi-5’s on $4 and $6 tickets. "I can't get out betting win tickets."

All he got was frustrated and angry as well as colorfully profane. After one beat, he exclaimed, “I hope my brother and sister go blind and get hit by a bus.” (He never made it clear why he was angry with his siblings.)

The topper came when he finally bet his case few bucks and wound up ripping up tickets again. As he said goodbye to me, he added, “I wish my mother had died before I was born.”

He sounded like he meant it.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, March 10, 2016

American tracks need to adjust big stakes to new Dubai reality

The Gulfstream Handicap offered a half-million dollars last Saturday to a field of less than top-of-the-line older horses. Santa Anita’s Big Cap is hanging out a million dollars this coming Saturday for a similar caliber field. America’s best older horses are in Dubai, where they will be every year in March now that Meydan has a conventional dirt surface. Gulfstream and Santa Anita need to adjust their stakes schedules to deal with this.

MIAMI, March 10, 2016--It’s time for America’s winter race tracks to recognize a new reality and react accordingly.

The Gulfstream Handicap last Saturday drew a field of seven. Four were from the Todd Pletcher barn and they weren’t the stable stars. The winner, Blofeld, now 4, hadn’t won since he was a 2-year-old. The only graded stakes win by any of the other three was Itsaknockout’s 2015 Fountain of Youth, courtesy of a much disputed disqualification. For this, Gulfstream put up a half-million dollars.

Saturday’s Santa Anita Big Cap, one of America’s most revered events for older horses, will get a few more but also is lacking star power. Effinex is the big name, a Grade 1 winner. The second biggest name is…Take your pick: Imperative, Hard Aces, Donworth, General A Rod, Cyrus Alexander, Melatonin, Point Piper and Class Leader. Any of these induce you to cancel other plans in order to get out to the track Saturday? Nevertheless, they will race for one million dollars.

There’s a simple explanation. America’s best older horses are in Dubai for the March 26 World Cup. This includes the top four older horses in this week’s NTRA poll--California Chrome, Mshawish, Frosted and Hoppertunity.

This isn’t an anomaly. Now that Meydan has forsaken its synthetic track (good riddance), it is a trend. Put up $10 million and offer a real race track and you are going to get America’s best year after year. It’s time for Gulfstream and Santa Anita to accept this and adjust their stakes schedules for older horses.

In a way, Gulfstream has already done this. The Donn, the new main stage for older horses, is run in early February, plenty of time to make it and the World Cup.

The Gulfstream Handicap has been diminished in prestige from the days it was the track’s premier event for older horses and reduced in distance from a mile-and-a-quarter to a mile-and-an-eighth to its current one-turn mile. The only thing that hasn’t been reduced is its purse parity with the Donn, which used to be its prep. (Extra points if you remember why the flip happened.) The two stakes are no longer close to equal. Dubai is the prime culprit.

The caliber of field the Gulfstream Handicap now attracts should be reflected in the purse. Any money saved could be used to fortify less well endowed stakes. There are six stakes the next three weekends with $75,000 purses. Take $150K from the Gulfstream Handicap and bump each $25,000 and they take on added luster. There’s still something special about the term “hundred-grander.”

Adjusting the scheduling of The Big Cap might be a tougher sell. It has been an early March fixture as long as I can remember. But something needs to be done if it’s to retain its status as a world class event. It needs to be moved up at least a couple of weeks to mid-February.

The San Antonio was run Feb. 6. Hoppertunity, arguably the best of Santa Anita’s weak older horse division, won and is headed to the Middle East rather than the Big Cap. Nobody is talking about a Big Cap-World Cup double.

It’s not as if racing hasn’t jettisoned tradition time and again. Remember important fall stakes each having its own day to shine, instead of getting lost on Super Saturdays. How about the Met Mile on Memorial Day? The Gotham, Wood Memorial and Kentucky Derby at two-week intervals? San Anita recently dumped the tradition rich Strub Series.

If the Big Cap doesn’t want to risk becoming the Mid-size Cap, Santa Anita must adjust to the times and re-schedule it so that owners and trainers don’t have to make the choice between it and the World Cup. As this year illustrates, this isn’t a close call.

Time is not on handicappers’ side

Timing is everything in life and horse racing. Farz missed by about two hours last Saturday having the accolade “former Gulfstream track record holder” attached to him forever. If the Gulfstream card had been reconfigured differently, he would have had it.

Farz, racing in the ninth race optional claimer for non-winners of one, ran a mile-and-three-sixteenths on grass in 1:51.81, almost a second and a half faster than the 1:53.19 standard going into the day. Unfortunately for him, Olordo ran 1:51.54 in the fifth race The Very One, a Grade 3.

Mark Berner, a former clocker at NYRA tracks, has written some insightful, well documented pieces for HRI recently on the inaccuracy of times on grass courses because of rail placement and run-ups. These two races serve as Exhibits A and B to underscore his points.

The rail was out 96 feet for both Saturday races. Maybe this explains the times for these two races being misleading jokes. Not only did Olordo make a shambles of the old record, the first four finishers were within two lengths, so they all broke the mark. The ninth race was a bigger Farz (I couldn’t resist). The first six were within three lengths, so they all eclipsed or almost equaled the old record, too.

The first place to look when multiple horses break records on the same day is the condition of the course. Gulfstream’s turf is hard but it was not a paved highway. Grand Tito ran a mile-and-three-eighths on grass in the Grade 3 Mac Diarmida in 2:12.55, almost two seconds slower than the course record. The likely difference: the rail was out only 24 feet. It seems to be impossible to get an accurate time when the rail is not at zero.

This is not meant as a critique of Gulfstream’s timing system. The same issues arise at every track with varying rail placements on the turf course. Ergo, there should be no recognition of any track record set when the rail is not at zero.

More significant for players, you can bet that at some point this spring or summer, a handicapper/analyst will note that Olordo set a track record in winning The Very One. Some of those who finished close might get similar praise.

Caveat emptor.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, March 03, 2016

The only breaks Florida racing gets are bad ones

South Florida racing should be riding high after last weekend's huge Fountain of Youth day, which produced a handle in excess of $24 million, and set up a showdown between undefeated Kentucky Derby hopefuls Mohaymen and Nyquist in the Florida Derby. However the good feelings are tempered by an outbreak of EHV-1 at Payson Park and the continued looming specter of decoupling as the last week of the Florida legislative session approaches.

MIAMI, March 3, 2016----Florida racing could be forgiven for assuming the racing gods have it in for it. Mohaymen's smashing win in the Fountain of Youth seemed to put the final piece in place for one of the most anticipated Kentucky Derby preps in memory, the Florida Derby showdown with undefeated Eclipse champion Nyquist.

However before there was a chance to savor the prospect, Florida racing got hit with a shot to the gut with the possibility of a follow-up haymaker to the chin.

The potentially devastating blow is the discovery at the Payson Park training center of a filly with equine herpesvirus-1. This necessitated an immediate 21-day quarantine of the facility and the approximately 500 horses housed there. This includes the potent strings of Bill Mott, Christophe Clement and Shug McGaughey
The impact on racing was minimal the first two days. Only one horse coming out of Payson was entered Thursday and Friday at Gulfstream. This weekend could be when the lock-in begins to take a toll. Clement had five horses nominated to The Very One, one of Saturday's tri-features, and reportedly planned to run two. He also had one for the Mac Diarmada. Mott had two eligible for this stakes, with one probable to run.

There are other stakes galore as the premier winter meeting winds down where horses from the Clement, Mott and McGaughey barns would be factors. Some of the upcoming Tampa Bay stakes also could lose star-power starters.

Also reports are Mott had penciled in the Honeybee at Oaklawn on March 12 for the 3-year-old debut of his outstanding filly Carina Mia. This will have to be delayed with the Oaks only nine weeks away.

Another downside is the reluctance of out-of-town barns to ship in for Florida stakes, fearful they could get marooned here if the quarantine spreads.

It's not just stakes horses coming out of the Payson barns. Clement, Mott and McGaughey runners fill the better class allowance races and MSW's, which fortify undercards. Moreover, these three are the big names. A lot of other top caliber horses winter at Payson. You won't find many $6,500 beaten claimers and $12,500 maidens.

The truly terrifying aspect of this situation, according to Mary Gallagher, general manager of Payson, is if another horse turns up positive for EHV-1, the 21-day quarantine clock starts again at zero.

In the best case scenario, this will be an isolated, single-horse occurrence and Payson horses will be eligible to race again in plenty of time for the stakes-studded Florida Derby card on April 2 as well as the plethora of big spring races at Keeneland, Aqueduct and Churchill Downs. The worst case scenario, a mass outbreak, is too catastrophic to even contemplate.

Then there's decoupling

The other prospective knockout blow is the continuing specter of decoupling, which would allow greyhound, harness and quarterhorse tracks and jai alai frontons to maintain their slots and poker operations without the obligation to continue their pari-mutuel sports. This would turn South Florida into a mini-Las Vegas. You could count on no hands how many race tracks have survived there.

Gulfstream and Tampa Bay Downs aren't included in the decoupling bill but Calder is. The end of the sham Gulfstream West meeting would be a good thing for racing even if it did reward Churchill Downs Inc. for bad behavior.

This ship hasn't sailed but the engines are fired up and the tug boats have pulled alongside. It's going to happen. It's just a matter of when.

The negative is it could also signal the end of racing at Hialeah forever. Not that many thoroughbred fans would mourn the departure of the quarterhorses, which are merely a gimmick to get slots and poker. However, as long as Hialeah was operating as a race track, hope sprang eternal for a thoroughbred renaissance.

An optimist might say that with the casino-sustaining Calder meet out of the way, Gulfstream could become amenable to a short fall boutique meeting at the world's most beautiful race track. The only good thing to come out of the Gulfstream West session is it served as a buffer between the summer and winter seasons and opening day of the winter meeting became an anticipated event. A short Hialeah session could do the same.
However, someone intimately familiar with the thinking at Hialeah said that John Brunetti's two sons are strongly opposed to spending the money it would take to spruce up the place for thoroughbreds.

There actually is more good news than bad on the decoupling front. A Florida Senate committee refused to take up the massive Seminole Indian Compact this past Tuesday. Decoupling has been attached to that bill as part of an omnibus gambling package. With the session due to end March 11, a consensus has emerged that nothing will be done this year
The hang-up is amendments that have been added to the Compact that would allow slots in six other Florida counties in addition to Miami-Dade, Broward and one new facility in Palm Beach, presumably at the dog track.

This is a deal-breaker for the Indians, who promised Florida a minimum of $3 billion over the next seven years if their monopoly on gambling in the state was guaranteed for 20 years. There also are provisions to allow the Seminoles to add table games, but the continued monopoly is driving the Compact.

The only thing more desirable for the thoroughbred industry than the status quo for another year is a status quo for many years. However, a well founded paranoia, justified by the many times horsemen have been screwed by lawmakers, has sprung up.
The fear is decoupling will be decoupled from the Seminole Compact and tacked onto some other non-related sure-thing bill at the eleventh hour next Friday. There is plenty of precedent for this, especially as it relates to pari-mutuel bills.

So while signs are more positive than negative right now, there is no relaxing until the hammer comes down on the 2016 legislative session and decoupling has been tabled until at least next year.

Written by Tom Jicha

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