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, January 14, 2016

Jackpot bets could bring the end of racing as we know it

First there was the Pick 6. This begot the Rainbow 6. Unfortunate byproducts of both were stakes races being moved out of their featured positioning because they had an overwhelming favorite or not enough entrants to bolster the number of possible combinations. The trend has hit rock bottom with a new wager in Oregon in which quality and form are undesirable. Horses unable to compete at mainstream tracks, conditioned by trainers who can't attract clients and ridden by novices, are racing in six two furlong dashes with the goal to build a lottery-like jackpot. If it builds the bottom line, the incentive to attract better horses with higher purses will no longer exist.

MIAMI, Jan. 14-2016--Thoroughbred racing Armageddon has erupted at Portland Meadows . It could be coming to a track near you.

The Oregon facility has created a new jackpot bet that (hopefully) brings chasing-the-dream wagers to their nadir. The de-evolution from Pick 6 to Rainbow 6 to now National Racing Club Sweepstakes 6 is hopefully complete.

Other pie-in-the-sky wagers were manageable through solid handicapping. The Sweepstakes 6 is all but impossible—by design. The idea is to make the races so difficult to handicap that you might as well just pick numbers, like playing the lottery.

This could be the least of the problems for racing because of the way the bet is constructed. Portland Meadows will run six races with 12 horses in each after its regular Monday cards. This, of course, is for starters. If the Powerball-rivaling bet catches on, it’s 1-to-9 to become a daily fixture.

The horses who will be competing, the trainers “conditioning” them and the jockeys aboard them invite tragedy, which will tarnish the entire sport, even though the relationship of the Sweepstakes 6 and traditional horse racing is virtually non-existent.

The thoroughbreds, which have been purchased en masse by Portland Meadows, have been culled from herds of horses who can no longer compete even at the lowest claiming levels on regular racing circuits. In many cases, this means animals with serious infirmities, making them candidates to break down with their next stride.

The races for a purse of $3,000 will be two furlongs. Laymen might think the short distance isn't too demanding. In reality, the necessity to run hard every step puts more stress on a horse than longer races in which they don't have to run full-out for at least part of the trip.

These slow and broken down animals will be prepared by trainers having trouble getting clients. Someone who can’t attract horses at Portland Meadows is probably a wannabe, who should be in another line of work. They will be ridden by novice jockeys trying to break into the game.

To summarize, a dozen horses on their last legs, trained by wannabes with unskilled riders aboard will break balls to the wall from the gate. I cringe to think of what might happen. The likelihood of carnage is so great, The New York Times might station a full-time reporter at the track. You can be sure PETA will be monitoring closely.

Bettors also will be taken for a debilitating ride. The track will assign horses to each race so that there are no obvious favorites—i.e., singles. The goal, of course, is to build an attention-grabbing jackpot as quickly as possible.

It shouldn’t take long. If Portland Meadows can find 72 horses who can walk to the starting gate without breaking down, there will be almost 3 million possible combinations. (2,985,984 to be exact, according to my calculations.) With a base wager of 20 cents, it would take about $600,000 to cover the board.

The takeout is an outrageous 22 percent but that’s only the start of the horse player abuse. If there isn’t a single ticket winner, 40% will be carried over to the next Sweepstakes 6.

For round numbers, let’s say $10,000 is bet. The 22% takeout skims this down to $7,800 to be returned to bettors. Subtract another 40%--$3,120--for the carryover and only $4,680 is left to be paid to winners. That’s an effective takeout of more than 53%. State lotteries are a bargain in comparison.
If, God forbid, the Sweepstakes 6 catches on, racing as we know and love it will be on a slippery slope to oblivion. Once tracks realize they can bolster their bottom lines by rolling out bottom-of-the-barrel horses for minuscule purses and fans will respond the way they do to Powerball, the incentive to attract better horses with higher purses will dissipate. Breeders should shudder.

We should have seen this coming once Grade 1 races started getting relegated to the early races on the card because they had an overwhelming favorite or a short field, both of which decrease the number of reasonable combinations in the jackpot bets.

Coincidentally, even before I became aware of the Sweepstakes 6 I was going to comment this week on where jackpot bets are leading. The catalyst was last Saturday’s card at Gulfstream, which introduced an early Pick 5 this season.

Gulfstream generally makes an effort to card races for the better horses on Saturdays. But this seems to be on its way out. Last Saturday’s sequence included a pair of $12,500 maiden claiming races and an open $6,250 claimer, which is where most winners of $12,500 maiden claiming races go. These are horses who are candidates to be bought and shipped to Oregon for the Sweepstakes 6.

To illustrate how impossible these races are to handicap--which is the idea--even with the Marshua’s River included and Sandiva winning at even-money, no one was able to pick five. There is no carryover—executives at Gulfstream are probably wondering how they let this happen--so four out of five paid $584.

This emerging emphasis on creating lottery-like payoffs over quality racing might be good for race tracks' bottom lines but they are bad bets for players and have the potential to sabotage everything there is to love about the sport.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, January 07, 2016

Baffert pass makes things easy for California Chrome

The first anticipated showdown of 2016 won't happen this weekend. Bob Baffert has opted to keep Dortmund in the barn rather than take on California Chrome in the San Pasqual. This leaves only an off track and the effects of a 10-month layoff to hinder the 2014 Kentucky Derby champion. As for the 2016 Derby outlook, the big winner from last weekend's preps in New York and Florida was Mohaymen, who never left the barn. Flexibility, who tried him twice in vain, ran away with the Jerome.

MIAMI, Jan. 7, 2016--Dortmund has never lost a race that hasn’t been won by a Kentucky Derby champion. Bob Baffert’s newly turned 4-year-old is 8-for-10 through his juvenile and 3-year-old seasons. The blemishes came in American Pharoah’s Kentucky Derby (Dortmund was third) and Preakness (Dortmund wound up fourth).

Make what you will of this in light of Baffert’s decision to not run Dortmund against California Chrome in Saturday’s San Pasqual. Baffert made the call a day after California Chrome sizzled six furlongs in 1:10 last Saturday in his final work for his first race since last winter’s Dubai World Cup.

Dortmund had what was thought to be his final San Pasqual work Sunday, seven furlongs in 1:25 4/5. Baffert said this wasn’t good enough. He didn’t like the way the newly turned 4-year-old finished, so he won’t run Saturday.

You have to wonder if Dortmund would have been kept in the barn this weekend if California Chrome’s workout had been less eye-catching or his connections had decided to make his return in some other race.

On the other hand, Baffert can’t be faulted for opting for discretion over valor. California Chrome looks like the only older horse west of the Rockies who can cause Dortmund any grief and the Derby winner is ticketed for another trip to Dubai. The San Pasqual is likely to be his only U.S. prep.

Once California Chrome heads for the Middle East, Dortmund should be able to gallop through the talent deficient West Coast handicap division without breaking a sweat. So why risk gutting him in his first start as a 4-year-old?

Moreover, the San Antonio on Feb. 6, Baffert’s new target, has a $500,000 purse while the San Pasqual is only $200,000.

So instead of an attention-grabbing early season showdown between the nation’s ranking older stars—there isn’t much on the East Coast at this point--fans will get what amounts to a California Chrome walkover in the San Pasqual and a Dortmund walkover in the San Antonio.

It appears the only things that can beat California Chrome are the layoff and the strong possibility of an off track. Weather forecasts are for Noah-frightening amounts of rain the next few days.

His main opposition is expected to come from Baffert second-stringer Hoppertunity, a hard trying colt who is simply not in California Chrome’s class. They have met twice and Hoppertunity hasn’t gotten within five lengths.

The other threat appears to be Hard Aces, whose main claim to fame is out-bobbing Hoppertunity in the Hollywood Gold Cup last June. He has been sixth in all three starts since.

3-year-olds get busy

Thank goodness for the 3-year-old division, which carries racing the first half of the year. Gulfstream and NYRA got right into action last Saturday with a trio of stakes on dirt for Classic age colts.

The only thing we really learned is Mohaymen, who stayed in the barn, might be everything he has been cracked up to be. Flexibility, who chased him home without impact in the Nashua and Remsen, demonstrated that when Mohaymen isn’t around, he’s a star in his own right. Aided by a pluperfect trip, he toyed with seven rivals in the Grade 3 Jerome.

There was speculation after the race that Chad Brown might ship him to the Florida sunshine to prepare for the spring classics rather than deal with the prospect of erratic winter weather in New York. Brown put this to rest for at least the time being. Flexibility will remain in New York and point for the Withers Stakes on Jan. 30, Brown said.

This is another example of discretion over valor. Jan. 30 is the day Mohaymen is scheduled to make his 3YO debut in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream.

Gulfstream’s two sophomore stakes last Saturday produced a couple of “Awesome” victories. However, it did little to clarify the local Triple Crown picture.

Awesome Speed delivered as expected in spite of early trouble in the Mucho Macho Man. The mile was his longest route to date after three six furlong sprints. But he wasn’t beating any budding stars and he still hasn’t attempted two turns.

His breeding gives him license to stretch out. His sire, Awesome Again, won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. His dam sire, Aptitude, was second in the Derby and Belmont and won a pair of Grade 1 stakes at 10 furlongs as a 4-year-old.

Awesome Banner, by Awesome Again’s son Awesome of Course, might have been more impressive in running away with the six furlong Hutcheson. First time out in June, he shattered the Gulfstream record for 4 ½ furlongs. A bone chip in his knee, which has been surgically repaired, kept him on the sidelines until last Saturday.

Trainer Stanley Gold knew he had a nice colt but didn’t know what to expect. “Sometimes 2-year-olds run fast and they never come back to it.” Awesome Banner came back to it. He dueled for a half-mile through respectable fractions then pulled away to win by almost five.

There was quality in his wake. Noholdingback Bear and Sheik of Sheiks, who ran second and third, finished one-two (in reverse order) in the Juvenile Dirt Sprint at Keeneland on Breeders’ Cup weekend.

Gold is taking a patient approach. Rather than tackle the heavyweights in the two-turn, mile and a sixteenth Holy Bull, he’s pointing Awesome Banner for the seven furlong Swale the same afternoon.

The jury will have to remain out on the filly companion stakes, the Old Hat, until we hear from the testing lab. Lucy N Ethel, shipping in from Pennsylvania, crushed five rivals. But she is trained by another of those Parx 30-percenters, Ramon Preciado.

A few days after the Old Hat, Preciado was hit with a pair of suspensions totaling 21 days and a $1,500 fine, which is a joke, for clenbuterol positives at Delaware Park.

One involved Trouble Kid, a horse who a little more than a year ago was getting beat for $12.5K maiden at Gulfstream, about as weak as it gets in South Florida. A month after Preciado’s claim in July out of a $15K maiden race in which he was beaten, Trouble Kid won an allowance by 9, setting a track record. This is the race from which he came back positive.

Trouble Kid’s remarkable improvement continued when he won the Grade 3 Gallant Bob on the Pennsylvania Derby undercard, then the Valley Forge and finished first in the DeFrancis Dash only to be disqualified for interference going to the far turn.

The other positive was for Jake N Elwood’s 7 ½ length romp in the New Castle Stakes. Coincidentally, Lucy N Ethel is a half-sister to Jake N Elwood.

Preciado said last weekend, before the suspensions came down, her next start will be in the Forward Gal on Jan. 30. He will still be sitting out his suspensions that day. So if she goes, another trainer will have to be listed on the program.

Please hold your laughter.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Clearing the decks for a new year

Wishes for 2016: Horses who run more often; another big horse for Jim Rome; a return to the races for Lady Eli; lower minimum bets; Breeders' Cup telling Churchill Downs no; NYRA being re-privatized--and those are just for starters.

MIAMI, Dec. 31, 2015--What better time than the last day of the year to clear my chest in order to start 2016 with a clean slate. The opinions expressed are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of John Pricci (who thinks some of them are nuts) or Horse Race Insider.

To develop a thread that began in the comments section of J.P.’s Tuesday column, I believe overly conservative trainers are almost as detrimental to the game as other more prominently debated issues.

The latest catalyst for a point-counterpart between J.P. and I was Best Behavior coming back in only two weeks to win last Saturday’s Sugar Swirl Stakes. Every time this happens I point it out to J.P. and he always counters it’s the exception that makes the rule.

I concede not every horse can do this but we’ll never know how many can because few are given the opportunity. It seems to me that a disproportionate number, who are given the chance, come up big.

The dwindling foal crop is a regularly discussed concern. A big reason there are fewer foals is there are fewer prospective owners to buy them.

Why isn’t a mystery. The joy of owning a thoroughbred is seeing your horse compete in your silks. There isn’t a lot of joy when horses race only six or seven times a year, while per diems pile up, which has become the new normal.

I understand injuries have something to do with this. However. trainers, who tend to be a monkey-see, monkey-do bunch bear much of the responsibility.

I contend if horses were put on a two-to-three week racing regimen, they would get used to it and most would respond well. More starts would mean more fun and purses for owners. This would encourage more people to get into the game. Inevitably, the supply of foals would rise up to meet the demand.

More final 2015 thoughts

American Pharoah has been retired for two months yet he still dominates sports news with the controversy over Sports Illustrated and the Associated Press’ Sports Person of the Year selections. It might be contrarian in racing circles but the wire service and Sports Illustrated got it right in passing over American Pharoah for their human awards while designating his Triple Crown sweep as the sports story of the year.

How about that? A story from “a dying sport” outranks everything else in the world of sports.

The sudden death of Shared Belief might be a bigger blow to racing than the retirement of American Pharoah, which everyone saw coming. As a gelding Shared Belief could have thrilled fans for years as, in my opinion, the best horse in the world. What’s more, having Jim Rome talking him up to young people not tuned in to racing could have provided an incalculable boost to the sport.

Let’s hope “Romey” gets another good one ASAP. The filly Stays in Vegas might be the one.

The feel good story of the year has to be Lady Eli’s recovery from often fatal laminitis. That one of the most talented female grass runners in years survived is heartening. The possibility that she could return to the races borders on miraculous.

Hong Kong doesn’t fool around. The racing association almost had to cancel races one day recently because so many jockeys were serving suspensions, they didn’t have enough riders for all the entrants. I guess that’s the other extreme from America’s often see-no-evil stewards. Is a happy medium possible?

Some people never learn. California Chrome went to the sidelines for nine months after shipping to Dubai off one prep last year. Oblivious to the definition of crazy, his connections are gearing him up for another jaunt to the Middle East after one Santa Anita prep.

Speaking of lessons unlearned, Santa Anita had to dig into its own pockets to make the $150K Pick 6 guarantee this past Sunday. The $2 minimum bet produced only $143,158. Meanwhile, the 50-cent minimum Pick 4 attracted a pool of $841,567. When will tracks realize that the future of the game as well as an entry point for newcomers is low minimum bets?

Trevor Denman’s sudden “retirement” from Santa Anita while expressing his intent to keep calling races at Del Mar indicates to me that there will be at least one juicy chapter when he gets around to writing his book.

How cold is it for Santa Anita to make veteran race-callers Frank Mirahmadi and Michael Wrona go through extended public auditions to replace Denman while letting it be known the track is looking hard for someone else?

On a more positive note, it was nice to see Pete Aiello, Gulfstream’s summer race-caller, get the Oaklawn job. Aiello, a good guy, is one of the young comers in the business.

Churchill Downs and Keeneland are both expected to bid for the 2018 Breeders’ Cup, the next one without a host site chosen. This should be as easy a decision as American Pharoah’s Triple Crown for NTRA Moment of the Year. Keeneland, by all accounts, did a magnificent job this past fall. Churchill Downs continues to undermine racing all but two days a year. To reward it for its bad behavior would be inexcusable.

An administrative law judge’s recommendation that Kirk Ziadie be barred for six years for countless drug violations is long overdue. Ziadie was barred from Calder from 2009-2011. Why he was allowed back is a mystery but he was soon winning again at a clip that defied belief. I gave up trying to beat him long ago. If he had a horse in a race, I either bet him or passed.

The Kentucky Attorney General's ruling that Keeneland cannot card races for horses competing without Lasix once again makes the point that those trying to get the anti-bleeding medication barred are engaged in an exercise of futility. It isn’t going to happen. You can have all the Barr-Tomko bills Congress can pass but as long as horsemen retain the right to control simulcasting, there never will be anything meaningful done about race day medications.

Anyone believe 2016 will be the year when NYRA is finally returned to private ownership?

Happy New Year!

Written by Tom Jicha

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