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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Friday, November 01, 2013

Verrazano with my head but not my heart

Verrazano looms like one of the most certain winners of the two-day Breeders' Cup carnival. Unfortunately, it will be the last time he'll be seen on the racetrack. His owners have opted to send the potential star of the 2014 season to the breeding shed prematurely. Shame on them.

MIAMI, Nov. 1, 2013--A quick way to go broke is to allow emotions to influence gambling decisions. I keep reminding myself of this as the Breeders Cup Dirt Mile approaches. I plan to make Verrazano one of my key plays; straight, in exactas and in multiple race wagers.

The only hesitance came when it was announced the also brilliant Graydar was pointing for the Mile. When he was pulled out, my confidence in Verrazano soared.

Then I read that Verrazano’s owners plan to retire him after the race. As a fan as much as a bettor, this made me furious. Verrazano is only 3 years-old, in perfect health (he wouldn’t be running otherwise) and his career will have been exactly 10 months (Jan. 1-Nov. 1). He has been so dazzling in many of his victories, he could have been a major attraction next year, especially if he puts up a big win in the Mile.

There is absolutely no reason to ship him off to the breeding shed so soon, other than greed, and Verrazano’s owners, Michael Tabor and company, are already filthy rich. This is another reason to renew a call for my admittedly quixotic mission to have the Jockey Club and its overseas counterparts refuse to register any foal by a stallion younger than 5 at the time of conception.

All of this had part of me rooting for him to run up the track to diminish, even if only slightly, his appeal at stud. Fortunately, my better judgment rationalized that he is still one of the most likely winners of the two-day Breeders’ Cup carnival. Whether or not I root for him isn’t going to have any impact and I would be even angrier if my emotions induced me to let a horse I have a big opinion on get away.

The most inane analysis I have heard in the run-up to the Breeders’ Cup is that Verrazano doesn’t show up on the big days. This is based on miserable performances in the Kentucky Derby and Travers. Those two races have something in common far more germane than being contested on the biggest day at their respective tracks? Both were a mile and a quarter.

Verrazano’s ability to handle 10 furlongs has been in question since he won his first two starts by 24 lengths. Sometimes horses more suited for a mile can get a mile and a quarter under the right circumstances. Verrazano apparently isn’t one of those. However he’s demonstratively unbeatable up to nine furlongs.

Verrazano will be facing older opponents for the first time but no real stars. The biggest threat is another 3-year-old, Goldencents. But Goldencents drew the 12 hole, even worse than Verrazano in No. 10 given the exceedingly short run to the first turn. However, I'm counting on Verrazano to have sufficient speed to avoid being pushed into the parking lot.

Moreover, I need a single somewhere on Friday. My betting preference is Pick Threes and the races sandwiching the Mile, the Juvenile Fillies Turf and Juvenile Turf, are impossible to narrow down.
I’m going to take the lazy way out and use the three Euros—Al Thakhira, Chriselliam and Vorda—with former Euros, who are perfect in the U.S.—Testa Rossi and Clenor—in the Fillies Turf.

Clenor exemplifies the superiority of Euros on grass. Clenor was an 0-for-3 maiden overseas. In the U.S., she is 3-for-3, two of them stakes.

I’m using similar strategy in the Juvenile Turf but including Bobby’s Kitten from the home team along with Euros Giovanni Boldini, Outstrip, Shamshon and Wilshire Boulevard.

I’d like to sharpshoot the Euros down to one or two per race but painful history has taught that when one of the invaders wins a Breeders’ Cup race, it’s often not the most heavily bet.

Emotion is going to be a factor in the Distaff but along with tested handicapping principles. Princess of Sylmar has been the best female in America since May. She proved that with the ease with which she ran past perfect-tripping, two-time Eclipse winner Royal Delta in the Beldame. If I save in horizontal bets, it will be with the home town favorite Beholder.

As if the Breeders’ Cup isn’t tough enough to figure, post positions have complicated several races. Artemis Agrotera got a big boost drawing the rail in the Juvenile Fillies while She’s a Tiger had a stake driven through her chances when she pulled No. 10.

I don’t want to be provincial but Calder standout Scandalous Act could be a big-ticket maker. She’s been devastating in South Florida. The ease with which she swept through the Stallion Stakes is reminiscent of Awesome Feather, who came out of that series to win this race.

Dank doesn't need any help off her crushing Beverly D triumph but she got it when she drew the rail in the Filly & Mare Turf. Kitten’s Dumpling, a winner of four of her last five, will be up against it breaking from No. 10 in a race that starts on a turn.

Why isn’t anyone talking about Laughing? She’s 4-for-4 this year. The horse she beat last time, Tannery, came back to win the E.P. Taylor. Her immediate victim two back, Pianist, rebounded to win the Athenia. Laughing’s beaten foes also include Stephanie’s Kitten and Dayathespa, both multiple stakes winners.

No race is as strongly influenced by the draw as the Juvenile. Havana and Strong Mandate, who might have been the first two choices in the wagering are buried outside in the 13 and 14, respectively.
I think I’m going to look elsewhere, maybe touted-over-the-moon Tap It Rich and “the other Baffert,” New Year’s Day.

Post isn’t as much a factor in the other races, although Justin Phillip didn’t get any favors drawing the rail in the Sprint and Mizdirection could hardly have drawn better, getting No. 12, in the Turf Sprint.

I’m against the defending Sprint champions, Groupie Doll and Trinniberg. Also, Little Mike in the Turf. Any of them win, I lose.

Euro filly The Fugue looks like the one to beat in the Turf but Big Blue Kitten also will be all over my tickets. Point of Entry will be one of the stories of the weekend if he can come back from a career-threatening injury and six-month layoff to win. He’ll have at least a small presence on my Pick 3 tickets.

I’m with Wise Dan, who has won his last nine on grass. If I save, it will be with Euros. Wise Dan’s last and only loss on the inner course? The 2011 Shadwell Turf Mile. Maybe it’s something about the race’s name.

Finally, I expect Game on Dude to win the Classic and Horse of the Year on his home track.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Friday, October 25, 2013

BC: Great racing and great stories for TV

The Breeders' Cup does a lot of annoying little things during the year (like adding an Arabian race) but when the two event days arrive there is no finer spectacle. This year's renewal is loaded with the two elements for a great couple of days: super racing with full fields and no obvious odds-on favorites and lots of heart-tugging stories for NBC to court and hold casual fans on TV.

MIAMI, Oct. 25, 2013--Horse players love deep, full fields. Television loves touchy-feeling, heart-tugging stories. All will be well served next weekend at the Breeders’ Cup.

The 14-race carnival is going to be a bettor’s delight with more ways to part with your money than at a brothel with a casino.

Twelve of the races have at least a dozen starters pre-entered. One of the exceptions, the Distaff, might be the most anticipated race of the two days. The other, the Marathon, is almost as much a novelty event as the Arabian race shamelessly tacked onto Friday’s card.

If there is a favorite who will go to the post at less than 2-1, I don’t see it. Some might suggest Game on Dude in the Classic. But the field is quality laden, including the first four finishers from last year, surging Graydar and highly touted Euro Declaration of War. It’s also the get-out race, so there will be a lot of beat-the-favorite shopping. If there was an over/under on 2-1, I would tap out on the over.

Reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan might have been close to odds-on had he not had his winning streak broken in the Shadwell Drenched Kitty Litter Mile. That utterly excusable blemish on his record and the presence of some well regarded Euros should push his price out of the blinking lights zone.

Groupie Doll was 70 cents on the dollar in the 2012 Filly and Mare Sprint. Off her mediocre resume this season, she should be at least five times that as she seeks to repeat.

Solely because it is a six-horse field, the Distaff could produce the lowest priced favorite of the two days. However, it’s not obvious who the public will settle upon as favorite among the Big Three—Royal Delta, Princess of Sylmar and Beholder. (My guess would be Royal Delta.) Close Hatches is also going to pull a lot of support. So it’s hard to foresee anyone going off less than 2-1.

It’s also going to be a joy for Team NBC with sufficient heart-tugging sagas to ensure there won’t be a dead spot throughout the two days. The Classic alone, the only BC race reserved for the NBC broadcast network, should provide a treasure trove of TV gold. (If the prime time telecast draws good ratings, it will be another nail in the coffin of Belmont Park’s chances to ever host the event again.)

The saga of Paynter’s comeback from the near-dead to not only race again but to be considered among the contenders in the marquee event, is the stuff of big screen movies. Should Paynter make it to the winner’s circle, screenwriters all over Hollywood will begin tapping out scripts, if they haven’t already.

Kathy Ritvo’s inspiring tale of rebounding from a heart transplant to resume full-time duties as the mother of two children and the trainer of Mucho Macho Man bears retelling. The Classic falls less than two weeks before the fifth anniversary of her life-saving surgery.

The return of D. Wayne Lukas, at age 78, to racing’s center stage, is sure to garner NBC's attention. Several years after it seemed The Coach’s time had passed, he could be on the verge of sending out a couple of champions, 3-year-old Will Take Charge and 2-year-old Strong Mandate. D. Wayne has his detractors but put him in front of a camera and racing has no finer ambassador.

Also camera-friendly Bob Baffert, Paynter’s trainer, has another comeback story with Secret Circle, who won the 2011 BC Juvenile Sprint and was on the Kentucky Derby trail the following spring until an injury sent him to the sidelines for 18 months. He goes for a second Breeders’ Cup title in the Sprint, coming back quickly off one dynamite win at Santa Anita on Oct. 14.

This time a year ago, Gary Stevens was in the seventh year of retirement, talking about racing on TV. He comes into this Breeders’ Cup back at the top of the game, looking to add a Breeders’ Cup score to his Triple Crown triumph in the Preakness aboard Oxbow, among many other stakes victories. He might even rejoin his old colleagues at NBC between mounts.

Point of Entry’s comeback from what seemed to be a career-ending injury isn’t as dramatic as Paynter’s renaissance but the tender love and care it took from Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Shug McGaughey and his staff to get him back to the races at the highest level is sure to be prominent in the run-up to the Turf.

Jim Rome works for another company but this won’t deter the NBC people from getting him on camera when his Mizdirection goes for a second Turf Sprint title. “Romey” is another stellar advertisement for the game. He loves to talk about how in spite of his voluminous knowledge of most sports, he knew almost nothing about racing until he was coaxed into it and now he is having the time of his life.

Great racing, great television; it should be a great weekend.

Written by Tom Jicha

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

BC Distaff deserves Saturday stage

The Classic is the nominal headliner of the two-day Breeders' Cup festival. However, the most anticipated showdown this year is in the Distaff. Two-time champion Royal Delta, last season's juvenile champion Beholder and champion-in-waiting Princess of Sylmar will face off with even Horse of the Year possibly on the line. An extraordinary race such as this deserves to be on the big day, Saturday, not at the tail end of Friday's lesser card.

MIAMI, Oct. 25, 2013--Breeders’ Cup customarily doesn’t finalize the order of races until the quality and field sizes have been determined. By any reasonable standard, BC should jump out of the box and move the Distaff from Friday to Saturday.

Moreover, it should be the lead-in to the Classic. Less than two weeks out, it looms as the most anticipated race of the two days. At least two reigning Eclipse champions, Royal Delta and Beholder, and an almost certain third, Princess of Sylmar, are expected to run.

Beyond the big three, I have even seen opinions that Close Hatches could overcome Princess of Sylmar for 3-year-old honors with a victory. Not on my ballot, not if she wins by a pole.

They might have split two meetings so far but Close Hatches enjoyed an unchallenged stroll on the front in the Gazelle while Princess of Sylmar was three-wide almost all the way and still finished second. Without an easy lead, Close Hatches ran seventh in the Kentucky Oaks as Princess of Sylmar came from behind her to upset the best of her generation. She hasn’t lost and hasn't ducked anyone since.

I have the same attitude toward Beholder, runnerup in the Kentucky Oaks. A Distaff triumph would be her fourth Grade 1 of the season, equal to Princess of Sylmar, but all will have been at Santa Anita, where Beholder captured the BC Juvenile Fillies to end her 2-year-old campaign.

This is another argument against anchoring the Breeders’ Cup at one track. If she were to steal the title from Princess of Sylmar, Beholder will have captured back-to-back Eclipses, with a potential third next year, without ever winning a graded stakes outside Arcadia.

What’s more, all Grade 1’s are not created equal. The Las Virgenes, Santa Anita Oaks and Zenyatta (beating horses who shipped west to avoid facing Royal Delta and Princess of Sylmar in the Beldame) aren’t on the same planet in importance as the Kentucky Oaks, Coaching Club American Oaks, Alabama and Beldame.

No matter what happens in the Distaff, Princess of Sylmar should be the champion. You don’t win the three biggest races of your generation then run contemptuously past an older, two-time champion and not win at least divisional honors.

I say at least because if the Princess outshines the constellation of stars she will face and Game on Dude doesn’t win the Classic, she could--arguably should-- be Horse of the Year. Wise Dan, with an encore in the Turf Mile, would be the only other contender for whom a case could be made.

It’s too bad there isn’t an Eclipse Award for sportsmanship. Ed Stanco, owner of Princess of Sylmar, would be a lock. If he kept his filly in the barn, there would be no question she would win the 3-year-old filly Eclipse. He’s risking that title (although not by me) in shipping cross-country to face Beholder on her home course, which is generally kind to horses with her front-running style, especially on big days, and works against closers like Princess of Sylmar.

The Distaff’s quality stacked field deserves a better stage than the tail end of Friday, the less well attended and less watched on TV workday populated by recently invented stakes, some of which make a mockery of the term “world championships.” If the Breeders’ Cup doesn’t appreciate this, NBC should intercede and demand it.

TV routinely dictates changes in event times to suit its needs. This would be one time a network would deserve a pat on the back for pushing an event into a time slot where it can be seen by the maximum audience.

Question of the day

Which do you suppose has a higher enrollment rate, Obamacare or the new Racing Form Plus?

In spite of the well reported glitches, my money is on Obamacare. The content in Racing Form Plus is first rate but overpriced: a nickel less than $100 if you sign up at once for a full year; about $12 more for a quarterly subscription and $20 more if you buy by the month.

I’m one of those who became accustomed to reading every piece on the Racing Form website. Almost a month into the pay wall, I’ve gotten used to not having access and don’t miss it as much as I thought I would. A big reason is the amount of racing information on the web for free. This includes Horse Race Insider, of course, the Blood Horse, the Paulick Report and, horse racing’s version of the Drudge Report.

That so much information of all sorts is free on the web is the reason so few newspapers have made a success of pay walls. Many have had to revert and drop them and hope to recoup what they can from more hits on their site, which drives ad dollars.

At the same time, I understand the downsizing of the print edition but not its price. The two biggest expenses of any newspaper are the employees and the actual paper, called newsprint. Everyone I know who works for the Form multi-tasks, so it would be difficult to cut staff and maintain quality.

This left newsprint as the only area for meaningful savings. I don’t like the smaller version but I understand its necessity and expect to eventually get used to it. What I never could get used to is a day at the track without the Racing Form.

Written by Tom Jicha

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