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, October 13, 2016

Early retirement of stars only part of racing’s problem

It's encouraging that a number of stars, such as California Chrome, Beholder, Flintshire and Tepin are racing as 5- and 6-year-olds.However, it doesn't help the game a lot when they appear in the entries every two months or less on average. There are myriad causes but all can be remedied and must be if racing is to reverse its downward spiral.

MIAMI, Oct. 13, 2016--A constant racing lament is, “We have to keep our stars in training and out of the breeding shed.” It’s the primary reason the Breeders’ Cup was created.

The extended careers of 6-year-old stars Beholder, Flintshire and Mongolian Saturday and 5-year-olds California Chrome, Tepin, Ironicus, Hoppertunity and Effinex are testimony that this goal is being partially realized. If the $12 million Pegasus comes to pass and endures, it might induce more owners to keep their stars active.

The retirements of still healthy winners of five of the past six Triple Crown events—American Pharoah, Exaggerator and Creator, are the other side of the coin. This week it also was revealed that 3-year-old Brody’s Cause, a Grade 1 winner at 2 and 3, is being reassigned to baby-making.

Premature trips to the breeding shed is only part of a bigger problem. Even when the best have extended careers, they show up in the entries too infrequently to build star power.

Super Saturday last weekend featured eight Grade 1 stakes. The four at Belmont, with cumulative purses of $2.4 million, drew three six-horse fields and one five-horse field. What made this more discouraging is two of the races, the Champagne and Frizette, were for juveniles. The fact that Keeneland drew big fields for a couple of juvenile stakes could be ascribed to the fact that the New York races were both one-turn events while Keeneland’s events were around two turns, much more useful preps for horses with Breeders’ Cup aspirations.

(I don’t know that there is a solution to this for NYRA but it does point out another big problem should Belmont become the only track in the Metropolitan area. The Wood Memorial would not be nearly as enticing for Derby hopefuls if it started on the Belmont backstretch.)

There’s an obvious reason for the short field dilemma: the trend to space races over absurdly long intervals. The average time between starts for the four top grade stakes at Belmont was six weeks.

The spacing in the Frizette was 41 days, 50 days, 50 days, 27 days, 33 days and 55 days. Interestingly the filly coming back in less than four weeks was Yellow Agate, the winner.

For the Flower Bowl, the number of days between starts was 21 (a French import), 42, 35, 42, 42 and 56. With two exceptions, one a Euro shipper, the field was composed of horses coming off layoffs so long that in days of not-so-old handicappers would have speculated whether they needed one.

The Champagne juveniles had not started in 33, 57, 44, 27, 49 and 33 days.

In the Jockey Club Gold Cup, once one of America’s most prestigious races, the days between starts were 29, 35, 49, 42 and 63. Frosted, who would have been odds-on, was languishing perfectly healthy in his stall, awaiting the Breeders’ Cup Mile or Classic when he will not have raced in more than two months.

The negative impact this has on racing is further illustrated by this factoid: Not one of the entrants in the Flower Bowl and Jockey Club Gold Cup, theoretically among racing’s best, had raced more than six times this year. Only two had been out that many times, the same number as those who had only one prior start in the first nine months of 2016. The average number of starts going into the two races was fewer than five. (I omitted the 2-year-old stakes because not one of the juveniles had begun their career until August.)

This isn’t only an issue in New York, which still likes to think of itself as the capital of racing. The Santa Anita Sprint Championship, worth $300,000, pulled a group of five. This has become the norm for a California stakes. The quintet had an average layoff of 56 days. Anyone sensing a connection? Their average number of starts this season was less than four.

Only Keeneland was able to lure sizable fields for its three Grade 1’s--the First Lady, the Shadwell Turf Mile and the Breeders’ Futurity. The average field size was 11.

As they like to say in politics and football analysis, there’s another story inside the numbers. In the First Lady, four of the 10 starters had raced within four weeks, a reasonable break. Take those away and you would have had a six-horse field.

Half the dozen in the Breeders’ Futurity were within four weeks of their last start. Without them, it would have been another six-horse field.

The Shadwell Mile was the weekend’s outlier with 11 starters, only two of whom had started within four weeks. Even here, the average number of starts in 2016 was just over five.

A number of factors are at play. Trainers are letting their horses’ agendas be dictated by the sheets guys, many of whom have never been closer to a horse than the other side of the rail. They have been sold a bill of goods that horses need a lengthy vacation between starts, although there is evidence to the contrary. Woody Stephens, who won the Belmont and Met Mile within five days with Conquistador Cielo, used to say, "Run them when they are good." The philosophy of the sheets is when a horse runs big, lay him off for more than a month. The sheets are a terrific handicapping tool but I'd rather side with a legendary Hall of Fame trainer when it comes to plotting a horse's career.

Super barns are another factor. Guys like Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown and Bob Baffert have so many horses, including many of the best, that they can afford to run each only a few times a year.
I don’t begrudge them their success. If I were any of them, I would want every good horse on the planet under my shed row. If I owned a world class horse, I would want a superstar trainer to condition him.

It’s up to the tracks to bring about change. A simple remedy would be to allot no more than 50 stalls and to enter only two horses in a race. (I would also bring back the coupled entry rule. When “the longer half” wins now, it raises unnecessary--and often unfounded--suspicions.) If a Pletcher or Brown has 50 2-year-olds, they have to wait their turn to race. Spread them around other barns and you would see them in the entries.

The third factor is per diems. Even a middle of the pack trainer commands about $100 a day in New York. Granted, a lot of this goes for grooms, hot walkers, exercise riders and workmen’s comp, but there is still something for the trainer. Meanwhile owners, whose horses are sitting idle, are doing nothing but writing checks. If trainers had to get by on a percentage of earnings (which would have to be raised considerably), you wouldn’t see them sitting on so many horses.

There’s no mystery to why the foal crop continues to decline. Fewer people want to get into a game in which they are almost a guaranteed loser. A horse who starts 12 times a year, not an onerous burden, is going to pay for more of his upkeep than one who goes out half as often.

I concede these are radical suggestions, which have as much chance to be implemented as Gary Johnson has to be elected president, but racing can't keep doing things the way they have always been done. It isn't working. If the trend of shorter fields and longer layoffs continues or gets worse, the direction it seems to be heading, it will hasten the end of the sport as we know and love it.

Chrome scaring them off

Baffert disclosed this week that Dortmund, arguably the second best horse on the West Coast, is being turned back to the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Makes sense. He’s tried Classic favorite California Chrome three straight times and wound up hot and dirty.

Frosted, the best older horse in the East, also might wind up in the Mile. Kiaran McLaughlin is still on the fence between that and the Classic.Take away California Chrome and there would be no question where Frosted would be headed. To give credit to McLaughin, his preference is the Classic but he is not making the call. Frosted’s owner will do that.

The lesser awards of the $6 million Classic are still lucrative enough to draw a fairly full gate, especially with some stars going elsewhere.

However I wouldn’t want to be that pizza guy in the Midwest or some of the others, who ponied up $1 million apiece for a slot in the Pegasus starting gate, thinking they could sell it for a profit. Entry fees for the BC Classic are hefty but nowhere close to a million dollars.

If Chrome dominates the Classic, I don’t see a lot of owners, who aren’t one of the original 12, banging down doors to pay a cool million to take on the champ.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Tepin stands out but Casse, Cox tout live price horses

Team Tepin is conceding the Horse of the Year title to California Chrome so they are taking the course of lesser resistance this weekend, Keeneland's First Lady against females.It will be difficult to make money on her but Casse has another contender on the final Super Saturday of the fall who should be a price in the Breeders' Futurity. Brad Cox also is touting one of his stakes hopefuls, who will be a price in the Woodford. Meanwhile, the brilliance of California Chrome is causing owners and trainers to consider whether they want to take him on in the BC Classic.

MIAMI, Oct. 5, 2016--Mark Casse has done something his extraordinary mare Tepin never does. He has raised the white flag.

It was anticipated Tepin would have her final prep for her defense of the Breeders’ Cup Mile title in Saturday’s $1 million Shadwell Mile against males. Instead, Casse has opted to take on Tepin’s own gender in the $400,000 First Lady.

The Keeneland races are among more than a dozen stakes nationwide with Breeders’ Cup implications on the final Super Saturday of the fall.

The reason: California Chrome. It might seem odd that the best dirt horse in the world would have an impact on the agenda of the outstanding turf mare in North America and arguably the world. (The debate comes down to Tepin vs. Found, each of whom has a different specialty.)

California Chrome’s demolition of Dortmund and others in last Saturday’s Awesome Again, on top of everything else he has done this year, convinced Casse that the ultimate goal of Tepin, Horse of the Year, is out of reach.

This is in spite of Tepin’s perfect 2016 record of six straight, same as Chrome. Tepin’s resume is enhanced by a triumph against the best “over there” in the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot. Chrome can see that and raise her the Dubai World Cup.

This is why Casse chose the course of lesser resistance, the First Lady. “Our ultimate goal was Horse of the Year,” Casse said on an NTRA conference call. “So we waited until Sunday to see what California Chrome did. We realize now he’ll be tough to beat.”

In Casse’s reasonable estimation, California Chrome would have to get beat by a significant margin in the Classic while Tepin wins out. “And that still might not be enough.”

The next priority for Team Tepin is to encore in the Breeder’s Cup Mile. “We looked at the best way to get there and going against fillies seems a little easier although not easy by any measure.”

Potential day-makers

It will be tough to make money on Tepin on Saturday but Casse has a 2-year-old colt in the Breeders’ Futurity, Classic Empire, he likes almost as much. He should be a reasonable price coming off a disaster in the Hopeful in which he wheeled at the start and threw his rider.

“We didn’t think Classic Empire could get beat at Saratoga,” Casse said. “Then he did what he did.”

Casse has added blinkers to the equipment of the Pioneer of the Nile colt, who went into the Hopeful two-for-two including a last-to-first score in the Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs. “He’s trained really well with the blinkers.”

Casse is also sky high on 2-year-old turf filly La Coronel, who will run in Keeneland’s Jessamine next Wednesday. It might be tough to get a price on her. In her only grass start she buried New Money Honey by 4. The latter rebounded to win the Miss Grillo by almost 3 last weekend at Belmont.

“We think she’s a superstar, another Catch a Glimpse,” Casse said. All Catch a Glimpse has done is win seven of eight on turf, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, the Grade 1 Belmont Oaks and the Penn Mile against colts.

Another one to watch

Brad Cox will have an armada of horses in Keeneland stakes this weekend. Benner Island begins the parade in the Alcibiades on Friday. On Saturday, Spelling Again takes a shot at the Thoroughbred Club of America, Almasty is entered in the Woodford and Cash Control will tackle Tepin in the First Lady. Royal Nature goes in the Bourbon on Sunday.

Cox, who also was on the NTRA call, has no illusions about Cash Control taking down Tepin. She’s entered in the hope she can grab a Grade 1 placing to enhance her value as a broodmare, Cox said. “But anything can happen in horse racing.”

Asked which of his stakes horses he feels has the best chance to get the major share of a purse, he zeroed in on Almasty, who should be a decent price. He won last year’s Commonwealth at Churchill but is winless in four starts in 2016, although he does have a pair of seconds and a third.

“He had a big work at Churchill and he’s doing really great,” Cox said. “We’re really excited about him getting the job done.”

Which way, Frosted?

If there is anyone who could steal the Horse of the Year crown from California Chrome, it’s Frosted, whose Met Mile was one for the ages. It would take another race like that, soundly beating Chrome in the process in the Classic, to get Frosted into the HoY conversation. However, it’s still uncertain where Frosted will land on Breeders’s Cup weekend, the Mile or the Classic.

Ever the diplomat, Kiaran McLaughlin, said Sheikh Mohammad bin Al Maktoum, who races under the Godolphin banner, will make the call. But McLaughlin made it clear which way he wants to go. “I would go to the Classic.”

It’s not just the opportunity to try California Chrome. McLaughlin said he doesn’t like the shape of the Mile. If it were a one-turn mile, he would have no problem. But it’s two turns, raising the likelihood of a traffic jam with a short run to the first turn.

McLaughlin said it’s possible Frosted, who he said is doing great, will be cross-entered in both races. However, he feels the call will be made before pre-entries.

Rachel’s only son coming back

The saga of Rachel Alexandra isn’t over, according to McLaughlin. Her first foal to get to the races, stakes winner Rachel’s Valentina, has been retired. But her year-older half-brother, Jess’s Dream, who hasn’t been seen since a breath-taking out of the clouds win at Saratoga in his maiden race is still in training.

Jess’s Dream represents the final chance for further glory for Rachel Alexandra. Due to complications with her last pregnancy, it was announced she will not be bred again.

Hurricane delays Gulfstream West

Call it karma or call it God’s way of saying “this lunacy has to stop.”

Nature has done what the state of Florida refuses to do: shut down the Gulfstream West meeting at Calder--at least temporarily. With Hurricane Matthew bearing down on Florida, the first two days of the meeting have been canceled. The rest of the opening week is still in limbo.

It’s a disgrace that this meet still exists. Gulfstream officials don’t want it. They have to move everything eight miles east. Track officials and the race caller will be in mobile facilities stacked on top of each other. (For the record, hurricane season doesn’t end until Dec. 1.)

Indeed, Gulfstream is urging fans not to go to Calder, to do their betting via simulcast at the mother track, making racing a studio sport.

It’s an inconvenience for most horsemen, since the cards will be filled by horses shipping in from across town or further.

Most important, fans, when they finally get a look at the place, definitely won’t want any part of it. It’s racing amidst the ruins. Everyone is consigned to the track apron.

There is no cover from the brutal South Florida heat and torrential rains that are the norm this time of year. Complicating this, the Calder grandstand is in the final stages of its demolition. There’s almost nothing but rubble remaining. (Hello, Hurricane Matthew with your 145 mph winds.)

There is no tote board and only three betting machines, the minimum the state demands. Simulcasting is completely out. Only one very tiny restroom will be in use.

All of this is to preserve Churchill Downs’ casino at what used to be a racetrack. This was not supposed to happen. Slots were supposed to save racing. Instead they have destroyed Calder.

It’s a travesty to allow Churchill to keep its casino license under the circumstances. CDI has no part, other than geography, in conducting the meeting. It’s entirely a Gulfstream show.

If and when decoupling comes, this sham meeting will be history. It cannot happen soon enough.

Connect avoids Chrome

It was announced this week that Pennsylvania Derby upsetter Connect will skip the Breeders’ Cup Classic and a meeting with California Chrome to run instead in the Cigar Mile.

So thanks to California Chrome, Connect is definitely out of the Classic and Frosted might be.

It makes you wonder how the Pegagus is going to get 11 game souls to put up a $1 million apiece and stay in training when they would normally be freshening for 2017 to serve as sacrificial lambs to the brilliance of California Chrome.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, September 29, 2016

Super Saturday under-rates this week’s racing

The best dirt horse, the most talented grass runner, the reigning sprint champion and a three-time Eclipse winner are among the superstars who will be in action Saturday, a day which features more Grade 1 races than the original Breeders' Cup agenda.In addition to eight Grade 1 events there are more than a dozen additional stakes scheduled, including the finales of the rich Florida Sire Stakes series at Gulfstream, each of which boasts an undefeated juvenile.

MIAMI, Sept. 29, 2016--Racing does get better than this Saturday—but only once, Breeders’ Cup Day.

Before the sun goes down in the West, at least five horses, who could be favored in Breeders’ Cup races, will have had their final preps in New York, Kentucky and California. Eight Grade 1 races (one more than the original Breeders’ Cup agenda) and a slew of other graded stakes are on the menu. Most will be featured live during a 2 ½ telecast starting at 5:30 p.m. on the NBC cable Sports Network.

The best dirt horse on the planet, California Chrome, will have what amounts to a public workout in advance of the BC Classic in the Awesome Again at Santa Anita. It cost Santa Anita to get him. Frank Stronach created a $1 million bonus for any horse who wins the Pacific Classic, Awesome Again and BC Classic. Of course, California Chrome is the only one eligible as the Pacific Classic champion.

Trainer Art Sherman said on an NTRA phone conference this week, “a million dollars is a million dollars,” but Chrome wouldn’t be in the race if he wasn’t at the top of his game. Scary news for his rivals. Sherman said his 5-year-old is bigger and stronger than ever. His recent works bear this out.

Stronach might get an unexpected chance to put up big money again to lure California Chrome to one of his tracks. The general thinking was the 2015 Kentucky Derby winner would race three more times—the Awesome Again, the BC Classic and the $12 million Pegasus at Gulfstream on Jan. 28. Sherman said he might want to give Chrome a race over the Gulfstream strip prior to the world’s richest race if it could be arranged. If he’s serious, rest assured it will be arranged.

Mandella: Beholder ready this time

Earlier on the same card, three-time Eclipse winner Beholder will renew her rivalry with Stellar Wind, who has split a pair of decisions with her after running second in last year’s Distaff, in the Zenyatta. The winner is likely to vie for favoritism in the BC Distaff with sensational 3-year-old Songbird.

First things first, Beholder’s trainer Richard Mandella said on the NTRA call. He expects his 6-year-old mare to turn the tables on Stellar Wind, since he went a little easy on her prior to the Clement Hirsch where Stellar Wind ran down Beholder late. This time the screws are tightened, Mandella said.

A pair of Grade 1 events for 2-year-olds, the Front Runner and the Chandelier for fillies, also could produce a Breeders’ Cup favorite or two in light of the success California-based horses have had and the fact they will be racing on their home track Nov. 4-5. Nyquist and eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah have taken the two most recent runnings of the Front Runner and Songbird captured the 2015 Chandelier.

Bob Baffert could have the horse to beat in both; Klimt in the Front Runner, American Cleopatra in the Chandelier.

Runhappy returns with new goals

Last year’s BC Sprint winner Runhappy returns to the races for the first time since winning the Grade 1 Malibu on the day after Christmas in the Ack Ack, one of three stakes at Churchill Downs. Runhappy has never lost around one turn in seven career starts and ran dismally in his only two-turn race. Nevertheless, he is being pointed to the BC Dirt Mile, a stepping stone toward the nine-furlong Pegasus. If the 2016 Runhappy comes back as sharp as the 2015 model, he’s the probable Mile favorite in spite of the lone blemish on his record.

Assuming Runhappy’s connections stick to their plan, the BC Sprint favorite could come from the Vosburgh, one of three Grade 1’s on a five-stakes card at Belmont. A.P. Indian will try to stretch his 2016 record to six-for-six with X Y Jet, who had a five-race winning streak of his own snapped in the Golden Shaheen in March. He suffered a knee chip in the Dubai race and hasn’t been out since, so it’s a tough assignment to take on a super sharp foe like AP Indian. But he’s trained by Jorge Navarro, who seems capable of producing miracles when he lays his hands on a horse.

Flintshire shorter price than Chrome?

Also at Belmont, Flintshire will put his four-for-four U.S. record on the line in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic.Last year, Flintshire’s connections opted for the Arc de Triomphe, where he finished second, over the BC Turf. This season the plan is to go from the Joe Hirsch to the Turf.

An interesting side bet would be who will go off at a lower price, California Chrome or Flintshire? I make it pick-‘em. Unless there is a monumental upset Saturday, Flintshire is the likely BC Turf favorite.

Big day at Gulfstream, too

There will be no graded stakes but eight added-money heats overall at Gulfstream, which stages the finale of its Florida Sire Stakes series. The two headliners, each worth $500K, the In Reality for colts and My Dear Girl for fillies, are headed by undefeated 2-year-olds trying two turns for the first time.

Three Rules has been devastating in winning his first four starts by 21 lengths. More impressive, he had issues in his last two, an abcess in a hoof prior to the Dr. Fager and a slight temperature during his preparations for the Affirmed. He's supposedly 100 percent now. If he handles the In Reality’s mile and a sixteenth the way he has sprints, he will be worth a long look on Breeders’ Cup Day.

The filly Cajun Delta Dawn, also four-for-four, has had to work harder. Her first three victories were by less than a combined length. She finally got an easier score last time out, winning the seven furlong Susan’s Girl by five.

An interesting factoid about her is in spite of her record, she has never gone to the post as the favorite. She might not Saturday, either, after drawing the outside 13 hole with an insanely short run to the first turn for such a bloated field.

With all the quality action Saturday, it will take enough stamina to run for president to get through it all.

California nutty as ever

The latest lunacy in California cannot go unmentioned. It’s as if the people running the game are determined to sabotage it.

Venues elsewhere—Belmont, Kentucky Downs, Laurel and Gulfstream to mention the major ones—are enjoying a renaissance, largely attributable to fractional wagers (bets for 20 cents, 50 cents and a dollar) and reasonable, if still not acceptable, takeouts.

Meanwhile, the sport in Southern California continues to slide into the ocean thanks to unyielding stubbornness. August handle was down 11 percent.

The Pick 6, once the glamour bet in Southern California (if almost nowhere else), has been in a freefall. Meanwhile a relatively new Pick 5 and a Pick 4, both with a 50-cent minimum, are handling three or four times the Pick 6 on a non-carryover day.

All you have to know is Santa Anita guarantees a $500,000 pool for its 50-cent Pick 4 on Saturdays but only promises $100,000 for its $2 Pick 6.

So what do the geniuses running Del Mar do? If they had half a brain, even cumulatively, they would add a late Pick 5, as NYRA has done as its Pick 6 pool has plunged.

But no. They are doubling down on the failing Pick 6, in the process thumbing their nose at most of the fans in the grandstand. For the fall Del Mar season—another really bad idea, which has diminished the appeal of the traditional summer session—they are keeping the $2 Pick 6 and making it an even worse proposition.

Seventy percent of the pool used to go to those who picked 6 winners with 30 percent set aside for the consolation payoff. It was still a bad bet for those on a limited budget but the consolation gave them a shot for a decent score. In November, those with five winners will get only 15 percent with another 15 percent being set aside for a jackpot for a day when there is a single winning ticket.

The goal is to set up a monster day for the end of the meeting when there will be a mandatory payout. In the meantime, all the money in the jackpot will be dollars that won’t be churned. Brilliant.

Blatant conflict leads to fight

Del Mar's decision might not be the looniest thing to happen in the past week or so. Alex Solis and trainer Steve Miyadi got into a beef in which Miyadi pushed Solis, who was pursuing mounts from Miyadi. The trainer said the jockey had a lot of gall to come to him after the CHRB, of which Solis is a member, suspended him for 30 days for a drug overage.

Miyadi is wrong for getting physical with the much tinier Solis and blaming him for a failed test Solis had nothing to do with. At the same time, the jockey, who had Miyadi arrested for battery, comes off as the kid who runs to the teacher complaining, “Steve pushed me.”

The police don’t have enough to do and the courts aren’t cluttered enough and now they have to deal with this kind of childish nonsense.

Worst of all, what is a still active jockey doing on a state regulatory board? Aren’t there any recently retired riders, who could offer their unique perspective, without such a blatant conflict of interest?

Only in California.

Written by Tom Jicha

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