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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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Calder Gates Closed On Memorial Day: Effects of Florida conflict already being felt

The ill effects of the looming conflict between Gulfstream and Calder are beginning to show. In what has to be a first, Calder decided not to race on Memorial Day, probably the first time a racetrack, whose season is in progress, has gone dark on the summer kickoff holiday. No racing is scheduled on the Fourth of July or Labor Day, either, as they, too, fall on days when the track is normally dark. It appears that with its future uncertain, Calder is doing as little as possible. Another sign of this: the press department has disappeared. Those who used to assist reporters have resigned and not been replaced. Whatever is going to happen, it needs to happen as quickly as possible so that the future of both tracks becomes clear.

MIAMI, May 26, 2013--Aaron Vercruysee introduced Sunday’s “First Call” program on HRTV with, “In horse racing, when there’s a holiday and it’s a Monday, we’ve got a lot of great stakes action around the country.”

Not in South Florida. No stakes action was scheduled at Calder on Memorial Day, because no racing was scheduled at Calder on Memorial Day. As best I can recall from 50 years of following thoroughbred racing, this is the first time a track, whose season is in progress, went dark on the holiday that kicks off the summer season.

No racing is scheduled at Calder on the Fourth of July or Labor Day, either. These, too, are firsts, as best I know.This assumes there will be any racing at Calder by the time these holidays roll around.

I’ve worked at a couple of newspapers that shut down. The situation at Calder now reminds me of the run-up to those sad occasions. People leave and they are not replaced. Things break and they are not fixed. Knowing there is no future, everyone does as little as possible (see no racing on the summer holidays).

This describes the spring of 2013 at Calder. The Damocles Sword hanging over the Miami track is the possibility (likelihood?) that Churchill Downs, Inc., will sell out to Gulfstream’s Frank Stronach in some form and racing, or at least racing as it has been at Calder, will cease to exist.

Calder presented the Memorial Handicap Saturday. The annual stakes had to have its title shortened to omit Day for obvious reasons. Journalists from both major area newspapers and, of course, the Daily Racing Form were there to cover the race. What wasn’t there was anyone who worked for Calder.

Michelle Blanco, one of the finest publicists ever to come around a race track, resigned a couple of months ago. She wasn’t replaced. Michael Costanzo, who was given many of Michelle’s duties, left for Gulfstream a few weeks ago. He hasn’t been replaced, either.

Little things, like distributing charts or gathering quotes from riders and trainers, many of whom require translation because they speak little or no English, went undone. If you had a technical problem, you were on your own. If you have a question, there is no one to call. The offices are still there but there is no one in them.

This isn’t a whine by a spoiled reporter. I’ve always gathered my own quotes, as have my colleagues. I know because we stand shoulder to shoulder in the winner’s circle. We're managing well under the new normal, too.

It is to point out the absurdity of a major race track having no press department , which is as unprecedented as not racing on Memorial Day. This is symptomatic of what is happening at Calder.

Reportedly, top executives of CDI and the Stronach Group have a meeting scheduled for Tuesday in an attempt to reach a resolution to the threat of the tracks engaging in a scorched earth conflict that threatens Florida racing. The point that there are not enough horses or fans to go around cannot be reiterated enough.

Gulfstream is going to start racing year-round in July (actually there will be a head start for one day in late June). Any change to this plan will be a bigger upset than Oxbow winning the Preakness. Stronach has his mind set on doing it and nothing is going to dissuade him.

There are many reasons why this can be good for racing. Gulfstream’s facility is more modern, including the backstretch. The shortage of seats facing the race track is not an issue during the non-prime months when crowds thin dramatically. Most fans prefer the comfort of air conditioning. Gulfstream is as well equipped as Calder to serve them.

Gulfstream’s name also carries more cachet around the country and simulcasting is the biggest part of what this conflict is about. (Gulfstream, Calder and Tampa Bay all want to serve as a host track year-round, the next big skirmish). If more money is bet on Gulfstream out of town, it will translate into bigger purses for horsemen.

Both facilities have casinos. The significant difference is CDI has made it the priority at Calder. On both sides of the Calder grandstand facing the Florida Turnpike, which is heavily trafficked by tourists, there are huge illuminated signs “Calder Casino.” No mention of racing. Almost all advertising is geared toward the slots.

Gulfstream pushes its slots in ads, too, but when racing is being conducted, it also is heavily promoted. This figures to be stepped up when summer racing is presented for the first time.

So the ball is in CDI’s court. It can go to war, racing on weekends directly against Gulfstream. It can back off and race only on weekdays to satisfy the state’s requirements to keep its casino license. Or it can sell the whole operation outright to Stronach. Supposedly, an offer was tendered a couple of months ago but the price wasn’t considered right.

Each of these possibilities does not bode well for Calder, as we have come to know it, or people who make their livelihoods there. Thus, the air of melancholy around the track.

This is not meant to be a pro-Gulfstream, anti-Calder screed. There would be no summer racing without Calder. That should count for something. Anyone with a sense of fair play can see it is not right for any entity to just move in and tell another, we’re taking over.

Also, I might eventually be proven wrong but I believe racing at any track 12 months a year is not a good thing for the sport or that track.

Whatever is decided, let’s hope it happens quickly. No one is benefitting from the uncertainty. South Florida deserves to know its racing future ASAP.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, May 24, 2013

NY Times idea of a racing czar is a bad pipedream

The New York Times is up to its usual tricks, dumping on racing. Two days after the Preakness, The Times ran a piece suggesting that what racing needs is a strong, central leader. It's a warm, fuzzy idea until it is put under the microscope of how this has worked in other sports. Baseball and football have potent commissioners, yet have drug issues as scandalous as those in racing. Worse, neither of these commissioners demonstrate any regard for the people who make their sports go, the fans.

MIAMI, May 24, 2013--It didn’t take the New York Times long to resume its jihad against racing. Two days after Orb failed to win the Preakness, William C. Rhoden launched another broadside.

I don’t monitor Rhoden’s work. does keep a close eye on him and The Times, which has dredged up every piece of negative news it could uncover about racing, even if it had to travel to off-the-beaten-track bullrings in the Southwest to find it. The headline on Equidaily’s summary of the piece is telling: “NY Times’ # 2 racing gadfly Rhoden takes his annual shot at racing.”

Among other things, Rhoden opines, “The racing industry is trudging toward an uncertain future.” As opposed to what? The newspaper industry?

Given the thrust of the piece, it’s not surprising it would appear in The Times, a champion of large, centralized government. Rhoden writes, “The industry must appoint a single leadership figure to standardize rules and regulations covering every facet of the industry.”

From where would this messiah come? The Wizard of Oz and Merlin, who could magically wave a wand and make things happen, aren’t available.

Practically speaking, it would have to be someone from racetrack management. More significantly, he would have to be paid by racetracks directly or by gouging fans with another bite in the takeout. The latter would almost certainly require legislative approval from every racing jurisdiction. Good luck with that. Thank goodness.

In either case, this czar would be beholden to track owners.

Let’s take a look at how this approach has worked in other sports. The most frequently mentioned problem by racing’s detractors is performance enhancing drugs. Baseball has had an omnipotent commissioner for a century. The specter of Bud Selig's authority didn’t deter Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and a multitude of other steroid-fueled players from making a mockery of the sport-- just like some thoroughbred trainers are doing.

Selig looked the other way because he felt the barrage of drug assisted offense was good for the game; i.e., the owners.

The NFL has the most powerful commissioner in sports. Yet it looked the other way for years at steroid and amphetamine abuse. Same reason: Fans love those big hits by players with super-human physiques.

How many times did you hear commentators casually remark, “He got his bell rung.” Only recently has it been conceded that this translates to the likelihood of a concussion, which leads to premature dementia and death.

The lifespan of an NFL player is something like 12 years less than the average American. The NFL and its strong commissioner didn’t bother to deal with this reality until it was confronted by what could turn into a gazillion dollar lawsuit from former players.

What about concern for fans?

Selig has presided over the most fan-unfriendly developments in the history of baseball. You can buy tickets to take the family to a Sunday afternoon game only to be told it has been moved to Sunday night for TV. Instead of getting home for dinner, the final pitch will be thrown around midnight. This makes the ETA for arriving home before the start of a new school and work week an hour with a small number.

All that matters is, thanks to Selig, it’s ever onward and upward for the TV revenue owners cut up.

Football is only slightly better. Consider the ramifications of the celebrated Snow Bowl, the playoff game between Oakland and New England played in a blizzard on Jan. 19, 2002.

The calendar dictates that playoff games fall in the dead of winter. So the NFL can’t be blamed for what happened that Saturday night. But what has happened since is unconscionable.

Until then, the NFL did its best to schedule late season prime-time games in warmer weather cities or those with domed stadiums. Once the Snow Bowl racked up record TV ratings, this philosophy was spun 180 degrees.

Now the league goes out of its way to schedule December and January prime-time games in places like Green Bay, Chicago and New England, in the hope it can re-create the Snow Bowl ratings magic. So what if this puts the fans in the stands in danger of frostbite, pneumonia or a heart attack trying to shovel out their car after the final gun, then driving home in treacherous conditions.

The NFL doesn’t even respect its most important games enough to stage them under the most advantageous competitive conditions possible. The first round of the playoffs last season had a couple of wild card games on Saturday. One was in Houston, the other in Green Bay. The NFL designated the latter for prime time, all the better for the possibility of another winter wonderland. The higher the ratings, the more the NFL can demand when its TV contract comes up for renewal.

Two weeks later, the two conference championships were played the same day. One was in Atlanta with its domed stadium. That was made the early game. The other was after dark outdoors in New England.

This coming February, the Super Bowl will be played outdoors at the Meadowlands. The conditions could be so brutal, the league has made contingency plans to move to an alternate date in case the Metropolitan area is shut down by a major storm.

With enhanced security, fans will be asked to be in their seats as much as three hours before kickoff. Throw in the extended halftime show and they could be sitting in arctic conditions for as much as seven hours.

Is this being done to give fans in the nation’s largest market a chance to see sports biggest event? Of course not. The average person has no shot at a ticket. It’s a gift to the owners of the Jets and Giants for building a new billion dollar stadium. Those owners will be sitting in heated skyboxes, blissfully liberated from the pain and suffering of the freezing masses in the stands.

You can thank a powerful commissioner for that.

The Breeders Cup, one of the best things to happen to racing, tried to take a leadership position in cleaning up the drugs mess by issuing a phased-in edict that Lasix would not be permitted in the championship races.

This effort or the Breeders’ Cup will die after this year because horsemen’s organizations have indicated they will not grant simulcast rights if the ban on Lasix isn’t lifted.

A strong central figure to restore racing to prominence is a warm fuzzy thought but one that works only in the minds of those in the Ivory Tower of The New York Times.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, May 17, 2013

There is Orb and there is everyone else in the Preakness

Orb stands so far above the rest of the 3-year-old class that it's difficult to single out which of his eight rivals represents the biggest threat to him in the Preakness. All Orb has to do is run his race without experiencing horrendous racing luck to head to Belmont Park with a big shot to end the Triple Crown draught.

MIAMI, May 17, 2013--The Preakness would be a hell of a race if Orb wasn’t in it.

This thought occurred to me Sunday morning when I was putting together my contribution to the weekly Inside Horse Racing Triple Crown Poll. Orb at No. 1 was easy. The Kentucky Derby winner has been atop my poll since the Florida Derby.

The challenge came when I pondered who to make Nos. 2, 3, 4, etc. A mischievous instinct tempted me to slot Orb at No. 1 and “Everyone Else” at No. 2. Alas, I knew this wasn’t going to fly with John Pricci, who encourages provocative thought and expression…to a point.

But this is how I assess the 3-year-old picture at this point.

Big favorites go down every day. A horrid trip, a poorly judged ride, a bad day physically could undermine Orb. But it will take something extraordinary to deny him the second jewel of the Triple Crown. If each of the nine Preakness entrants brings his “A” game, is there any doubt who wins? Not with me.

Apparently this is also true of several major players in the game. The three horses closest to Orb at the end of the Kentucky Derby want no more of him Saturday. Todd Pletcher started five in the Derby as well as at least one in just about every significant 3-year-old stakes in the East, South and Midwest this winter. He’s sending no one to the Preakness.

Orb beat every top 3-year-old in Florida this winter, either at Gulfstream or in Kentucky. He vanquished Violence in the Fountain of Youth when Violence was the most accomplished 3-year-old around. In the Florida Derby, Orb ran past Itsmyluckyday, who was coming off decisive scores in the Gulfstream Derby and Holy Bull. He didn’t get a shot at Verrazano until the Run for the Roses.

Look at how horses who spent the winter in Florida did when Orb wasn’t around: Revolutionary won the Louisiana Derby, Overanalyze took the Arkansas Derby, Verrazano extended his unbeaten streak in the Wood Memorial and Java’s War upset the Blue Grass. Combined with Orb's Florida Derby, this represents a clean sweep of the 100-point races east of the Mississippi and west of Dubai.

So the question becomes is there any reason to think Orb won’t bring his “A” game? Not off his final workout. Low key Shug McGaughey, who would describe Secretariat’s Belmont as a nice race, said Orb’s work took his breath away. Others said it was more impressive than his pre-Kentucky Derby workout at Churchill Downs, which was assessed by many as the work of Derby week.

So if you want to price shop and play against Orb, it will not be on the basis of any sound handicapping principle. A sobering thought for those of that mind is the Preakness is by far the most formful of the Triple Crown races.

Seven of the last dozen Preakness winners have been the betting favorite. One of the five who didn’t come through was the ill-fated Barbaro. Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another went off second choice to Bodemeister last year. IHA became the eighth Derby winner in the past 16 years to repeat in Baltimore. Seventeen of the last 27 odds-on favorites in the Preakness have won. Those are winning percentages the late Oscar Barrera would admire.

Only two Preakness winners in the past 29 years have gone off at double digit odds. One was Bernardini in Barbaro’s Preakness. The other was Shackleford in 2011.
So those looking to score big while betting small are up against the odds in more ways than one.

On the other hand, you could come up with the horses to fill out the exacta, tri and super by pulling names out of a hat and feel good about your chances.

An indication of this came from Pimlico oddsmaker Frank Carulli, who said he made Mylute the 5-1 second choice because the Preakness crowd will heavily back his jockey Rosie Napravnik. No disrespect to Rosie or Mylute, who very well could be that good. But is this what handicapping the Triple Crown has been reduced to?

The more likely second choice will be Illinois Derby winner Departing, who sat out the Kentucky Derby pointing for this race. He’s from the people who thwarted history with Blame, denying Zenyatta an undefeated career in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

But before getting carried away with the “now” horse, keep in mind that the two horses closest to Departing at Hawthorne were Fordubai and Siete de Oros. His other stakes win came in the Texas Heritage. When Departing tried classier company in the Louisiana Derby, he was a non-menacing third.

Four others command respect as much for their trainer as their accomplishments. D. Wayne Lukas has three—Will Take Charge, Oxbow and Titletown Five—with the first two each having run a race strong enough to hit the board at Pimlico. Bob Baffert jumps on the Triple Crown trail with Govenor Charlie, who was kept out of the Derby with a minor ailment. The misspelled Guv’s big credit is the Sunland Derby, where he had less behind him than Departing did in Chicago.

If there’s a sleeper, it’s Goldencents, whose 17th-place finish in the Derby was too bad to be true. Doug O’Neill’s charge rebounded from a dull San Felipe to run huge in the Santa Anita Derby. Maybe he can turn it around again and give O’Neill another Preakness triumph.

Itsmyluckyday also is a better horse than he showed in Louisville and has worked well since. Nothing wrong with Elvis Trujillo but he’s not Johnny Velazquez, who takes over in the saddle.

It comes down to this. Something good has to happen for one of the other eight to spring an upset. All Orb needs do is run his race.

Written by Tom Jicha

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