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, December 22, 2016

No suspense in this year’s Eclipse Awards

The Eclipse Awards asks voters to list first, second and third choices, even though only first-place votes count. The purpose is to eliminate the possibility of unanimous vote-getters tipping off the results when the finalists are announced. This year more than any other, the Eclipses are well served by this process. The winners in the majority of divisions are so clear-cut there could be a half-dozen fields with unanimous winners.

MIAMI, Dec. 22--There are no place and show prizes at the Eclipse ceremonies. Members of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and other voting groups are asked to list their second and third choices on ballots, which arrived during the past week. But only the first-place votes matter. The reason for adding second and third is to try to create some suspense leading up to the Jan. 21 presentations at Gulfstream Park.

This year the winner of almost every division is so obvious. There used to be more drama in an old episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

California Chrome is the Horse of the Year. End of discussion. Arrogate beat him in the Breeders’ Cup Classic but the Eclipse Awards are supposed to be for a body of work, not just one race. Winning seven of eight in a campaign that stretched from January to December and included a pair of wins in the Middle East, California Chrome towers over the field. Obviously, he is best Older Dirt Horse, too.

Beholder is almost as much a layover as top Older Dirt Female, her fourth Eclipse without ever winning a race outside Southern California. Stellar Wind, who beat her twice, had her chance to end Beholder’s reign but couldn’t get it done in the BC Distaff.

Songbird should get every vote in the 3-year-old filly division. A case could have been made for Horse of the Year if the BC Distaff photo had gone her way.

The Kentucky Derby is usually the be-all and end-all among 3-year-old males. Not this year. Arrogate’s breath-taking brilliance in the Travers and BC Classic outweigh Nyquist’s spring triumphs.

The irony and unfair aspect of Eclipse voting is if Nyquist had retired after the Derby, he very well could have held on to the title despite Arrogate’s late-season surge. But inexplicably disappointing performances—a growth spurt is not an excuse-- in the Preakness, Haskell and Pennsylvania Derby doom any case that could be made for Nyquist.

Classic Empire, the early favorite for next May’s Kentucky Derby off his BC Juvenile win, and the fact that he has never been beaten in a race in which he carried his jockey to the finish, did more than enough to out-rate Bob Baffert’s undefeated Masterly.

Champagne Room is a lot shorter than the 33-1 she was in the BC Juvenile Fillies to grab the Eclipse in her division. She had only one other stakes win but she took the big one and no other young filly distinguished herself enough to overcome that laurel.

Every season there seems to be one unfortunate horse, who does enough to capture an Eclipse in any other year only to be denied because a rival did even more. Maybe we should create an Alydar Award for this.

Miss Temple City would be the prime candidate this year. She beat males in the Makers Mark and Shadwell Turf Mile and went out to California and won the Matriarch, all Grade 1’s.

But Tepin’s six straight wins, including a world class triumph in the Queen Anne at Ascot, gets the gold as Female Turf champion. Miss Temple City also went to Ascot for the Duke of Cambridge, where she finished fourth. In their only head-to-head meeting, Tepin was second in the BC Mile while MTC checked in fifth.

As strong as the distaff turfers were, the male division was weak. Like Tepin, Flintshire ran second in his final two starts of the season. Unlike Tepin, Flintshire had no serious rival for the title. His wins in the Manhattan, Bowling Green and Sword Dancer are more than enough since no other North American horse stood out. I refuse to vote for a Euro, who wins one start in the U.S., as Highland Reel did.

Male Sprinter is one of the divisions still up for grabs. Drefong’s campaign mirrors Arrogate’s. He won five in a row but didn’t win his first stakes until the Kings Bishop on Travers Day. Then he encored at the Breeders’ Cup.

His Bob Baffert stablemate Lord Nelson was undefeated in four races, three of them Grade 1’s, and would have been a heavy favorite at the Breeders’ Cup only to be scratched with an injury that sent him into retirement.

If Drefong makes it six in a row in the Grade 1 Malibu this coming Monday, he gets my vote. If he comes up short, I’ll support Lord Nelson.

Female Sprinter is another case of no one really rising above the class, so Finest City, on the strength of her BC victory and an overall (4) 2-1-1 record around one turn gets my vote to take home the trophy.

In the key human categories Chad Brown has saddled the winners of the most money, dethroned perennial champion Todd Pletcher at Saratoga, the nation's glamor meet, and conditioned Turf champion Flintshire. He also deserves plaudits for bringing Lady Eli, the year’s feel good story, back from near death to Grade 1 form.

Bob Baffert trained a couple of likely Eclipse winners, Arrogate, and either Defrong or Lord Nelson, in addition to Masterly. But Brown finally should get his first Eclipse.

I’m going slightly outside the box for top jockey. Javier Castellano again cleared the pack in purses and "Money Mike" Smith had a career year, even for him. However, I’m going with Jose Ortiz, who really broke through, for winning the most races and almost every riding title in New York. He also traveled well for stakes engagements elsewhere.

Knocks on Wood

The downgrading of the Wood Memorial has generated a firestorm of conversation and controversy. This isn’t the first time the Wood was lowered from Grade 1 to Grade 2, but it could be a lot harder to climb back to the top this time.

With Grade 1 options and million dollar purses at Gulfstream, Oaklawn and Santa Anita, it’s going to be difficult to lure the type of horses that can propel the Wood back to the top.

The only way to make it happen is for the Todd Pletcher’s, Chad Brown’s and Kiaran McLaughlin’s to set an example to other New York trainers by making an all-out effort to support their home circuit with their top Kentucky Derby hopefuls, not their mid-level 3-year-olds who might show well in the Wood but aren’t going to have a significant impact on the Classics.

There is little loyalty in racing but this is one instance where the guys who have become rich and famous on the NYRA circuit need to give a little back.

Merry Christmas (and/or Happy Hanukah). You people make all my seasons bright.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, December 15, 2016

NY state wants to teach Pletcher, Brown, et al, how to train

The New York Gaming Commission has dictated that all trainers, including superstars such as Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown and Bob Baffert, must take a four-hour course each year on how to care for horses and manage a stable. Elsewhere, the Pegasus Stakes will not only be the world's richest race, it will be the most expensive to attend. On top of the previously announced $100 general admission, Gulfstream plans to charge $50 per car to park.

MIAMI, Dec. 15--The following has to be prefaced with this is not a joke.

Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown are being compelled by the New York State Gaming Commission to take a four-hour course annually on how to train horses and run a stable. So is Kiaran McLaughlin and every other trainer on the NYRA circuit. If he starts more than 12 horses in New York the entire year, Bob Baffert also is subject to this ludicrous dictate, as is every out-of state-trainer.

This is like New York forcing Billy Joel, who regularly plays Madison Square Garden, to take performing lessons from the state.

The Gaming Commission mandate, which also applies to assistant trainers, would be praiseworthy if it were limited to those trying to break into the profession or running one- and two-horse barns. To subject Hall of Fame achievers to it is beyond insulting. But as often is the case with government, common sense is a non-starter.

“Creating a continuing education requirement for trainers will bring knowledge and evidence-based research to an audience that otherwise generally would not be exposed to it,” according to Rob Williams, the gaming commission’s executive director.

Fortunately, there is an expedient escape. The course can be taken online, so trainers too busy conditioning hundred-horse barns can assign an underling, who it might help, to take the course for them. Stupid edicts beg to be circumvented.

The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association is understandably opposed to this onerous burden, especially since standardbred horsemen are exempt. A similar program is being contemplated for the standardbred industry, according to Williams.

Why is the state only thinking about it? Before this program was announced, someone should have figured out that when it comes to physical issues, a horse is a horse, (of course, of course), whether it’s toting a jockey or pulling a sulky. Sound business practices and ethics are equally crucial in both games.

The intriguing question is who is going to teach Pletcher, Brown and their colleagues to do what they do better than anyone? Apparently, it’s going to be a bureaucrat. Beautiful.

Bridge jumping on way out?

At the same session, the Gaming Commission took under consideration allowing tracks to eliminate show wagering in races with four entrants to combat staggering minus pools.

This is a reminder of a proposal West Coast racing activist Andy Asaro has been pushing in California. To reduce minus pools, he wants tracks to be able to reduce the minimum payoff to $2.05.

His tradeoff is breakage would be eliminated. If a horse’s odds dictated, say, a $6.39 payoff, that is what the bettor would get. This was not feasible in the era when most players cashed at the windows and pennies would have tied up the lines. With fractional betting and a large percentage of players opting for automated tellers and computer betting, this is no longer a significant drawback.

I think the proposal has a lot of merit. Like the overwhelming majority of players, I don’t get involved in bridge-jumper situations. However, I would like to get the true odds on a winning bet and it’s not a matter of pennies. It could come out to a couple of bucks on a $10 win bet. Asaro argues this might steer some players back to the win pool, thereby increasing churn and fans cashing bets.

What do you think?

Movable finish lines?

Kent Desormeaux, who can ride the hair off a horse, doesn’t have a lot going on under his own hair.

Biting the hand that has fed him spectacularly over the years, Desormeaux said at the annual jockey’s convention in Las Vegas that he doesn’t trust photo finishes. His contention is the finish line can be drawn wherever the placing judges want it.

The irony is Desormeaux is someone who has typically not had a handle on where the wire is. He has been fined and suspended repeatedly for not riding his horse out to the finish.

Desormeaux isn’t the only one to voice this opinion. I have pondered it myself when they put up a number I couldn’t believe. But there has never been a smidgen of proof that this is happening.

Unless and until he produces evidence of tampering with photos, Desormeaux should keep his mouth shut. The last thing the game needs is another conspiracy theory challenging its integrity espoused by someone with his prominence.

Commoners not welcome

If you asked Santa to bring you one of those $100 tickets to the Pegasus Stakes, better send him an addendum that you need a $50 parking pass, too.

If the purpose of the $12 million Pegasus—the world’s richest race—is to bring new fans to racing, The Stronach Group is choosing a strange way to do it.

The $100 general admission gets you through the gate, nothing more. Every place to sit down except the toilets is substantially extra. Bar stools are going for $200.

On top of that, parking will cost $50 per car. That’s self parking. If you want to valet, it will cost you a C-note, tip not included.

General admission and parking at Gulfstream is normally free. It has been since the new plant with its slots casino opened. Given that the mainstream media doesn’t devote much space to thoroughbred racing and Gulfstream isn’t highlighting the budget-busting prices in its advertising, it’s a sure bet thousands of regular race-goers are going to be shocked when they arrive at the track.

When you factor in what it is going to cost Gulfstream to erect and staff barriers where there are none, it’s fair to ask whether there could be a point of diminishing returns in revenue while suffering a major blow in public relations.

The premium areas, where a seat at a restaurant table goes for as much as $765, could be segregated by wrist bands to keep out the commoners while the general areas could be free as always or cost a nominal amount, say $10 or $20, without the bottom line taking much of a hit. This is somewhat how the crowd is handled on Florida Derby Day and it has worked well.

This doesn’t take into account that Gulfstream is essentially putting its mall out of business for the day because of the parking fee and essentially closing its casinos to the general public on a weekend day in the height of tourist season.

Speaking of the Florida Derby. the Pegasus situation also creates a long range threat to horse players. If a substantial number of race-goers spring for the $100 admission, a precedent will have been established. It would seem to be only a matter of time until admission and parking are no longer free on Florida Derby Day and maybe other big attraction afternoons.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Thursday, December 08, 2016

A series of wrongs finally makes for one right

California did it again. With a mandatory Jackpot 6 payoff on closing day at Del Mar, there was no announcement that there would be no consolation payoff for five winners, as there had been every other day at the meeting. Bettors didn't find out until after the prices had been posted. The uproar was immediate and sustained, as it should have been, so much so that Del Mar relented and announced that those with five winners would be paid. It was the right thing to do but it could turn out badly. A precedent has been established that the "official" sign is not the final word on payoffs.

MIAMI—California, which has done everything wrong, has finally been moved to do the right thing. Ultimately this might turn into another mistake.

Del Mar management, the California Horse Racing Board and the stewards each completed egregious faux pas in such a relatively short period they couldn’t have screwed up more if they were trying.

Recognizing the latest mistake could have been the outrage that set off a revolution, Del Mar did something tracks rarely, if ever, do. Without being obligated by law, but spurred by business sense, it went into its own pocket to pay off an extra set of winners.

Last Sunday was closing day at Del Mar. The track’s jackpot Pick 6 had the customary mandatory payout. When the official was posted on the final race, the price for 6 winners was posted--$15,660.

No consolation payoff for 5-of-6 was posted, to the surprise and consternation of those with such tickets. No reason they shouldn’t have been surprised. When the bet was hit earlier in the meeting with a single jackpot winner or with multiple winners, there were consolation payoffs. Most significantly, there was no announcement there would be no consolation payoffs.

Del Mar fell back on a rule created by the Association of Racing Commissioners International, which dictates no consolations on mandatory payout days. Who knew? Apparently not anyone in the upper echelon of Del Mar, which explains why there was no announcement to bettors.

The ARCI rule was utilized because California allowed the bet to be introduced without creating a rule of its own. Think about that. A new bet, which everyone recognized could zoom into the millions--in fact, that was its purpose--was instituted without rules about payoffs.

After three days of standing its ground in spite of an uproar from coast to coast, Del Mar announced it will pay those who had 5-of-6 the $81 they felt entitled to on Sunday.

This could come back to bite Del Mar and other tracks in the behind since a precedent has been established.

Throughout history, the official result has always been the last word for pari-mutuel payoffs. Now when results are overturned because of a successful appeal or a drug positive, bettors could go to court and say, “They paid off on the Jackpot 6 well after the fact. Since the result has been altered for every other purpose—purses, horses’ records, etc.—why shouldn’t I be paid, too.”

With so many wagers being made by computer, the mechanisms are in place. This wasn't the case when paper tickets provided the only proof of having the winner.

These tactics might not ever be successful but they have the potential to generate a lot of legal headaches.

Gambling's not shameful

Horse racing is a sport. So is curling. Without gambling, horse racing is curling.

The kickoff panel at the annual Symposium on Racing and Gambling in Arizona discussed whether racing should be marketed as a sport or as a gambling vehicle. This was as much a waste of time as debating whether Certs is a candy mint or a breath mint.

Racing is a sport on a balmy winter afternoon at Gulfstream, a spring day at Keeneland, a summer getaway at Saratoga or Del Mar. But absent gambling, the Little League World Series would draw bigger crowds. Anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional.

In the dead of winter at Aqueduct or on a snowy night at Penn National, racing is slot machines with flesh and blood. Trying to present it otherwise is not only futile it diminishes the credibility of those trying to do so.

Whether at the Spa in August or Aqueduct in February, the unifying thread is racing is a rare form of entertainment with gambling in which an intellectual challenge and strategy offers the individual some control over his fate. Yet it can be equally enjoyed by newcomers seeking only an exciting diversion.

Poker and fantasy sports might be the only other forms of entertainment in this category. Not coincidentally both are soaring in popularity and attracting the demographics--young people--racing desperately needs to cultivate to secure its future.

For some unfathomable reason, racing refuses to market itself in this manner. T-shirt and hat giveaways, dollar beer and hot dog days are useful promotional tools but the core product, gambling, has to be the lure.

“Our races are like a fantasy game every few minutes. You can bet as little as 50 cents or a dollar, win hundreds, maybe thousands, and the payoffs are immediate” should be a universal marketing campaign.

Once you can get new fans in the door, they might discover the aesthetic beauty of the game and learn the names of the outstanding competitors, which might contribute to bringing them back.

The panel in Arizona had “racing’s identity crisis” as its theme. Racing doesn’t have an identity crisis. It has a self esteem crisis. It’s ashamed to admit what it is, a gambling sport.

With so many casinos popping up all over the map that they are cannibalizing each other (see Atlantic City), lottery tickets available at the checkout counter in supermarkets, poker all over cable TV and legalized sports gambling coming soon, there is no reason for racing to apologize or back away from what it is. The sooner it accepts this, the better.

Wood, Blue Grass downgrades a start

The Wood Memorial has the Blue Grass Stakes to thank for being downgraded from a Grade 1 to a Grade 2.

The Blue Grass Stakes has the Wood Memorial to thank for being downgraded from a Grade 1 to a Grade 2.

The Graded Stakes Committee could not have downgraded one of the tradition rich stakes at racing’s most prestigious venues without the other screaming murder so loud the O.J. jury would have heard it. By knocking down two, the Committee was able to fall back on results, which should be the only criteria.

The most recent winner of the Wood Memorial to double in the Kentucky Derby was Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000. The last horse to run in the Wood then win the Derby was Funny Cide in 2003.

Outwork , the 2016 winner, ran 14th in the Kentucky Derby then was retired. The field he beat included Trojan Nation, a maiden when he ran second, Adventist, Matt King Coal, Shagaf, Tale of Svall, Flexibility and Dalmore.

Frosted, the 2015 Wood champion, gives the race some cachet but his big triumphs didn’t come until he was 4. The Wood field that year was only marginally superior to 2016: Tencendur, El Kabeir, Daredevil, Tiz Shea D, Toasting Master and Lieutenant Colonel.

If the Wood wasn’t NYRA’s prestige Derby prep, it would have been downgraded long ago. The same goes for Keeneland’s Blue Grass. Strike the Gold in 1991 was the last winner to encore in Louisville. Street Sense, almost 10 years ago, is the last Blue Grass participant to wear the roses on the first Saturday in May.

Brody’s Cause, last spring’s winner, ran seventh in the Derby and sixth in the Belmont before being retired.

To belabor a point I love to make, the glory days of the Blue Grass were when it was 10 days out from the Derby. The Wood was at its peak when it was run two weeks in advance of the Derby. Then again, today's trainers are so much smarter than Ben Jones, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and Charlie Whittingham, who didn't have the advantage of getting advice from guys producing sheets in an office miles from the track.

Part of the Blue Grass’ downfall is self-inflicted, a victim of Keeneland having a synthetic track from 2006-14. Many top contenders shied away from using the kitty litter surface for their horse’s final Derby prep.

A bigger problem than the downgrading of a couple of races with such rich histories is the false equivalency it creates. The Wood Memorial and Blue Grass are now the same grade as the Nashua, which had a four-horse field. Three had one win apiece. The other was a maiden, who won the race. There are numerous other examples of over-rated Grade 2’s.

The entire process needs to be revised. There should not be a Grade 1 race for juveniles other than the two Breeders’ Cup events. The vast majority of these stakes are no more than entrance level allowances.

Any juvenile race in which the majority of starters have only a maiden win should not be eligible for grading at any level.

Similarly, stakes for any age with five or fewer starters should be reduced by at least one grade unless at least two of the starters have wins at that grade or higher.

The Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby and Arkansas Derby, the remaining Grade 1 spring races for 3-year-olds, are admittedly preps for the Triple Crown and the top prospects strive to avoid each other. Ergo, none should be higher than Grade 2. Preps for these races—the Fountain of Youth, Rebel, etc.--should not be higher than Grade 3.

The Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Haskell, Travers and now the Pennsylvania Derby, which earned its upgrade, should be the only Grade 1’s restricted to 3-year-olds. A coveted sprint, such as the Kings Bishop and maybe one or two others, is an exception worth discussion.

Until changes along these lines are made, the grading system will be nothing more than a promotional tool for breeders so misleading that it would not be tolerated in other forms of business.

Written by Tom Jicha

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