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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Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Here’s who won’t win the Derby

The first step to finding the winner of any race is eliminating those who can't win. IMHO, there are at least 10 of those, half the field, in the Kentucky Derby. Included are the winners of some key Kentucky Derby preps. This doesn't include the poor horse who draws the No. 1 post, if he is not among my 10 tosses.

MIAMI, May 3, 2016--The Kentucky Derby is just another race at the betting windows. It’s the race in every other way.

Beyond hoped for profits, it’s for bragging rights, which is why people bet the futures, one of the worst propositions in racing, and the satisfaction of solving the puzzle every racing fan has been striving to conquer.

I get out to the track at least once a week locally, drive 2,000 miles to Saratoga every summer, spend a couple of weeks annually in marathon betting orgies at Las Vegas race books (I’ll be there the next two weeks), never miss an opportunity to visit a new track and bet regularly via ADW (I have four accounts). I handicap, make decisions and put up my money every 15 to 20 minutes.

When I’m wrong, I turn the page. When I settle on the wrong horse in the Derby I agonize over it until it’s time to start considering the next Derby.

I start doing this at least six months out, yet I often don’t make a decision until after shedding a tear at the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Unless, he draws the No. 1 post, an automatic throwout, Nyquist will be very prominent on at least all my horizontal tickets. He’s yet to do a thing wrong. He’s won short and long, near the pace and from way off it. He overcame a horrendous trip in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to beat a more talent laden field than in any prep since. He buried then undefeated Mohaymen on Mohaymen's home court.

If Nyquist had gone five-for-five in New York, as he has done in California, and added the BC Juvenile at Keeneland and the Florida Derby at Gulfstream, trouncing the most heralded horse in the East, there already would be a bronze of him in the Belmont walking ring.

Nevertheless there is a question of a mile and a quarter—as there is with all of them--so price, track conditions, physical appearance in the paddock and the post draw could sway me elsewhere for my main win play.

However, I can say with absolute certainty who will not be on any of my tickets. An important caveat: when it comes to the Derby, I am strictly a win player, be it straight, doubles or Pick 3’s and 4’s. I’m a romantic when it comes to the Derby. I don’t want to mitigate the exhilaration of watching my selection flash under the wire first by losing focus to see who is going to take the photo for second, third and fourth.

So my “throw-outs” are for the win slot only. I’m not saying any of them can’t hit the board. Tough-to-find horses crash the exotics almost every year.

I’ll start with the easy ones. Trojan Nation, a maiden, should not be in the field while more accomplished contenders miss the cut. The Derby needs a “winners preferred” condition. So what if he finished second in the Wood Memorial. Someone had to and it wasn’t an illustrious bunch behind him.

A trio of other tosses have similar credentials, although each has managed to have his picture taken at least once. Majesto was closest to Nyquist in what turned out to be an over-rated Florida Derby. As with Trojan Nation, someone had to be second and Mohaymen never fired.

(Mohaymen is the most perplexing horse in the race. The question since his Florida Derby dud is, “Who did he beat?” in his five winning races. The damning answer is, not a single horse who has qualified for the Derby. Yet I can’t toss him and I might wind up betting him if the price is right because of the flashes of brilliance he has shown and Kiaran McLaughlin’s unwavering faith in him.)

My Man Sam was second in the Blue Grass and has the Chad Brown factor going for him but he also has only a maiden win in four starts. (I’m not yet throwing out Shagaf, Brown’s other starter, who also was dull in the Wood, because of his three wins in four starts. But I doubt I'll have any money on him Saturday.)

Tom’s Ready might be willing but he is not able in my estimation with just a maiden win in nine starts.

If all the Japanese media likely to show up at Churchill Downs bet $2 apiece on Lani, the winner of the UAE Derby could go off favored. This means better payoffs for the rest of us. UAE Derby winners have a totally blemished record on the first Saturday in May and Lani has acted like a goofball since arriving.

Animal Kingdom came out of the Spiral on Turfway’s synthetic track to wear the roses in his first conventional dirt start but I’m willing to bet Oscar Nominated isn’t going to encore. Ken Ramsey, who has almost as much money as the sheiks thanks to Kitten's Joy, went looking for a partner to put up the $200K supplemental fee.

Whitmore hit the board in all three of the preps in Arkansas but he didn’t win any of them. His late run might get him a small piece again but I prefer horses who know how to win and, recent history notwithstanding, I’m not enamored of the Oaklawn stakes this winter.

This brings us to the first of what probably will be controversial calls. Suddenbreakingnews has the Silky Sullivan whirlwind finish style that amateur Derby bettors fall in love with. Good luck with that in a 20-horse field. Also, how many times have we seen eye-catching late runners come up flat when they have to go a mile before they even hit the top of the stretch?

Finally, I want no part of either of Todd Pletcher’s pair of Destin and Outwork. This has nothing to do with Pletcher’s abysmal Derby record. If it was easy to redline Trojan Nation, it’s a mere neck more difficult to draw a line through Outwork, who won one of the slowest Wood Memorials since stopwatches were invented. Project his final three-eighths in 40 3/5 to another eighth of a mile and it comes to more than 54 seconds, a time harness horses regularly best.

Not that the Wood Memorial has a stellar record in the Derby in recent years in any event.

Destin is a little tougher to leave off tickets. He got really good at Tampa, which has been producing one Grade 1 winner after another this season. But Tampa is one of those tracks that some horses love and others can’t handle (see Brody’s Cause). Also, Destin will go into the starting gate not having raced in eight weeks, a blueprint that has never worked.

In the monkey-see, monkey-do world of thoroughbred training, if Destin wins off this layoff, look for track managements to be coerced into scheduling the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial in February.

If I’m right, I’ve cut the field in half for you. I’ll join J.P. and others on the HRI staff to come up with the horses we like on Friday.

Win and You’re In--Not!

The Breeders’ Cup has announced this year’s roster of Win and You’re In races, 77 stakes at 49 tracks in 12 countries. As if the winners of the Met Mile, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Pacific Classic, Ogden Phipps, Stephen Foster and Arlington Million, to list just a few of America’s biggest events, really need to worry about their invitations to the Breeders’ Cup.

Guess which stakes isn’t a Win and You’re In? Here’s a hint: It’s the most coveted race in the world.

Correct! The Kentucky Derby is not a Win and You’re In. (Neither is the Preakness nor Belmont.)

Hey, Breeders’ Cup. Seriously?

Written by Tom Jicha

Comments (21)


Thursday, April 28, 2016

Songbird’s absence makes Oaks a super betting race

Super filly Songbird will be missed in the Kentucky Oaks but her defection has created the best betting race of Derby weekend with a half-dozen or more possible favorites and a herd of live price horses. Even better, the Oaks is tied, as always, to the Derby in a double bet and with the Derby and Turf Classic in a pick three. The payoffs could be, as The Donald says, Y-U-U-U-G-E.

MIAMI, April 28, 2016--The Kentucky Derby stands alone. It’s the race people analyze for months and scrutinize like no other. Those of us at HRI will be doing a lot of that next week. But even with its 20-horse field the Derby isn’t the best betting race of the first weekend in May this year.

Everyone has a different definition of what makes a great betting race. Mine is a race in which the favorite, if you like it, is a generous price--in the 4-1 or better range--and, if you have a contrarian view, there are prices galore on live alternatives.

The unfortunate illness that took super filly Songbird out of the Oaks has put the Friday feature into this category. Songbird has been so overwhelming there was little interest in the Oaks most of the winter. Never really tested, she was 7-10 in the futures betting seven weeks out. It’s a matter of conjecture how low she might have gone at post-time. She would have been a "can't bet her, can't bet against her" proposition.

Moreover, the Oaks is linked to the Derby in a two-day double bet and is part of a pick 3 with the Derby and Turf Classic, the race immediately preceding the Run for the Roses. So the potential will-pays on those wagers would have been diminished, too.

Now so many fillies want a piece of the Oaks that the point system, which limits the field to 14—how’s that for gender bias?—has become a factor and all the bets connected to the Oaks have become significantly more alluring.

Steve Asmussen would like to get five in if he could. “We wouldn’t be considering all these fillies if Songbird was running,” the newest member of the Hall of Fame conceded.” I feel very strongly about our fillies and how we’re coming in. The deletion of Songbird puts us in that position.”

Asmussen especially talked up Terra Promessa, Taxable and Royal Obsession. Terra Promessa is on a four-race roll, including the Honeybee and Fantasy. “She’s a Curlin filly, who has developed nicely. She is starting to be more aggressive in her races.” Taxable, second in the Fantasy, has an Oaks pedigree. She’s out of a half-sister to Oaks winner Summerly with Tapit on top. Royal Obsession was second in the Gazelle and will benefit from nine furlongs, Asmussen feels.

Asmussen has a sentimental root for Todd Pletcher’s bred-in-the-purple Rachel’s Valentina (Bernadini-Rachel Alexandra), the Spinaway winner who was second to Songbird in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and, more recently, the Ashland in her 3-year-old debut. “Just knowing she’s Rachel’s daughter, she would be the most obvious to me.”

Lewis Bay, who made the Gazelle her third win in her last four races, will have to be reckoned with next Friday along with Cathryn Sophia, the only filly to beat her in this streak.

Cathryn Sophia, the sensation of the Gulfstream winter season, was being pointed for the Eight Belles around one turn after tiring to third in the Ashland, her first attempt at two turns. Nevertheless, when Songbird came out, trainer John Servis had second thoughts and is now pointing toward the Oaks.

The Ashland reminded me of last summer’s Travers. The riders of Cathryn Sophia, Rachel’s Valentina and Carina Mia, another graded stakes winner, got so involved pushing each other--ala Frosted and American Pharoah--that Weep No More, who was in another county down the backside, was able to fly out of the clouds and run past them all. Then again, who’s to say Weep No More, a Mineshaft filly who has won all three of her two-turn races, can’t do it again?

Dale Romans joked a few weeks ago that he wished Songbird would go in the Derby and leave the Oaks alone for his Gulfstream Oaks winner Go Maggie Go. It didn’t quite work out exactly that way but the rapidly improving daughter of Ghostzapper will get her shot at the Oaks without having to deal with Songbird.

The quality and wide-open nature of the Oaks is underscored by the likelihood none of these fillies will go favored. Doug O’Neill might not have only the Derby favorite in Nyquist. His Land Over Sea has a big shot at being the public’s choice in the Oaks.

This despite the fact that her big win in the Fair Grounds Oaks broke a five-race losing streak. Simple explanation: all five of those races were against Songbird. She finished second in three of them and third in another. Land Over Sea's eye-catching five-length win from the back of the pack might have been her way of saying, “Thank you” to O’Neill for finally getting her away from Songbird.

“She’s progressing really well,” O’Neill said on an NTRA conference call. “This is a filly that ran well first time out as a July 2-year-old and here we are in late April of her 3-year-old season and she’s just a bigger, stronger, mentally tough filly. Not having to knock heads with Songbird worked, so we’re hoping we can follow up the Fair Grounds Oaks win with a Kentucky Oaks win.”

She’ll have to beat a salty bunch to do it but none of them are named Songbird.

Preciado, Ziadie game the system

Last week I commented on how Rafael Bejarano is the latest jockey to make a mockery of the appeals process for suspensions. Bejarano drew three days for a riding infraction in February during the lucrative Santa Anita winter season. By appealing, he delayed serving his days until last week at Los Alamitos, where purses are substantially lower and high quality mounts a jockey wouldn’t want to risk losing are much less plentiful. This should not be tolerated.

Suspect trainers Ramon Preciado and Kirk Ziadie, whose stratospheric winning percentages and sudden improvements of horses would make Hall of Famers feel inadequate, have made what Bejarano did look like putting off paying a parking ticket.

Two weeks ago, Preciado,was told he was no longer welcome at Parx after ringing up a total of 270 days in suspensions for a string of drug violations at the Philadelphia track and Delaware Park. He thumbed his nose at the stewards on what was supposed to be his last weekend at Parx by winning seven straight races. This brought his winning percentage to just shy of 50 percent. Nothing suspicious about that.

But Preciado might not be finished. He is appealing his penalties.

Ziadie was told he was not welcome at Calder for two years from 2009-2011. The track finally let him back and it was just like old times. He had 18 positives in four years while achieving a strike rate of about 40 percent. Andy Beyer pointed out in a column a few years ago that over a five-year period, Ziadie won first time off a claim at an astonishing 47 percent rate.

The Florida Department of Pari-Mutuel Wagering finally had seen enough by last December. It suspended Ziadie for six years. Now he, too, is appealing.

There is a way to stop this abuse of the system. If serial offenders such as Preciado and Ziadie are found by racing officials to be guilty of what they are charged, their cases should be referred to the justice system. There are harsh laws against interfering with the results of a sporting contest. Drugging race horses surely falls into that category.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, April 21, 2016

It’s up to players to make Canterbury takeout reduction succeed

Canterbury Park is taking a bold step to reduce its takeout to the lowest blended rate in North America. The experiment, which will be monitored closely by other jurisdictions, needs the support of simulcast players nationwide to succeed.

This could be a challenge considering the unfamiliarity of Canterbury's horses, jockeys and trainers. If nothing else, players should consider support of Canterbury this season to be an investment in the future, no matter where their major plays are.

MIAMI, April 21, 2016--All hail, Canterbury for becoming an industry leader in reduction of takeout.

Canterbury Park is lowering its takeout to a blended 16.5%, a North American low. Win-place-show will be taxed at 15%. Exotics will have 18% removed from the pool before winners are paid. The blended takeout has been 20.4%.

Horseplayers have been advocating this for years. So its success or failure will be monitored closely nationwide. This is why elation must be tempered. The downside is, if the reduced rates don’t increase handle, other jurisdictions will use it as an argument against similar reductions.

Canterbury is not the ideal canary in this coal mine. Success is dependent on simulcast players taking some of their action to the Minnesota track. Widespread unfamiliarity with the track, its horses, trainers and jockeys could work against this.

On-track handle is approximately one-third of Canterbury's total wagering. This is about three times the 10% norm at most tracks. In other words, Canterbury’s handle is disproportionately a product of its on-site fans. Interest among outsiders has been limited.

What’s more, its 7:30 first post in the East on Thursdays and Fridays comes well after the end of the cards in New York, Florida, Kentucky and the Mid-Atlantic tracks. The weekend cards, which spring from the gate at 1:45 p.m. in the East, will have to buck the live racing at these jurisdictions. It’s a daunting challenge to win over bettors who have been betting these tracks for years.

Eric Halstrom, Canterbury’s vice president of racing operations, was quoted in the Racing Form acknowledging a major motivation for the lower takeout is an attempt to attract new simulcast players. “We have not been a part of everybody’s simulcast day. We’re fine with admitting we weren’t on everyone’s radar but this is a way to increase our visibility. When you go from zero to a new player, that’s a big thing. We’re taking a gamble here but we’re not opposed to taking some risk.”

Canterbury is not only risking a hit to its bottom line. To get the support of its horsemen, which was essential, it has guaranteed that even if the total handle plunges, purses will be at least the same as they were last year with a higher takeout.

Andy Asaro, tireless champion of horseplayers (slogan: “We never quit”), raised another potential pitfall. There are jurisdictions, most notably his home state of California, adamantly opposed to takeout reductions. They might do everything they can to sabotage the Canterbury experiment, starting with dropping the signal. If they do, they must be punished with a boycott.

On the positive side, it would behoove simulcast players to throw a few bucks each session at the Canterbury races. A $10 bet each time you go to the races would push Canterbury way over the top. This isn't a lot to ask. You might even show a profit. Even if you don’t win, the money could eventually come back big time if success at Canterbury forces other jurisdictions to adapt.

Appeals make penalties a joke

Rafael Bejarano is the latest to make a mockery of racing penalties. Bejarano drew a three-day suspension for a ride at Santa Anita on Feb. 11, the heart of the lucrative winter racing season. As is usually the case, Bejarano appealed, delaying imposition of the penalty.

Last week he dropped the appeal, a timely decision. He’ll serve the days during the Los Alamitos meet when the number of races, especially quality races with horses a rider wouldn’t want to give up, is down substantially from Santa Anita.

Bejarano’s first day on the ground was Sunday, when Los Alamitos was able to scrape together only eight races with a total of 49 entries on a weekend. Four of the eight went for $20,000 or less. The feature offered $50,000, less than what a maiden race goes for during the winter.

Bejarano’s “suspension” includes Thursday and Friday. Both programs, eight races each, are more of the same. Thursday’s first three races drew fields of five. This swelled to six for the next three races. Friday’s first two heats had five horses, apiece. The next three had six each. Five of Thursday’s races had purses under $20K. The feature went for $46K. The Friday feature was another 50 grander. Three races offered less than $20K. Another had a $27K purse.

In effect, Bejarano is using the Santa Anita suspension as an excuse to take a vacation during Los Alamitos, when it’s hardly worth his while to show up. This isn’t an indictment of Bejarano. It’s business as usual for jockeys.

The appeal was filed in February. The big question is why it was still in limbo more than two months later. It should have been ruled upon within a week or less. “Justice delayed is justice denied” wasn’t coined for racing suspensions but it could have been.

If suspensions are to have any meaning, the appeal process has to be changed. Swift rulings are a must. Absent this in our litigious society, jockeys (and trainers) should have to serve their time during a comparable meeting, preferably at the same track at roughly the same time of year. In other words, if Bejarano’s appeal was found to be without merit or withdrawn, he should have been forced to do the days in the heart of the next Santa Anita winter season.

Otherwise, why bother.

Songbird will be missed but not at windows

The supposedly minor illness that has knocked Songbird out of the Kentucky Oaks has created a new sub-division of bridge-jumpers, the bettors who took 7-10 in the Oaks future wagering, seven weeks out, on the supposed sure thing. They get no pity here.

Let’s hope that Songbird’s illness is indeed minor and we see this superstar filly on the track again soon, perhaps as early as the Preakness, although that might be wishful thinking.

To put a positive spin on the unfortunate situation, Songbird's absence makes Derby weekend more interesting gambling-wise. Where Songbird would have been 1-2 or less, the new favorite in the Oaks, whoever that turns out to be, will probably be in the 4-1 or more range.

The Oaks exactas, trifecta’s and supers become more alluring, too.

The Oaks-Derby double also becomes a more lucrative opportunity. A Songbird-Nyquist double might have returned a laughable payoff, 2-1 or less. Doubles with Songbird and any Derby winner probably would have paid very close to what the straight Derby price winds up, negating incentive to make the two-day play.

Now the Oaks-Derby double is more enticing than other daily double bets because the 20-horse Derby field greatly increases the number of combinations. This also goes for the Oaks-Turf Classic-Derby pick 3.

We’ll get seriously into sorting out the possibilities as we get closer to the day.

Written by Tom Jicha

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