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 Sentinels horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Fantasy sports not going away, racing should jump on bandwagon

Fantasy sports businesses, which laughably maintain they are not gambling sites, are not going away, so racing should find a way to piggyback on their popularity.Meanwhile, full-scale sports betting in New Jersey, which of course will spread quickly just as lotteries did, got a boost when a federal appeals court vacated a ruling against the state, the first time the sports leagues opposing it have suffered a significant setback.

MIAMI, Oct. 15, 2015--Fantasy sports are evil.

Their foundation is a lie. Their fallback position, supported by Congress, is they are not gambling.

This is so laughably absurd it brings to mind the classic scene in “Casablanca” in which Claude Rains, as the thoroughly corrupt Capt. Louis Renault, tells Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine that he is shutting down his bar. “I’m shocked, shocked to find out that gambling is going on in here.”

Fantasy sports are totally unregulated. Horse players fret over takeout rates, rightly so. At least they know what they are bucking. In some jurisdictions, permission has to be gotten from the state or racing commission to adjust them even minimally.

Fantasy sports sites answer to no one. They won’t even reveal what their rake is. It has to be astronomical to support their tens of millions in advertising.

They are rife for chicancery. This isn’t a theory. The NFL season was only a few weeks old when it was reported that an employee of DraftKing used inside information from his site to win $350,000 on rival FanDuel. It wasn’t Fan Duel that got screwed. It was the players who thought they were competing on a level playing field.

Richard Eng opined in the Las Vegas Review-Journal that this was akin to the 2002 Fix Six scandal at the Breeders’ Cup. He’s shortchanging the guys who wound up going to jail for that caper. They had to have sophisticated technical expertise. All the guy who scored on DraftKing needed was the time to check out other people’s selections on his company’s site.

One thing the two scandals do have in common is the shenanigans could have gone on indefinitely if the perps hadn’t gotten too lucky, drawing attention to themselves.

As a result of the Fix Six, safeguards have been put in place to prevent an encore. The only safeguard fantasy sports operations have announced is their employees are now forbidden to play on their own or rival sites. Does this include members of their family? Even if it does, there is nothing to keep a wise guy from passing on what he knows to a girlfriend, co-worker or neighbor and share in the proceeds. Thanks to the lack of regulations, it's probably not even illegal.

Their advertising is beyond deceptive. The come-ons in commercials is you can bet a few bucks and win millions. But if you read the microscopic print at the bottom of the screen it's revealed that the average wager is $6.33 and the average payoff is $22.43. This is essentially a 3-1 shot.

Anyone with a brain should have been able to figure this out. It’s like the penny slots in Las Vegas. The big numbers on the screen tease enormous jackpots. You have to read the fine print to notice that in order to be eligible for the big payoffs, you have to bet maximum pennies, usually between $1.50 and $3.00 per spin.

Fantasy sports are not going away. Amazingly, the week after the employee scandal broke, both sites claimed they handled more money than ever before. To repeat an anecdote I have written before, the late Irving Rudd, peerless publicist for Yonkers Raceway, used to say if he could advertise “Nine fixed races tonight” he would need an enhanced police presence to control the crowds trying to get into the track.

DraftKing and FanDuel better enjoy their time as the leaders in the field. Both are estimated to be worth $1 billion already. With that kind of money to be made, the field is soon going to be as crowded as Saratoga ladies rooms on Travers Day.

If fantasy sports can’t be beaten, the only thing for racing to do is to try to join them. Since they are unregulated and Congress has decreed they are not gambling, there doesn’t appear to be anything to prevent race tracks from introducing their own fantasy games.

They would even have the advantage of immediacy. There would be no need to maintain an account online and wait to be paid. Players could go a betting window, submit their team and hopefully get paid as soon as the final whistle blows.

In the meantime, they might make a bet on the live races while monitoring their fantasy teams. Most tracks already have rooms set aside for horse players, who also want to keep track of the NFL.

If tracks don’t want to take it that far, they could run comparative advertising. As noted, the average payoff on the fantasy sites is 3-1. On a typical day at any track, the average win price on races is several times that and there is a “new game” every few minutes. For some unfathomable reason, race tracks are reluctant to engage in comparative advertising.

It also could be pointed out that you would have to be an exceptional football expert or extraordinarily lucky to cash in a fantasy game at least every third week. Anything less frequently, you lose.
The odds are much more in the player’s favor at the track.

Also, it is possible to bet as little as 20 cents, 50 cents or a dollar on races and come up with a life-changing score. As noted, this is not the case in fantasy sports, their deceptive advertising notwithstanding.

Racing is a better bet for players. Offering them side by side might be the best way to demonstrate this.

New Jersey wins big in court

Sports gambling in New Jersey isn't dead afterall. The entire Third Circuit Court of Appeals has vacated an Aug. 25 ruling against the state's efforts to become the only state outside Nevada to offer full single event gambling on sports. (Three other states have permission to offer parlay style betting.) No date was announced for the hearing. It could be months. The fact that it will take place represents the first victory in court for New Jersey against the major sports organizations, who are fighting against it.

It will be interesting to hear how the sports leagues justify their investments in fantasy businesses while maintaining that gambling would erode confidence in the integrity of their games.

State senator Raymond Lesniak, one of those leading New Jersey's campaign for sports betting, was quoted on ESPN. com saying, "Chances are they wouldn't have vacated the ruling if they were only going to confirm it later."

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, October 08, 2015

Last year’s BC winners an under-achieving group

It might be a good idea to draw a line through last year's winners when handicapping the 2015 Breeders' Cup. Lady Eli was 3-for-3 this season but none of the other nine who returned managed to win more than once. Three were shut out. On the good news front, Gulfstream ended its second unopposed summer meeting with handle up more than 11% then topped itself with an opening day at Gulfstream West (Calder) that was up 87% from a year ago.

MIAMI, Oct. 8, 2015--A handicapping theory that has come into vogue in the era of the Breeders’ Cup is to look past horses, especially the winners, in their first race after the Breeders’ Cup. They are almost always short prices and their success rate is so low, it’s a losing proposition to back them. Last year’s group has taken this to new extremes.

Ten of the 13 winners of 2014 Breeders’ Cup races returned to race in the United States this year. (Fillies and Mares Turf champion Dayatthespa and Dirt Mile winner Goldencents were retired and Mile upsetter Karakontie went back to Japan.)

Juvenile Fillies Turf winner Lady Eli was the valedictorian of the class, winning all three of her 2015 starts before going to the sidelines with an injury that became life-threatening when it was compounded by the onset of laminitis. The good news is she is making a remarkable recovery.

Not one of the other nine won more than once. Classic winner Bayern was a spectacular flop, turning in as many last-place performances (two) as he did third-place finishes, the best he could get from five starts. I continue to want to believe karma came into play.

Filly & Mare Sprint winner Judy the Beauty and Turf Sprint hero Bobby’s Kitten are also winless, the former from three starts, the latter from two, most recently last Saturday’s Shadwell Mile, in which he struggled home ninth.

Untapable has a superior record to Bayern but she also ranks as one of the biggest disappointments of the year. Unbeatable against her own gender as a 3-year-old, including a triumph in the BC Distaff, she can’t seem to get the job done this year.

The only time she got home first was in the Apple Blossom. It’s a bad sign that she has four seconds and a third since, inasmuch as she had every chance to win those races. Off all those close calls, she’s likely to take the most money of last year’s winners when she seeks a repeat in the Distaff. However, it’s hard to get excited about a filly who seems to have lost her will to win. Maybe she misses Rosie Napravnik.

Turf champion Main Sequence got his 2015 campaign off to a strong start with a score in Gulfstream’s Mac Diarmida last winter. Next he was shipped to Dubai. As often happens, he was never the same. After a seventh in the Sheema Classic he came back to Monmouth and ran seventh again in the United Nations, the stakes that launched his undefeated Eclipse winning year in 2014. He was retired after that race.

Juvenile Fillies winner Take Charge Brandi also looked like she was going to pick up where she left off. She started her 3-year-old season with a win in the Martha Washington at Oaklawn. It would be the last race she would win. Sidelined several months by injury, she returned in August to run tenth in the Test then 11th in the Cotillion, in what would be the last race of her career.

Take Charge Brandi’s male counterpart, Texas Red, had an injury plagued season and won only once in four starts. But it was a big one, the Jim Dandy. He couldn’t reproduce that effort in the Travers and also has been retired.

An overseas trip might also have had a negative effect on Juvenile Turf winner Hootenanny. After winning an allowance prep at Keeneland, he was shipped to England where he came home 11th in the Commonwealth Cup at Ascot. He hasn’t been seen since.

Sprint winner Work All Week has one win in four starts, the ungraded Sen. Robert C. Byrd Memorial at Mountaineer. But he might have the best chance of all to repeat off his better-than-looked third in Keeneland’s Phoenix last week.

Take away Lady Eli’s undefeated record and the Breeders’ Cup Class of 2014 has produced six wins from 32 starts, a decent resume for a claimer but not for horses who less than a year ago qualified as America’s best.

Gulfstream is magic

The Gulfstream brand continues to be magical. Savvy management, which is willing to try new things, is a big part of it.

On the heels of a summer meet in which handle increased more than 11 percent, opening day at the Gulfstream West (Calder) meeting was an even bigger success with wagering up 87% from last year’s opening.

Also, the introduction of three new bets—a rolling Super Hi 5, an additional Pick 5 on the first five races and a $5 quiniela on the last race--were well received. All are candidates to be added to the wagering menu when the prime Gulfstream meeting opens Dec. 5. (I might tackle the Pick 5 but the other two do little for me. I'm interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments section.)

The amazing aspect of this success is Gulfstream managed to do it despite the concerted efforts of Churchill Downs to sabotage the meeting.

Churchill ruled most of the grandstand off limits last year. This year, it went all the way and closed the entire building to the public for no good reason other than it could. Seeking to outdo itself every year, Churchill has announced plans to demolish the building after this season. So next year, the Calder site could be a construction zone. You get the feeling that if Churchill knew how to create sinkholes, it would do that, too.

Bettors were herded into a couple of large tents on the track apron. That’s non-air conditioned tents. It was a typical 90 degrees on opening day.

One small restroom building and one permanent concession stand, both near the paddock were available. Simulcasting was limited to tracks whose race cards ended proximate to the last race at Gulfstream West/Calder.

Gulfstream, which has almost no control over the situation, encouraged fans to come to the mother track only eight miles away where the building is air conditioned, restrooms and concession stands are plentiful and simulcasting from throughout the country is offered from noon through almost midnight.

The sham meeting is a product of the agreement between the Stronach Group and Churchill Downs Inc. to end head-to-head racing and give Gulfstream unopposed dates year-round. Gulfstream had to agree to run eight weeks a year at Calder to fulfill the state requirement for Churchill to keep its casino at Calder even though CDI has absolutely nothing to do with the meeting.

It’s infuriating that this makes a mockery of at least the spirit of the casino law. The only consolation is anything that separates Churchill Downs from racing is a good thing.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, October 01, 2015

Jockey Club Gold Cup is an Effinweak race

The Jockey Club Gold Cup used to one of the most important races on the national calendar, often the decisive event for year-end titles. Not this season. The best in the East, Honor Code and Liam's Map, are skipping it to prep in other ways for the Breeders' Cup. American Pharoah and Keen Ice are also training up to the Breeders' Cup. Defending champion Tonalist is nothing like the horse who won last year. Meanwhile, it's possible that last weekend produced three or four Breeders' Cup winners.

MIAMI, Oct. 1, 2015--Figure this one out. The “big” horse scheduled to run on Belmont’s Far From Super Saturday is Honor Code. His race, the Kelso, has been scheduled as the fifth on the card.
I get it (but don’t agree) that in contemporary racing building a big Pick 6 pool is a priority but seven horses have been entered in the mile.

Honor Code will be a solid favorite but is far from a bingo free space in multiple-race wagers. Todd Pletcher scratched Mylute out of a stakes last Saturday at Churchill Downs named for the mentor he reveres, D. Wayne Lukas. He knew Honor Code would be in the Kelso.

White hot Cristophe Clement brought Red Vine back from the West Coast, where he probably would have been among the top three betting choices in the Awesome Again, also aware Honor Code was pointing for the Kelso.

If these world class trainers think it's worth taking a shot against Honor Code, that’s good enough for me.

Moreover, Shug McGaughey has made it clear the Kelso is merely a prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Meanwhile, the Jockey Club Gold Cup is keeping the featured 10th race slot, within the Pick 6, in spite of only six entrants and being arguably the least attractive million dollar race in history.

Defending champion Tonalist has won once in four starts this year, his season-opener in May. His competition includes Wicked Strong, zero-for-six this season, and Constitution, who won the Donn last winter at Gulfstream, the only track over which he has ever won. Then he was off for seven months before running fifth in his Gold Cup prep.

Coach Inge is two-for-six, with the wins in an allowance race and the Brooklyn, at the specialty distance of a mile and a half. Looks to Spare, a former (and likely future) claimer, ships in from Mountaineer.

Effinex is the over-achiever with three wins. This makes this renewal of the Gold Cup an Effinweak race.

Looking ahead by looking back:

The unthinkable little more than a month ago has become a realistic possibility. Beholder could go favored over American Pharoah in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

I’m not predicting this. American Pharoah is still the public’s horse. He drew 15,000 to see him gallop at Saratoga. No disrespect to Beholder but I doubt she has ever attracted 15 fans to see her work.

Also, there are a lot of amateurs playing the game on Breeders’ Cup Saturday. Even if Beholder is not the betting choice, the spread will be closer than anyone would have imagined after the Triple Crown winner made a shambles of the Haskell the first week in August.

I won’t be on the Beholder bandwagon. It has nothing to do with gender. I’ve often written that the only reason females beating males in America is a big deal is because it is so infrequently attempted. Gender is not even a handicapping consideration in Europe. The top distaffers beat males regularly.

In my opinion, there are at least a couple of horses American Pharoah has been facing—Keen Ice and Frosted, for starters-- who could have thrashed the same fields Beholder has been crushing on the West Coast, the only place she has ever won. Honor Code could also jump ahead of Beholder in my rankings if he runs big in the Kelso.

Beholder’s huge win in the Pacific Classic was diminished in the faux Grade 1 Awesome Again. Smooth Roller’s biggest previous credential was a nose win in an entry-level allowance. He subsequently failed to hit the board in a minor ungraded stakes at Del Mar. Four of the seven horses he beat Saturday came out of Beholder’s Pacific Classic.

It’s too bad Rachel’s Valentina is skipping this weekend’s Frizette and Alcibiades and will train up to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. Cautious Todd didn’t want to run her back so quickly out of the Spinaway, which was only two months ago.

Had Rachel‘s Valentina run her record to three-for-three in one of the final BC preps, the most anticipated race of Breeders’ Cup Friday would have been her Juvenile Fillies showdown with California sensation Songbird. It’s still a race to look forward to but unless hopeless romantics tilt the toteboard backing the daughter of Rachel Alexandra, the still untested Songbird will be a deservedly solid favorite off her romp in the Chandelier.

Swipe, who just missed soiling Nyquist’s unbeaten record in the Frontrunner, will be the wise-guy horse in the BC Juvenile. He was intimidated if not fouled by Mario Gutierrez in the stretch and when he got room galloped out better than the winner. However, Saturday was the third straight time Swipe ran second to Nyquist. What’s that they say about doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?

Unless Untapable reverts to her unbeatable 3-year-old form in Keeneland’s Spinster, the BC Distaff will be a good betting race but nothing to get excited about aesthetically. Wedding Toast showed she is at the top of her game running away with the Beldame. However, even though she has won around two turns she strikes me as better around a single turn.

Also she might be a New York specialist. She’s seven-for-eight with a second on NYRA tracks, one for three with a third and a fourth away from NYRA tracks. The one was in a $60K stakes-in-name-only event at Gulfstream early last winter.

Vosburgh winners have a miserable record in the BC Sprint. There hasn’t been a horse to pull off the double in this millennium. But Rock Fall is as game as they come. He looked beaten in the Vanderbilt at Saratoga but fought back to get his nose in front at the wire. He appeared to have no chance to hold on in early stretch on Saturday with challengers sandwiching him but fought to the wire to prevail. Whoever beats him at Keeneland gets the money.

Santa Anita’s Rodeo Drive has an even bleaker record in the BC Distaff Turf. Under its current name and the previous Yellow Ribbon, its winner has never repeated in the BC. This is not likely to change this year.

Photo Call was no better than a Grade 3 winner in the East and it took an almost perfect trip to get her first Grade 1 Saturday. It requires a vivid imagination to see her beating the Euros as well as whoever emerges from Saturday’s Flower Bowl, a far superior bunch to the Rodeo Drive group.

With three horses on the wire and the fourth-place finisher less than another length back in the grassy Pilgrim, this is either an exceptional group of 2-year-old male turfers or a well-matched bunch of unexceptional horses, who would have to really step it up to compete with the Euros in the Juvenile Turf. I’m going with the latter supposition.

On the other hand, Tin Type Girl has the look of this year’s Lady Eli. She unleashed a Euro-like turn of foot in taking the filly counterpart, the Miss Grillo, running the final 2 ½ furlongs in under 29 seconds and more than a half-second quicker than colts the day before despite going four wide around the turn and into the stretch.

The daughter of Tapit got the money by only a nose over but she gave away several lengths to runner-up Thrilled, who was glued to the inside from a few strides out of the gate to the payoff pole.

In closing…

What were bettors thinking taking 1-10 on the Beholder-Songbird daily double? The payoff, 20 cents less than Songbird paid to win, wasn’t a surprise. The DD will pays leading into the Zenyatta showed $2, so the maximum potential payoff was $2.80.

What were Bayern’s connections thinking in taking two days after the Awesome Again to officially retire the Breeders' Cup Classic champion. He should have been taken off the track after last-place finishers in his first two 2015 races. “He didn’t want to run,” jockey Martin Garcia said, a statement that has been true all year.

What were the fans, who made him 6-5 off that dismal record, thinking?

What was I thinking, allowing myself to get suckered into the conventional wisdom that the lack of a contested pace made him worth singling in a Pick 4?

Written by Tom Jicha

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