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, July 14, 2016

Del Mar and Saratoga are racing’s most wonderful time of the year

Looking to find that longshot that will change your life with a longshot Kentucky Derby future books wager? Pay attention to the 2-year-old races at Del Mar and Saratoga. In spite of the theory that the most promising Classics hopefuls are beginning their careers later, the five most recent winners of the Derby have run in the summer of their juvenile seasons at either Del Mar or Saratoga. This is only one of many reasons why the upcoming glamour meetings are a highlight of every racing season.

MIAMI, July 14--Want a first look at next spring’s Kentucky Derby winner? Keep a close eye on the juvenile races at Del Mar, which opens Friday, and Saratoga, whose season launches one week later.

Conventional wisdom is the most highly regarded young horses are starting their careers later and later, some not until they are 3-year-olds. As often is the case, the conventional wisdom doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

The five most recent winners of the Run for the Roses, six of the past seven and seven of the past nine have run at one of the two glamour summer meetings.

Del Mar is on a three-year roll. Nyquist won last season’s Best Pal Stakes then doubled down in the Del Mar Futurity. American Pharoah was fifth in his career debut but Bob Baffert had enough faith in his future Triple Crown winner to run him back as a maiden in the Futurity where he crushed the field. California Chrome won the Graduation Stakes then ran sixth in the Futurity.

Saratoga was the summer place to be for future Kentucky Derby winners the previous two years. Orb ran third in his debut in an MSW. I’ll Have Another ran at both Del Mar and Saratoga. After a second in the Best Pal out west he shipped east for the 2011 Hopeful, where he looked nothing like a future double Classic winner, running sixth.

Animal Kingdom interrupted the streak going backwards. He didn’t make his debut until September 2010 at Arlington, only a few weeks after the Del Mar and Saratoga meetings ended. This does little to bolster the argument that the good ones are starting much later. Animal Kingdom is the exception to another streak I pointed out during Triple Crown season. Every Kentucky Derby winner since Animal Kingdom has entered the Churchill Downs starting gate undefeated as a 3-year-old. Animal Kingdom ran second in a Gulfstream turf race.

Super Saver, who would win the 2010 Derby, ran second in a Spa MSW in 2009.

It’s mandatory to keep an eye on all juvenile races. Big Brown, the 2008 Derby winner broke his maiden in a juvenile turf race at the Spa.

The opportunities to catch the stars of tomorrow add to the allure of the premier summer meetings but there are myriad other reasons to anticipate Saratoga and Del Mar like a kid waits for Christmas.

The most exciting horses in training are expected to be in action. Songbird is coming East to put her unbeaten record on the line in the Coaching Club American Oaks on July 24 and perhaps the Alabama four weeks later. Waiting for her on at least the first of those occasions is the streaking Carina Mia, who devastated her opposition in the Acorn after doing the same in the Eight Belles on Derby Day.

The connections of super turf mare Tepin are targeting the flat mile Fourstardave on Aug. 13 for her return to U.S. racing after showing the Euros how its done at Royal Ascot. The Spa's turf course might be as much a challenge as her male opposition. She came up short in both starts at the Spa last summer. Elsewhere she has not lost in two years, winning 10 in a row on both sides of the Atlantic.

It would be great if Tepin wound up in the same starting gate as Flintshire but the French import, who is undefeated in two Grade 1 starts in the U.S., is pointing toward a defense of his title in the $1 million Sword Dancer on the Travers undercard. The mile and a half distance is more suited to the Euro.

Out west another extraordinary filly, three-times Eclipse winner Beholder, is probable for the Clement Hirsch on July 30. But the race everyone is anticipating is her potential faceoff against California Chrome in the Pacific Classic on Aug. 20. Beholder is the defending champion. She demolished the boys last year. This year she faces The Man.

The 2014 Kentucky Derby winner is expected to tune up in the San Diego Handicap on July 23. This is a strange decision given the mercenary proclivities of Team Chrome. NYRA reportedly offered to kick up the purse for the Whitney on Aug. 6 from $1.25 million to $1.5 million, more than the San Diego and Pacific combined, if California Chrome showed up.

If the Beholder-California Chrome showdown comes to pass, Del Mar could have its biggest day since Cigar brought his 16-race winning streak to town in 1996 (and was upset).

Del Mar might have gotten this year’s Derby winner Nyquist but for an enduring glaring hole in its stakes schedule. There isn’t a race of any significance for 3-year-olds on dirt. Almost all the sophomore stakes are on grass.

There’s no gender discrimination where the surf meets the turf. Major dirt stakes for 3-year-old fillies are also among the missing.These are inexplicable and inexcusable omissions for one of the two ranking tracks of summer.

California’s loss is the East Coast’s gain. Nyquist is scheduled to make his return from the Preakness, where he suffered his first career defeat, in Monmouth’s Haskell on July 31. The hope is if all goes well, he’ll encore in the Travers on Aug. 27.

The Travers is the focal point for Belmont Stakes champion Creator, who’ll prep in the Jim Dandy on July 30. Preakness winner and Derby runnerup Exaggerator is also a possibility, setting up the possibility of a rubber match among the winners of the Triple Crown races.

The only thing better would be if Songbird detoured into the Travers. But her owners seem adamant about not putting her in against colts this year.

Oh well, racing fans can’t get everything they want. But Saratoga and Del Mar come close.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, July 07, 2016

Racing in 2016 is not a man’s world

Projecting ahead to the second half of the 2016 season, there is a perhaps unprecedented situation in which the most exciting horses in the three key divisions--3-year-olds, older and turf--are females.Beholder and Tepin have already vanquished Grade 1 males and Songbird would be favored against any or all the leaders of her generation. This is to say nothing of the best story of all, Lady Eli, who is training again after coming back from near death.

MIAMI, July 7--Exactly when the first half of the racing season ends and the second half begins is a matter of opinion. The calendar says July 1. Others consider the 4th of July weekend. Perhaps the most popular viewpoint is the kicking off point is the opening of Del Mar and Saratoga, this year on July 15 and July 22, respectively.

By any of these points, we are going into the second half of 2016 in a unique situation. The best horses in the three glamour divisions--3-year-olds, older, and turf--arguably are fillies and mares.

In two of the cases, the arguments are almost indisputably strong.

Songbird has yet to compete outside her gender in her undefeated eight-race career. Unfortunately, she is not expected to this year. Is there any doubt that if she did, she would be a solid favorite against any of the Triple Crown champions--Nyquist, Exaggerator and Creator--or in a stakes with all of them?

But she will not hide out on the West Coast, as has her predecessor as best female in the West, who we will get to shortly. Her connections have plotted a three-race East Coast invasion--the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama at Saratoga and the Cotillion at Parx--before heading home for the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita.

Depending on how this goes and the status of California Chrome, we can live in hope that an audible will be called and she will go in the Classic rather than the Distaff.

Beholder, who has won three Eclipses without winning a race outside Southern California, has already stepped up against the boys and demolished them in last summer's Pacific Classic. She can do it again in August after a prep against the talent deficient members of her gender in the Clement Hirsch.

The wild card again is California Chrome. History indicates Beholder's connections will skip the race but maybe they'll reverse themselves. On her best race, she might be able to give the 2014 Kentucky Derby champion all he can handle and maybe more.

Then there's Tepin. She vanquished world class males in the 2015 Breeders' Cup Mile and off her scintillating win in the Princess Anne, her eighth in a row, who's going to beat her? Flintshire is the only one on the horizon who would rate a serious chance but it's unlikely they'll face off. Tepin shines up to a mile and an eighth while Flintshire is best over longer ground.

There's another super filly on the horizon, whose story is the stuff of books and movies. Lady Eli has come back from the brink of death and is working toward a comeback start.

Pondering a Breeders' Cup showdown between Lady Eli and Tepin, who cares what males might be in the race.

Exchange Betting will be slow build

Poker players have a saying: Look around the table. If you can’t figure out who the pigeon is, it’s you.

This is the feeling I get as Exchange Betting rolls out at Monmouth and, inevitably, other American race tracks. There is going to be a long learning curve before most horse players become versed and comfortable with the intricacies of this new form of wagering in the U.S.

There are benefits for the player. Primarily, you can get fixed odds on your selection. No longer will you have to agonize that the horse you thought was value at 5-2 a minute to post has dropped to 6-5 after the gate opens.

A downside to me is Exchange Betting further tilts the sharks vs. minnows playing field, which has become pronounced to the extent that it discourages casual and new fans. The wise guys always have and always will have an edge. Exchange Betting increases this advantage.

Back in the day when betting was limited to the track and crowds of 20,000 during the week and double or more than that on weekends were the norm there was enough unsophisticated money in the pools that you could get a decent price on a logical horse. Now this is rare.

Casual fans have largely disappeared from tracks and ADW’s allow big players, many of whom never go near a track, to dominate. So mid-level players have to buck the computer syndicates, the sheets specialists and the inside information crowd to try to make a score.

Exchange Betting exacerbates this situation. Pari-mutuel wagering by definition pits bettors against each other. Exchange Betting makes this more personal, a one-on-one proposition. In essence, casual players will be betting that they can out handicap and outsmart the computer syndicates and sharks, because when it comes to serious money, this is who will be the most heavily involved.

Anything can happen in a single race or a single day but over the long haul there is little question which side is going to come out way on top.

We’ve gotten a sneak preview of this with daily fantasy betting on other sports. Something like 95 percent of the winnings is taken down by about 5 percent of the players, the ones who have computer algorithms and other data not generally available to the guys playing for fun.

Also, I can’t see how anything that has the potential to keep millions of dollars out of the traditional betting pools, which support purses, can be good for the game. Maybe I’ll change my mind as I become more familiar with Exchange Betting but for now I’ll stick to the system I’ve always known.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Jackpot 6 bets are breeding grounds for player mistrust

Jackpot bets have captured the imagination and betting dollars of the racing world. However, it has to be asked at what price over the long haul. Outrageous scenarios recently at Golden Gate and Churchill Downs have chipped away at what little trust is left among fans.You can only leave fans feeling they have been screwed so many times before they get disgusted and walk away from the game...

On a happier note, Gulfstream Park is losing race-caller Larry Collmus to New York full time but it is lucky to have a rising young star, Pete Aiello, already in place.

MIAMI, June 30, 2016--It’s time to take a hard look at jackpot bets, the ones that demand a single winning ticket for the bells and lights to go off.

These life-changing jackpots buttress race track bottom lines when the potential payoffs reach seven figures but at what expense? While the jackpot is slowly building, tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands of dollars are taken out or circulation where they could be churning repeatedly.

When the jackpot is finally taken down by a single player, the windfall is unlikely to be reinvested at the windows. Any race track executive will acknowledge it’s more in a track’s interest to have, say, a thousand players win $100 than one player winning $100,000. But they refuse to extend this thinking to jackpot bets.

Then there is the potential damage to the credibility and integrity of the sport, essential elements to its long term health. It’s said that there are a thousand ways to lose a bet. A couple of abominations in recent weeks—only the latest examples--have added two more, undermining the trust of fans, even those who don’t play the rainbow chasing wagers.

The debacle at Golden Gate on June 12 left players nationwide feeling as if they had been screwed. On a day with perfect weather, jockeys refused to ride a couple of turf races in the Rainbow Six after riding on the grass earlier in the card without incident. Rules dictated that these races on a mandatory payoff day be declared “all’s.” This created a payoff more akin to a daily double when an almost $2 million jackpot swelled to about $6 million as players poured in $4 million more in shooting for a six-figure or more payoff.

Think they’ll ever get involved with a Golden Gate rainbow bet again?

The Northern California outrage pales compared to what Churchill Downs did a week ago. Churchill’s version of the Rainbow 6 had a jackpot of approximately $750,000 on the night of June 23. Storms delayed the start of the card but eventually everything went on as usual until the final race.

With rain and lightning in the area, Churchill officials opted to cancel the race. Safety first, for horses, jockeys and fans; who can argue with that? But there were unusual circumstances, which demanded more patience than Churchill was willing to show.

A pair of tickets was alive for the entire jackpot. Whoever was holding them never got a shot. With the race canceled, the Single Six was called off. Consolations were paid and the pool went over to the next day, much to the advantage of Churchill Downs, which maintained a huge jackpot going into the weekend.

Getting back to the safety issue, Churchill has been operating for 142 years. During that span, there have been only 21 weather cancellations. Some were for frozen tracks or extreme heat. None involved a situation such as that on June 23.

In South Florida, we have Biblical rainfalls on a regular basis and lightning threats dozens of times a year during racing cards. Gulfstream just waits it out. Churchill wasn’t willing to wait even a few minutes. You don’t have to be paranoid to conclude that the opportunity to carry over an enormous jackpot figured into the quick trigger finger.

During the winter of 2015 at Gulfstream, there was a questionable DQ in the last race on a Saturday. If the first horse under the wire had stayed up, someone would have won more than a million dollars. When he was taken down, that money carried over. Even fans who weren’t involved were asking out loud if the potential carryover figured into the decision.

I truly believe the call, which could have gone either way, was made on what the stewards thought they saw. But I can’t blame those who feel otherwise. When I worked for a big company—even now when I work for JP—I always wanted to please my boss. Two of the three stewards work for Gulfstream and there is no question Gulfstream was happy when the jackpot lasted for another day.

The point is fans already are skeptical about the integrity of the game because of the drug issues. Incidents like the ones I’ve described further chip away at trust in the sport. In the short term, rainbow jackpot bets serve the track’s fiscal interests. Long term you have to wonder how many bizarre incidents players will tolerate before walking away for good.

Farewell, Larry Collmus

Larry Collmus’s resignation as Gulfstream’s winter race caller came as a surprise to few. It might have come sooner than expected but it was inevitable.

Firmly ensconced after two years as the voice of NYRA, the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup, Collmus, 49, doesn’t need to knock himself out jumping from New York seven months a year to another four-plus months at Gulfstream.

Tom Durkin, who Collmus followed in New York (no slight to Collmus but no one can replace Durkin), worked the bulk of the year for NYRA then moonlighted in the winter in South Florida for a few years. He eventually gave it up for the same reason as Collmus. Life is short. It’s pointless to grind yourself into the ground when you've achieved a status that allows you to enjoy some of the finer things in life that success affords.

Gulfstream is fortunate to have an excellent young replacement, Pete Aiello, already in place. A formal announcement could be made before you read this.

Aiello, who broke his South Florida maiden calling quarterhorse races at Hialeah, made a positive impression when he was hired as the race-caller for Gulfstream’s summer season. His calls are crisp and accurate and, as he has become more comfortable in the role, he has injected some personality into them without overwhelming the race.

Aiello was so impressive that Oaklawn, one of the prime meets of the winter season, hired him as its announcer last season. He’ll have to relinquish that post to stay at Gulfstream year round. The Arkansas track’s loss is Gulfstream’s gain.

Written by Tom Jicha

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