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, 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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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Track operators are an endangered species

The grand old men of race track ownership are all being threatened by actuarial tables. Frank Stronach is 83. Richard Duchossois is 94. Charles Cella of Oaklawn is approaching his 80th birthday. Dr. Edward Allred, who renovated Los Alamitos into a thoroughbred track is 80. John Brunetti, who long has harbored dreams of restoring thoroughbred racing to Hialeah, is 85. Who is going to replace these men and maintain racing? This is a question racing must deal with.

MIAMI, June 23, 2016--The graying of the fan base has been decried as the biggest threat to the future of racing. Actually, there is a bigger, related problem: the graying of track ownership. New fans can be found and recruited more easily than wealthy individuals with the means and desire to run racetracks.

Dr. Edward Allred helped alleviate one of many recent crises in Southern California racing when he renovated his Los Alamitos quarterhorse track for thoroughbred racing. This filled the void left by the closure of Hollywood Park. Dr. Allred, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, said something recently that should send chills up the spine of everyone in racing.

In a letter to employees, reprinted by the Racing Form, he wrote, “I love what I’m doing and I love (Los Alamitos) and the people who work and race there. It is my strong desire to keep Los Alamitos Race Course operational as long as horsemen support the racing program and so long as I am able to oversee the operation.”

Then came the terrifying “but.” “It is unlikely upon my passing or serious disability that another group could be found that could acquire the track for racing purposes.” So Los Alamitos filling the gap left by Hollywood could be just a band aid solution.

In an interview with the Paulick Report, Allred reiterated this point. “When I go, no one will buy this as a race track. They couldn’t afford to.”

Then he added something that should sound an alarm to the entire racing community. He and Los Alamitos are not isolated cases. “No one could afford to buy Santa Anita as a racetrack, either. You’re talking $2 million to $3 million an acre. You can’t afford to race there.”

The Stronach Group (i.e., Frank Stronach) operates Santa Anita as well as both Maryland tracks, Golden Gate and Portland Meadows. He has been great for racing but he is 83.

Stronach’s son Andy is involved in the family business and his daughter Belinda is known to enjoy racing. However, even if the children want to keep their father’s dreams alive, the daunting death taxes they would be confronted by might make it challenging. Cashing in their chips could become an alluring option.

The saving factor for racing is there might not be any buyers. To clarify, there might not be any buyers interested in maintaining horse racing. Gulfstream has a casino spread over two floors, which could be enticing to buyers. So would the vast acreage surrounding the track, some of the most valuable real estate in Florida, if not the entire United States.

One of the reasons South Florida horsemen are so vehemently opposed to decoupling, which seemingly will keep coming up in the legislature until it passes, is the fear that without the obligation to race, a new owner could come in, keep the casino and shut down racing.

This is what Churchill Downs did with Calder. Decoupling also would spell the end of the sham 40-day Gulfstream West meeting, which was created so that Churchill Downs could meet state requirements to maintain its casino license. Demolition of the Calder grandstand is ongoing. Soon the property will not be suitable as a race track even if someone wanted to revive the sport there.

Tropical Park, which Calder replaced upon the death of its colorful owner Saul Silberman, was transformed into a county park more than 40 years ago. For all practical purposes, Hialeah is gone, too. Race tracks disappear in Florida, just as they have in California.

The resurrection of Hialeah as a thoroughbred venue is on the wish lists of many racing fans. As recently as two years ago, Hialeah owner John Brunetti told the New York Times that Hialeah deserves to be in thoroughbred racing.

Alas, Brunetti is 85 and his sons, Steven and John, want no part of resurrecting the thoroughbred sport. They are happy with the revenue generated by the casino built into the fabled grandstand. Word is they plan to reschedule Hialeah’s 40-day sham casino-maintaining quarterhorse meet in 2017 from tourist heavy December, January and February to June and July, when even locals flee the summer heat as much as they can.

This might seem illogical until you consider that the legislature will meet in April and May. If decoupling passes next year, Hialeah could keep its casino without being obligated to run the quarterhorse meet. This would effectively spell the end of horse racing of any kind at “the world’s most beautiful racetrack.”

Charles Cella, owner of Oaklawn Park, will be 80 in August.

Richard Duchossois, the largest single stock holder in Churchill Downs, is 94. Duchossois, whose board considers CDI a casino company, is believed to be the only reason his pet property, Arlington Park, is still in operation as a race track.

In another era, any of these men might have been expected to become involved in the bidding for a re-privatized New York Racing Association. The fact that they all have passed has made it easier for Gov. Cuomo to maintain his stranglehold on New York racing.

Think about this: NYRA handled $2.243 billion last year, approximately 20 percent of the wagering nationwide, but it hasn’t been able to attract one potential buyer.

There is no reason to believe the situation will be any different if and when mortality puts The Stronach Group tracks, Oaklawn , Arlington and Los Alamitos on the block. As Dr. Allred pointed out, the land on which they sit is worth multiple times more for almost any purpose other than racing.

This fiscal reality is what led to the demise of Hollywood Park, Bay Meadows and several lesser tracks. It is what is inevitably going to lead to the shutdown of Aqueduct.

So instead of fretting over how to attract young blood to replace today’s older fans, the industry ought to have an aggressive plan to find and recruit new racetrack owners. Absent them, there will be no need to worry about where the next generation of racing fans will come from. They will have no place to go.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

News Was Not All Good on Belmont Weekend

California Horse Racing Board member Steve Beneto said, “To Hell with the bettors,” a couple of weeks ago. Golden Gate and its jockeys put this attitude into practice in a big way on Sunday.

The pity is, this happened at the tail end of the most glorious non-Breeders’ Cup weekend in memory, the Belmont Stakes Festival.

Instead of everyone feeling upbeat about the game, the latest screwing of the customers is the topic among those who follow and participate in racing most avidly.

You can only abuse people so long before they get disgusted and walk away. Indeed, there are already calls for a boycott of California racing as a result of this.

MIAMI, June 16, 2016--Golden Gate had a jackpot of almost $2 million Sunday in its version of the Rainbow 6. Because it was closing day, the pool had to be distributed without the “single winner” qualifier. As usually happens, this attracted enormous participation of more than $4 million from bettors nationwide.

In the midst of the wager, the jockeys decided the turf course was unsafe and they refused to ride the 10th and 12th races on the grass. This was after they had already ridden three races on the turf, including the 8th race, which was part of the jackpot sequence.

There was no change in the weather or description of the “firm” course. Maybe a new listing needs to be created, “chopped up.”

If there was a potential problem, the riders should have informed management after one of the earlier grass races, before the Rainbow 6 began. They were not oblivious to the extraordinary action taking place Sunday.

The jockeys’ decision necessitated making the 10th and 12th races “all’s.” The Rainbow 6 became a pick 4, which resulted in a tiny payout of $146.16 per winning 50-cent ticket.

The whales and syndicates, which invested tens of thousands, were royally shafted. So were smaller players who pooled resources to cover more combinations.

This abomination could have a carryover effect—excuse the term--on all such mandatory payoff pools. A reluctance to jump in with both fists might develop out of fear of an encore wherever the bet is offered.

There is shared culpability here. Golden Gate, as painful as it might have been, should have announced a total refund when it learned two of the final three races would have to be all’s. Management could not have been unaware that the turf course was problematic.

With the huge pool anticipated, no turf races should have been scheduled. They were, of course, because grass races draw bigger fields, which translates to more combinations having to be covered.

The jockeys involved have to receive sanctions. They were aware of what was at stake. The course couldn’t have been that bad. They rode it three times earlier in the day without incident. Nevertheless, they made a decision that gave the entire sport a black eye with repercussions still to be felt.

The CHRB should issue fines and/or suspensions as the least of the consequences. The chances of this happening are, of course, nil. As Beneto said, “To Hell with the bettors.”

Et tu, Gulfstream

The Golden Gate fiasco was not an isolated event this past weekend.

Hardly anyone was paying attention because of the Belmont stakes, but Gulfstream had a situation which should not have been allowed in the 11th and last race Saturday.

Key the Storm, #13, was an MTO in the turf dash. With the race still scheduled for the turf, he should have been scratched no later than the start of the late gimmicks. He was not.

Unlike the weather in NoCal, heavy summer showers were in the SoFla area throughout the afternoon.

When the windows opened for race 11, which remained on the turf, he was still in the tote; wagers being accepted on #13. Possible Will Pays were listed in all the horizontal pools. Finally, at about 22 minutes to post, there was an announcement he was scratched.

Key the Storm had to be used in all the gimmicks. He was coming off a pair of seconds in a race in which his competition was a combined 0-108. Hunch players might have used him because of the Florida and New York weather, whatever. By leaving him in, players were forced to increase the size and cost of their horizontal bets.

When he finally was scratched, there were puny consolation payoffs in the pick 3. Players who had him in other multi-race gimmicks were SOL; switched to the post-time favorite, they lost.

Double bettors who might have keyed him backward with, say, three contenders in race 10, were automatic losers on two tickets since in order to receive a consolation DD, the first half of the DD must win.

Key the Storm was scratched only after the results of the 10th race were made official.

Past posting

Other reflections from Belmont weekend:

NYRA should reconsider scheduling the Easy Goer as part of the Belmont card. It had three starters last year and five this year.

This was not unpredictable. The Belmont drew 13 and the Woody Stephens also had 13 entered. At this stage of the season, especially given the attrition rate of the Triple Crown trail, it’s debatable there are more than two dozen 3-year-olds worthy of stakes consideration on the same card, let alone enough for a third stakes.

HRI executive editor John Pricci suggested making the Easy Goer a July 4 weekend feature as a prep for the Jim Dandy and/or Haskell. I like that idea.

NYRA came up about $30K short of the guaranteed $150K True North-Met Mile double. This one hurt because the bet wasn’t as well publicized and anticipated as was the Belmont Derby-Belmont Stakes double.

If anyone can explain the value of guarantees at major tracks, where the pools are always sizable, I'd like to hear it.

Also lost in the Belmont afterglow and Golden Gate controversy was Russell Baze's surprise announcement after, ironically, Sunday's 10th race, that he is retiring.

Baze, 57, leaves the game with an incredible North American record 12,842 victories, good for earnings of just under $200 million.

To put this into perspective, for someone to challenge his victory mark, he or she would have to average a winner every day of the calendar year for more than 35 years.

With most venues down to no more than a five-day week, which comes out to 260 cards a year, it actually would entail a winner a day for just under 50 years.

But those are merely the cold numbers. A family man, Baze has been a credit to the game every day he has been on the racetrack. His talent, dedication and integrity will be missed.

Written by Tom Jicha

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